Charlotte Furth

Remarks from former Late Imperial China editor Charlotte Furth, Professor Emerita of Chinese History, University of Southern California, at the Association for Asian Studies meeting in March 2015 on the journal's history.

By the mid 1980s things were changing in the world of Chinese studies. The Mao era was over: the revolution had disappointed many who had been motivated by the radicalism of the 1960s and opposition to the Vietnam war, which seemed to be such an eerie rerun of Chinas own civil war. It was clear we historians had not understood the 20th century communist revolution: maybe we needed to look into China’s deeper past. A new stream of scholars began to pay attention to the Qing era.

At the same time the demand for East Asia “area specialists” was growing as higher education expanded and became more self conscious about the “non-Western” world as it was then called. It may not have seemed so to job hunters, but actually opportunities were growing. 

Then there was the opening of China, especially after 1979. We could go there! And find all sorts of scholarly resources unheard of earlier: for social history, for demography, for local history, lineage and village studies, for history of medicine and science, religion and of gender. These rich sources were being discovered just as the larger historical profession was immersed in social history, and beginning the transition to cultural studies. The transition from Ch'ing-shih wen-t'i to Late Imperial China was a response to all of this.

I recall coming home to Los Angeles from a conference in northern California and sharing a back seat with James Lee. He had been approached. He had a plan. What was needed was a journal that did peer review to ensure academic standards for young professionals. It could forget about book reviews. And it should break out of periodization by dynasties. 

We needed a new name. Why did we choose Late Imperial China? The alternative, “Early Modern China” seemed too laden with controversial claims about modernity.  Late Imperial China kept a loose framework of society governed by imperial institutions, but made no great interpretive claims beyond the obvious. We were insensitive to the claims of the existing Ming Studies or Song-Yuan Studies. We would simply open a wider door.

The new concept needed a new look: ie., a cover. Here was one of the few times James and I quarreled. I got a colleague at Long Beach (where I then taught) to design a nice antique image—a street scene detail from the famous scroll Qingming shang he tu with more elegant new calligraphy. James put his foot down. Among other things our street scene included details of lictors using whips to drive crowds away from the path of a high ranking palanquin. We hadn’t noticed this. James produced the alternative we use today: plain navy blue and red, with the clunky old calligraphy to signal continuity. I said, “it looks like the cover of a bank’s annual financial report.” James said, “exactly.” LIC would not face the academy in Orientalist garb.

As for money, it was a shoestring operation. James was taking advantage of the lavish research funds and staff support enjoyed by faculty at an elite science school like Cal Tech. His secretary, Barbara Calli, worked for only two professors. We saw to it she was overworked. Printing and mailing costs had to come out of pocket from subscriptions. Every year there would be a shortfall; James would be called in and chewed out by the dean. The dean would pay, James would promise to improve, and next year it would happen again. Subscriptions did grow—from around 500 to around 700—but it was never enough.

In retrospect what mattered was content. In these early years we got very few submissions through the mail. We had to go out and find them. I recall trolling AAS panels annually; when I heard something interesting I would approach after the session and suggest our journal. We could offer not only peer review but plentiful editorial help. Looking back I can see Late Imperial China led the way in cultural studies—and in particular in studies of gender and sexuality, which was becoming my own field of research. But we also published in the history of the book and publishing, on literature and popular culture, social history of lineage, on demography. Content ranged from Josh Fogel’s bibliographical summations of Japanese research on late Imperial China to a venture in post-modernism—James Hevia’s first statement of his revisionist interpretation of the McCartney mission to China. We were eclectic. It was a creative time. 

I do notice, based on today’s roundtable, that one thing LIC did not do is kill off “Qing studies.” So for discussion I would like to hear what people have to say about the astonishing resilience of the dynastic framework here.