Stephen Platt on Becoming a Historian of China

Jonathan Chatwin:

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.