Reading from the Other Side

One of my research goals for Bejing outside the First Historical Archives was to read through a periodical titled Shandong zazhi (Shandong Magazine) held at Peking University’s library. This journal was published by the Shandong Province native place association in Beijing in the early twentieth century. It contains news and essays related to Shandong Province (of which Jinan – the focus of my dissertation – was the capital). Since it was written by people from the Province but residing outside it, it provides a perspective that is different from other sources, especially publications produced by the provincial government itself. This perspective is especially useful for the final chapter of my dissertation, which examines how different groups of actors participated in and responded to a series of sweeping reforms in the first decade of the twentieth century, leading up to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911-12.

This source posed a couple challenges, though. First, like other sources focused on the province as a whole, I had to sort through a lot of information to find material directly related to the specific city I’m interested in. But understanding the context of the province as a whole is also important for studying one part of it. So I couldn’t just set aside anything that didn’t specifically reference Jinan. But I also didn’t have time to read every article in detail.

This kind of dilemma and the aftereffects of confronting it alone in a library reading room for hours on end is associated with two competing stereotypes of PhD’s. One is that our expertise is so narrow that it is almost necessarily obscure and pretty useless. Another is that we spend an awful lot of time reading far too many books, which makes producing a dissertation an unbearably and unreasonably long process. On the first count, if the scope of knowledge required to write a dissertation were as narrow as people assume (and not infrequently express), then there would be no need for so much reading. On the second, the reality is that narrowly delimited knowledge is not just sitting out there waiting to be discovered. Sufficiently focused expertise can only be acquired through sifting through piles of sources that may or may not be relevant to what a researcher thinks they are looking for.

The Shandong zazhi also challenged me by forcing me to confront a set of voices that, for the most part, don’t play a big role in my research. It seems to represent a more commercially-oriented perspective from the eastern half of the province, as opposed to the elite in the western and central portion of Shandong, who were less commercially active and more connected with government officials. This latter group includes the people from Jinan I am most focused on and have found myself strangely sympathetic to. I would generally prefer to be reading about the events of this period from their perspective. But with the Shandong zazhi, I take what I can get. And that detour into the writings of people who are, for my purposes, secondary and maybe slightly antagonistic actors, is useful because it gives me some insight into how they interacted with people and events that are at the forefront of my research.

One of the criticisms of academia that you often see is that academics live in “ivory towers” or “echo chambers.” And some of these criticisms are valid. But they should be tempered with a recognition that historical research in particular requires shoving out into strange and often dark waters. You don’t write a dissertation or build a career as a historian by reading only the best-known sources. This isn’t to say that all subjects of inquiry have been treated equally; some researchers have had to fight harder than others to win a hearing for the people who have captivated them and for stories that have the capacity to alter how we understand history. But this drive to read both broadly and deeply and then come back to one’s colleagues and make the case that the voices you’ve found can teach us something valuable is an essential and invaluable part of academic life.

It’s also something many people seem to recognize we need more of in public life. It turns out that the multiplication of voices and opinions available to us, transmitted through websites, blogs, tweets, video clips, etc., has not necessarily made us more effective at discerning what to read and how to read it.  The challenge is not only identifying trustworthy sources of information but also seeing the value in reading a diverse range of viewpoints – even if they are unreliable or even morally reprehensible. And yet we consistently hear people disparage the usefulness of history and other disciplines that reward practitioners for doing exactly these things.

Of course, all the skills in the world are of hardly any use without taking the time to implement them, to sort through for ourselves sources that may be informative and to give them a critical reading. This is a daunting task. It takes time, energy, and a commitment that is not easy to build up and maintain. And at the end of our sifting and searching, we have to confront head-on the gnawing voice inside that has been telling us all along that it will be for nothing if we can’t distill all this work into an understanding of the world that is greater than the sum of the individual sources of information we have read.

That’s the abyss I find myself staring into. I’m back in the U.S. now, finishing this post after an uncharacteristic, jetlag-induced late afternoon nap. As I shift gears from a year of full throttle research, it’s time to give some more attention to what I do with all this reading I’ve done – organizing my notes, outlining my chapters, and, well, writing a dissertation.

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