Kate Merkel-Hess's new book is The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China. From her Q&A with Jeffrey Wasserstrom for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Let’s begin with The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China, your forthcoming book. Can you tell our readers a bit about it? Who are some of the main figures in it? What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?--Marshal Zerinue
In The Rural Modern I describe an incredibly vibrant effort to mobilize China’s rural people in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort that contested the state’s prioritization of urban areas. When I describe it this way, at least some people will assume I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which built a revolution against the ruling Nationalist (Guomindang) Party in China’s rural areas at precisely this time. But the CCP wasn’t the only rural reform organization in China during this period. In fact, there were thousands of other rural reformers – urban intellectuals, government officials, missionaries, educators, public health workers, agricultural outreach specialists, committed social activists – who started hundreds of rural reform projects in rural China and experimented with efforts to reach out to rural people that look a lot like the rural outreach programs the CCP adopted. In the course of my research, I even found individuals who started in some of these neutral or Nationalist-affiliated programs who then took their expertise to the CCP base areas – very direct evidence of the connections between these two seemingly separate groups of rural activists. The Rural Modern tells the story of what I call the second most important rural reform movement of the period (second to the CCP, that is). Describing the breadth and depth of this undervalued movement complicates the notion that the CCP rural strategy “succeeded” and everyone else’s “failed” and places the CCP reforms within a much broader context of efforts to remake the countryside – the milieu in which the CCP actually functioned at the time and from which it drew a lot of ideas, personnel, and strategies of rural engagement.
This is a story with fascinating, charismatic figures, like the Yale-educated literacy evangelist Yan Yangchu (known as James “Jimmy” Yen in the U.S.) who worked his Ivy League connections to fund his outreach project in Dingxian, southwest of Beijing, but also many others who have been forgotten or who...[read on]