China Conversation

Stephen Platt on Becoming a Historian of China9 min read

In conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Stephen R. Platt is an American historian and writer. He is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and holds a PhD in Chinese history from Yale University. He is the author of three books of Chinese history: Provincial Patriots centred on the Hunanese, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom on the Taiping rebellion, and Imperial Twilight about the Opium Wars. Jonathan Chatwin talked to him about his path into Chinese history, his tips for researchers, and the challenges involved in bringing the past to life.

Can you tell us about how you became interested in Chinese history?

It was something of an accident, actually. When I graduated from college I got a fellowship to teach English for two years in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. It wasn’t something I had planned in advance – I had never studied Chinese before, or taken any classes on the country’s history, but it seemed like an adventure. It was a powerful experience. I got hooked and decided to keep studying the language after I came home. In graduate school I migrated from English (which had been my undergrad major) to East Asian Studies, and then finally to Chinese History. This is probably the last thing my younger self could have imagined I would be doing at this age. As I see it, much of my work has touched on themes of travel and culture shock that date back to that post-college experience of finding a place for myself as an American in China.

Your books tend to offer historical accounts alternating between Chinese and Western perspectives. Can you speak to the differences in the research necessary to offer these two different perspectives? Presumably the archival and language challenges make the Chinese research a more labor-intensive process?

It depends. For my Taiping book (Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom), the sources in Chinese often outstripped anything I had for my Western characters. For example, there was a new edition of Qing general Zeng Guofan’s collected works in 16 volumes, so I had access to every memorial he ever wrote, all of his family correspondence, his writings on military tactics, and a far more complete diary than had been available before. By comparison, someone like Frederick Townsend Ward on the Western side, as interesting as he was, left hardly any reliable records behind. He was quite difficult to write about, whereas with Zeng Guofan I could know just what was happening to him on each day of a campaign, and read his thoughts as he wrote letters in anticipation of a battle. The sections on him practically wrote themselves. As far as the language issue, while it’s always easier to read in your native language, neither English nor Chinese has a monopoly on vivid sources, so you just work with the best of what you find.

Which archives or libraries were most essential to your work on the Imperial Twilight era?

My favorite archival sources for Imperial Twilight turned up in the UK. Partly this was because so much Chinese material on the Opium War had already been made available in published compendia over the years. But of the physical papers I got to dig through, I got good mileage from the Jardine and Matheson archives at Cambridge, and from Charles Elliot’s letters at the National Library of Scotland. The current Lord Napier very kindly let me read his ancestor’s diary and letter-book from China, which are privately held by the family. And thanks to Robert Bickers I was able to go through the papers of Hugh Hamilton Lindsay (one of the leading instigators of the Opium War) which were tied up in uncatalogued bundles at the Staffordshire Record Office. In terms of pure serendipity, just as I was trying to write about Thomas Manning, the Royal Asiatic Society in London announced that it had discovered a large trove of his papers in an antiquarian bookshop and was making them available to researchers.

Your writing tends to focus on characters, telling the history through their experiences. Do you know whose stories you want to tell before the research process begins, or do you discover their narratives as you go?

It’s hard to figure out who belongs in the foreground. Someone you think you want to write about, even if there are good sources for them, might turn out not to matter much once the book really takes shape. I haven’t always known at the outset of a project who the main characters would be. You dig into the topic itself, and it’s from your research and what you want to say about it that the characters eventually emerge.

Are there limitations or challenges that you find in the telling of history in this way?

I don’t find narrative history to be limiting in any particular way – after all, you are always free to step back from the close-up material to make broader or more abstract points as you wish. But the challenges are endless, beginning with finding appropriate source material. For a character to work effectively, they should matter beyond their own immediate sphere (that is, they should ideally represent something larger than themselves). At the same time there needs to be enough of a record that you can write about them in some detail. I love working with diaries and personal letters especially, but there can be many ways to get at what someone was thinking or doing at a particular time.

So much of research is leaving yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back to some fact or quotation”

Another challenge is visual detail. You simply can’t make anything up. So if you want to include an image, say, of someone riding off into the sunset, unless it was described by someone who saw it and wrote it down, you need to establish what the weather was like that day, which direction they were heading on their horse, what time the sun set, and whether that was when they left. It’s remarkable what you can establish (there are, for example, tables that can tell you the exact phase of the moon on any historical date) and it’s quite satisfying when it works out.

You detail the opposition in Britain to the Opium War. Is it frustrating as a historian to see so many opportunities where the conflict could have been avoided? The consequences for China, in terms of what happened next, would have been enormous if the two countries hadn’t come to blows.

A good deal of the drama in narrative history comes from the implicit frustration of the historian when one of his or her characters does something wrong, or even monstrous. That’s the point where you sense that the character is out of the control of the writer, which is only as it should be, since this isn’t fiction. These were living people, and as much as someone today might wish for them to have behaved better, they didn’t. So yes, it’s frustrating, but that’s also why it’s worth writing about.

How, practically, do you collate and manage the mass of research which goes into the writing of your books? There is an awful lot of material to corral.

I’m still figuring that out, but basically I would say that I’m grateful to live in the 21st century. As much as possible I try to get my sources into digital form, even if just by scanning them with my phone, so I can always have them at my fingertips. And I try never to read anything without also taking notes, because otherwise I’ll forget it all and never find my way back to the parts that interested me. So much of research is leaving yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back to some fact or quotation you know you’ll eventually want to use. So there’s a folder on my laptop with a separate notes file for every book or article or primary source I’ve looked at. Later on, there will be a folder for each chapter where I throw everything I’m thinking of using in that chapter. When you start a project it’s all about divergent reading and following leads and casting wide nets. But once you’re actually writing it’s nice to be able to focus your materials, and have in front of you just what you need for the particular section of a chapter you’re working on.

What advice do you have for writers starting out on researching and understanding China and its history?

I don’t know. Have fun? Follow your heart? The same advice applies as for any field of study – if you work on what fascinates you, you will produce fascinating work. Chinese history is a wonderful field, vibrant and constantly changing, and it has the added benefit that there are far fewer of us in the US than, say, US Civil War historians, so it can be much easier to find your own piece of ground to start digging.

What’s your next project?

I’m starting in on a WWII-era project, centered on a US Marine Corps officer who embedded himself with the Eighth Route Army in north China in the late 1930s and later became a hero in the Pacific War. His story taps into many of the broader themes that have interested me in the past, but in very different ways, and in a different time period from what I’ve explored before. ∎

Reading List

Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).