Li Bozhong interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 13th March 2011


0:05:07 Born in Kunming, Yunnan, China on 1st October 1949, the day that the Peoples Republic of China was founded; people born at that time are usually called "the same year people with New China"; as such, I am a witness of all that has happened in “New China,” which is a lucky position for an historian to be in; I was born into a family where both grandfather and father were scholars; my father was educated in Peking Normal University during World War II but left on the eve of the Japanese occupation; he went back to Kunming and continued his postgraduate education in Southwest United University. After graduation, he taught at Zhejiang University and then moved to Yunnan University where he had taught for more than half a century; he died in 2008 aged 93; my mother is still alive and in good health; as the son of an historian I was educated in a mixture of a traditional and post-revolutionary Chinese way; in the 1950s the Chinese education system had been transformed completely into a Soviet style. But my father didn’t appreciate it very much; my education was quite strict; at home my father tried to educate us in the traditional way but at school we were educated in the Soviet way; my name is Bo-zhong, a very traditional name, “Bo” being my generation name, so all my brothers and cousins share this name; “Zhong” is my personal name and my father gave me this name from Confucian teaching; in classical Chinese it means gravity and decency; at home I was taught by my father classic Chinese and some knowledge of Western scholarship, but at school we were taught modern knowledge, science, and political classics - Karl Marx, and later Chairman Mao's works; English was not taught to my generation; I learnt Russian in my primary school and high school; most historians of my father's generation did not like Russia as it had occupied large parts of China, while the Soviet Union refused to return this territory to China; however, my father did encourage me to learn the Russian language and culture; he said that we had no choice, and that Russia was a great country in modern history, and also a powerful neighbour to China, so we should know as much as possible about it; at high school I spent a lot of time in Russian language learning so I could read Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and other great Russian writers; everything seemed to be going well until the Great Leap Forward in 1958-62; I still have very fresh impressions about the hunger that all Chinese people suffered then; according to the newly and officially published history of the Chinese Communist Party more than 10 million people died; according to other estimates it is much more; I remember we always felt hungry and a lot of students in Yunnan University were  suffering from edema disease through malnutrition; every night, one thing my parents had to do was to press our legs to test our skin for signs of edema disease, while my father and a brother did get this disease.  The situation improved in 1963, but very soon other political movements followed; in 1965 the Cultural Revolution actually began.


9:33:19 Yunnan was comparatively better off than either Sichuan or Henan, for example, during the Great Leap Forward; because of poor transportation there was no rail way to connect it to other parts of China; so if central government tried to export agricultural produce from Yunnan it was very difficult; Yunnan people therefore could keep most of their food products; I didn't see any deaths, but saw a lot of students lying in the auditorium of the University because they were too weak; they were given more food and most recovered; in the winter of 1965 Mao Zedong launched a movement against the "Three-Family Village", three famous scholars in Beijing, Teng Tuo, Wu Han and Liao Mo-sha, all also high-ranking officials in the Communist Party; one of them, Professor Wu Han, was the Vice-Mayor of the city of Peking,  as well as a famous historian of the Ming; he was my father's former teacher at graduate school during the War; Wu Han was targeted by Chairman Mao himself until a revolutionary movement in the whole country condemned Wuhan; my father immediately became an “enemy of the people” so was sent to a private gaol by the Red Guards; my home was searched many times and all books, private letters, diaries, manuscripts, research notes and others were confiscated; the books were put in the University square with books taken from other professors, and burnt; such things have happened only a few times in world history, so it was a terrible day; my father had become an “enemy of the people” while I was a high school student, and I was immediately named as the son of an enemy; I had to wear a black armband on which were three big characters – hei-zai-zi ("son of bitch"); I had to go to the Red Guards and confess my guilt; later, I and many other fellow students were sent to the countryside to work; we were sent 1000km away from Kunming to the Sino-Burmese border to live among Dai minority people; this was the first time I had confronted non-Han culture and I loved the people; they were very kind, and all were Buddhist; I spent three years there planting and harvesting rice; according to Mao's policy we had to be re-educated by the peasants, but they treated us very well, just like their family; they knew little about what had happened in Kunming and assumed that our parents couldn’t support us which