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This seminar is concerned with the politics, society, culture, and international relations of China from the early nineteenth century to the present. Its broader purpose is to explore the evolution of Chinese civilization over the past century of revolution and rapid social change. Papers—work in progress—are circulated to members and associates in advance of each meeting. Authors are asked to give a brief oral introduction, after which a discussant comments. The entire remainder of each session is comprised of members’ reactions to the paper and the author’s responses.

Seminar Website

Professor Nick Bartlett

Professor Ying Qian 

Professor William Charles Wooldridge

Danping Wang

Meeting dates and locations are subject to change. Please confirm details with the seminar rapporteur.

Meeting Schedule

09/12/2019 918 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM
O Frontiers! The Reinvention of modern Chinese territoriality
Shellen Wu, University of Tennessee


Efforts by military officers, politicians, social scientists, and historians from across the political spectrum to bolster the Chinese frontiers from the Northeast to the Northwest and the Southwest helped define the territorial extent of the modern Chinese state. In doing so, they used the language of science and modernization and liberally borrowed from and adapted globally circulating ideas about frontier development. An examination of these reclamation efforts on the frontier reflected how the spatialities of empire and nation overlapped in complex ways as both Japanese officials bent on expanding the empire and nationalist Chinese officers who sought to reinforce border defenses resorted to the language of science and modernization to define supposedly “blank spaces” on the map.

Discussant: John Chen, Columbia University

10/10/2019 918 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM
The Barbers of Beijing: Hairstyles and Collectivization During the Great Leap Forward
Fabio Lanza, University of Arizona


This paper looks at how collectivization affected barbers in Beijing between 1956 and 1962, and uses this case to point at some of the tensions and contradiction that shaped the larger urban commune movement and the Great Leap in general. It also illustrates how during the Great Leap not only hairstyling fashions and a correspondent hierarchy of hairdressers persisted, but they were recognized and actively fostered by local and state authorities. The process of collectivization was not meant to eliminate social and economic differences, rather these difference were integral to the process, and they were often at the center of cadres' perspectives.

Discussant: JM Chris Chang, Columbia University

11/14/2019 1201 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Consuming Belief: Tibetan Buddhism in Urban China
John Osburg, University of Rochester


In the context of a perceived spiritual and moral crisis in contemporary Chinese society, growing numbers of Han Chinese are turning to Tibetan Buddhism for ethical guidance and spiritual therapy. Based on an ethnographic study of a group of affluent, urban Han Chinese who have become followers of Tibetan Buddhism and patrons of reincarnated lamas and charismatic Tibetan monks, this lecture examines the sources for the appeal of Tibetan Buddhism for urban Chinese. In a context of widespread cynicism and distrust of official ideologies, a condition I dub “post-belief,” many Chinese view Tibetan Buddhism as one of the few remaining domains of authentic “pure” belief yet to be corrupted by market forces or political manipulation. For these Buddhist converts, the imagined purity, spirituality, and anti-materialism of Tibetans—notions which stem from official state representations of Tibet as “backward”— serve as the basis of their critique of the dominant preoccupations of mainstream Chinese society. I examine the range of ways in which Han Chinese integrate Buddhist principles and ritual practice into their lives as well as some of the tensions that have emerged in communities of followers, including anxieties about the authenticity of their Tibetan teachers and concerns about the “superstitious,” benefit-seeking orientation of many wealthy practitioners.

Discussant: Eveline Washul, Columbia University

12/05/2019 918 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM
A Luxury for Chinese People: Rural Reform and the Beautiful Countryside Campaign
Yi Gu, University of Toronto (Canada)

04/02/2020 918 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM


05/06/2020 918 International Affairs Building, Columbia University
7:00 PM