Campus & Community

Chinese diarist opens door to history

5 min read

In new book, social historian Harrison discovers lost worlds

Liu Dapeng (1857-1942), the subject of Henrietta Harrison’s book “The Man Awakened from Dreams” (Stanford University Press, 2005), seems an odd choice for a biography. A Confucian scholar and teacher in the village of Chiqiao in Shanxi province, northern China, Liu was poor and unknown, and, although a prolific writer, never published a word.

“The Man Awakened from Dreams” was Liu’s pen name, taken from a famous story associated with Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. In the passage, a man falls asleep and dreams he is a butterfly, but upon waking is unsure which is dream and which reality.

According to Harrison, a social historian who was appointed to a tenured position in Harvard’s History Department in July 2006, Liu chose the pen name because it expressed his sense of having woken into a world of illusion, a world he could not recognize and for which he was unprepared. Liu’s generation was one of the last to receive a traditional education, concentrating on the ancient Chinese classics. When the educational system was reformed in the early 20th century and modern subjects gained precedence over the classics, Liu’s traditional learning became outmoded, and his career suffered. He tried to support himself and his family by working as a merchant and a farmer, but with little success. Unable to adjust to the coming of modernity, his life was one long slide into downward mobility.

Why write about such an ordinary, unimportant person? Because Liu also happened to be an assiduous diarist. Having begun keeping a diary as a young man, he maintained it faithfully for 50 years, often making entries three or four times a day. The diary has been known for some time as a source for the history of Liu’s local area, but has only recently begun to be used by scholars interested in the history of China more generally.

The diary is a window on village life at a time when China was undergoing massive political and social changes. The Boxer Rebellion, the end of imperial rule, republican China, war with Japan, and the struggle between Nationalists and Communists all occurred during Liu’s long life and are reflected in his writings. But his main focus is his day-to-day existence and that of his family and community. His relations with his parents, wife, children, and grandchildren; the state of his health and the traditional medical practices he tried in order to improve it; local rituals; agricultural conditions; the coal mining industry; tax collections; and the first appearance of bicycles, cars, and airplanes – all become grist for Liu’s busy calligraphic brush.

But while China changed around him, Liu remained faithful to the traditional Confucian ideals he had absorbed in his youth. Older villagers whom Harrison interviewed remember him picking up discarded cigarette packs and other printed matter and ritually burning them out of respect for the written word.

“He was very reactionary and conservative,” Harrison said. “I did get to like him, but he wouldn’t have liked me. He was against foreign women wandering about. He believed that women belonged in their homes.”

East Asian studies has clearly benefited from Harrison’s attraction to the foreign and unknown. Born in England, she studied classics as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, but then chose to take an entirely new direction.

“I decided to learn a non-Indo-European language. I think a lot of people do Chinese because they’re feeling a bit wild. They want to do something different.”

Harrison’s interest in China led her to Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in regional studies – East Asia in 1992, and then to Oxford University, where she earned a D.Phil. in Oriental studies in 1996. It was her thesis adviser at Oxford who suggested she do research in northern China and drew her attention to Liu’s voluminous diaries.

That interest has led in yet another direction. Reading Liu’s diary entries during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), Harrison was struck by his disgust for a nearby village, which he described as being overrun by Catholics. The entry prompted her to explore this community.

What she found was a Chinese village much like those around it, except that its inhabitants were nearly all Catholic. Christians form a tiny minority in China, about 3 percent of the population, and of that segment the majority are Protestant. Nevertheless, given China’s huge population, there are more Catholics in China than there are in Ireland.

Catholicism came to this village not through missionaries but through traveling merchants who encountered the religion in distant regions and brought its doctrines and rituals home with them. Harrison describes the villagers today as “very orthodox Catholics who are very keen on Vatican II.”

Harrison decided to make this village the subject of her next book, mostly because of her interest in the lives of the very poor in 19th century China, a subject on which there is little primary source material.

In China, Harrison said, the poor often converted to Catholicism because they could obtain free farmland from the Church. In addition, many members of Catholic communities were originally abandoned female infants whom the Church took under its wing. Harrison’s book will deal with the history of Catholicism in the area from the 18th century (when it was introduced) to the late 20th century.

Harrison is also the author of “The Making of the Republican Citizen: Ceremonies and Symbols in China, 1911-1929” (Oxford University press, 2000), a study of ideas of nationalism and the invention of the modern Chinese man.