was why we had come to them; I learnt their language and customs; my family was sent to five different places; my mother and two of my brothers were sent to Dali countryside; my sister was sent to Milie in the south of Yunnan, while another young brother, just out of primary school, stayed in Kunming; my brother could not find work but educated himself; my father was sent to the countryside with other professors who were condemned as anti-revolutionary scholars, under the supervision of the Revolutionary Committee and “Revolutionary Masses”; five years ago I went back to the Dai village and found that old villagers still remembered me; they invited me to stay overnight in their home; I was deeply moved; in the countryside there were no modern facilities but life was not hard; there I started reading Chinese history and learning English; some of my friends had taken some books with them, including a great historical work produced in the Song Dynasty, Zizhi Tongjian  it was possible to read this book as Chairman Mao himself loved it; it was a big book, written in classic Chinese and I read it many times and made a lot of notes; as a high school student I had some difficulties when I read this book so one day I sent a letter to my father and asked some questions about some special terms in the Song Dynasty; when this letter reached my father a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the History Department of Yunnan University who frisked my father and accused my father and myself of anti-revolutionary behaviour; my father was harshly condemned, and an official letter was sent to the Revolutionary Committee of the peoples' commune where I was working; they were warned that I was a bad person who should be watched; I was summoned to the office of the head of the commune; all my private letters were taken away; however, the villagers said I had done nothing that was anti-revolutionary and they had to release me; before I had left Kunming I met my father very briefly and he said that English was a very important language, and that if I mastered it I would open a new world; he was sorry that he would no longer be able to teach me as his English was very good; he suggested I taught myself, and when I went to the countryside I decided to do so; at that time English was regarded as an “imperialist language”, and in particular in the border area if you wanted to learn English you would be thought of as a spy, so it was a dangerous thing; fortunately I got a text-book which had been published in the Soviet Union to teach Russian's English; there were no Chinese characters in the book, so I tried to learn with no teacher, just trying to memorise the spelling of words but with no idea of pronunciation; someone reported me to the revolutionary committee of the commune; I was summoned again and asked what I was doing; I told them that I was reading Lenin's work; I showed them the icon of Lenin on the cover of the book, and that because he wrote in Russian I should read it in the original language; my interrogator said I should continue doing so and the person who had reported me would be punished; it is difficult for me even now to speak English as I have never taken any courses since then; I spent three years in the border area, but a lot of my fellow students couldn't take this unfair treatment by the Government, so they fled into Burma; from there many went to Thailand, Taiwan, USA and elsewhere; some even went to the Soviet Union because they doubted that Mao's revolution was real socialism; they went to the Soviet Embassy in Rangoon to be transferred; this border area was open to all sorts of radio signals so we could hear Voice of America and broadcasts from Taiwan and the Soviet Union; the Chinese Government finally became aware and decided to remove all students from the border area; some with a "good" family background were sent to college, to the Army or to factories; nobody wanted me, so I and some fellow students had to find jobs on construction sites, in canteens, though not as cooks as we didn't have the skill; finally the Kunming authorities decided to recruit some schoolteachers; in those days nobody wanted to be a teacher as the pay was bad and students could be aggressive towards their teachers, as Mao Zedong had said that most teachers were bourgeois; I became a high school teacher for four years; actually, we did not really teach much except political doctrine; however, I was a teacher of Chinese history and taught my students something about it; in 1976 Mao died and his clique disappeared; most of my friends felt relief but none dared say they were happy; in 1977 Deng Xiaoping decided to restore the national exam for college entrance; two of my brothers both of whom had been manual workers, were successful; one went to Peking University and the other to Peking Normal University; my father said that as I had studied all the courses offered to students in universities before the Cultural Revolution, it was not a good idea to go to college and repeat them; he suggested I apply for graduate school; I did not take the undergraduate entrance exams but did the graduate exams which were much more difficult; fortunately I was successful; my marks for Classical Chinese history and English were the best at Xiaman University where I then went; I spent almost seven years there and got my PhD in 1985; I was one of the first persons to get a PhD in history since 1949, and one of the 420 in all disciplines throughout China to get PhDs at that time.


34:00:24 My PhD was in economic history; I was very fortunate to be a student of Professor Fu Yiling, one of the most famous economic historians in China and Japan, particularly of the Ming and Qing periods; he had been in Japan so his approach was quite different from other Chinese scholars; after graduating from Amoy University I decided to move to Hangzhou; during the period of my graduate education I had been working on the economic history of the Yangzi Delta, but I had never lived there; I think that it is very important to look at the area you are studying on the spot; I settled in Hangzhou for eight years although for half of that period I was working abroad in the United States; I was the first historian from mainland to do post-doc. research in the United States; I was elected a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington D.C. and also at the National Humanities Centre at Chapel Hill, so together I was there for four years; I also spent time in Paris and Tokyo as a Visiting Professor or Visiting Fellow; later I decided to move to Beijing as although Hangzhou is a lovely place, there were very few economic historians working there; I married in 1978 just after I was admitted to Amoy University, however my wife continued to live in Kunming; she joined me when I moved to Hangzhou, and was with me in Chapel Hill and Washington D.C.; after moving to Hangzhou we had our son; the three of us moved to Beijing in 1993 to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; I worked there until the end of 1998 and then moved to Tsinghua; one of the reasons for the move was that in the Academy we did not have many students; I felt we needed to train young people to carry on our studies otherwise they would just die; I was at Tsinghua until last year; I became a Deputy Director of the Institute of Economics, then Chair of the Department of History; I had a good time there and enjoyed teaching; all of my Ph.D. students became professors in other universities after they graduated.


40:08:19 I lectured, held seminars but also did one to one teaching; in Tsinghua as in Peking University, our classes were open to anybody, even those who were not students; some professors do not like this habit, but I do; in my class, half the students came from Peking University or the Chinese Peoples' University; they don't want the credit, they just want to sit there and enjoy the lectures and discussions; I thought that the atmosphere in the classroom was very active, and I encouraged the students to challenge the mainstream scholarship, including mine; at the end of some semesters I asked the students to edit their discussions into a detailed report; I sent it to a famous web site to allow people to see what students thought; they criticized some famous scholars and also me, but constructively; no one bothered as it was purely academic, and not about politics; as my study is of the pre-mid-nineteenth century, there are no political constraints about what I teach; my major concern in history is the search for the origins of the so-called Chinese economic miracle; growth in the last three decades has been very fast and numerous scholars, both in and outside China, have been asking why and how it happened; I think more and more scholars agree that it is not just the result of the 1979 reform, but of long historical change; in previous scholarship the mainstream view is very negative, from Hegel, Karl Marx, until now; even in high school textbooks this is still taught, such as Mark Elvin's theory of the high level equilibrium trap; Mark is a friend of mine but we also had some arguments; China is a big country and very diverse so this theory works in some parts of China but not others; in my field area in the Yangzi Delta his theory does not work; Philip Wang, the first person to invite me to teach in the US, also has negative views of the Chinese past; we were friends to begin with but later our views diverged; as an economic historian I think we can trace back to the mid-sixteenth century, maybe earlier; certainly from the mid-sixteenth century there are very good materials to analyse the real situation with regard to the economy, and the economic change in this area in the following centuries; of course, the Yangzi Delta is a very small part of China, but it is the most important part; it covers just 1% of the Chinese land mass and6% of its population today, but this area produces almost a sixth to fifth of Chinese GDP today, and 34-40% of foreign trade; it was similar in previous centuries - a tiny area with a high density of population; if you use Mark Elvin or Philip Huang's theories, it should be under very heavy pressure and very poor, but it was in fact the most prosperous part of China and of East Asia before the nineteenth century; during the three decades of my study of the area, many so-called elements of modernity can be found there, for example, economic structure; in the beginning of the nineteenth century as the result of the previous centuries, the economic structure was not agricultural, particularly in the eastern part, in the area of modern metropolitan Shanghai; it was a society dominated by industry and commerce; this experience of industrial commerce has had a very important impact on the following century; that is why this area is now very successful in the industrialization of the last three decades; it has not happened in other parts of China, even the Pearl River, in this way; the second elements of modernity you can find in the human resources; in this area in the centuries under study, you can find the best labour force in East Asia; this is the conclusion of most Chinese and Japanese scholars; the population did not grow very fast and life-expectancy was longer, the people were better-fed, better-clothed, and literacy was high; ordinary people had some kinds of commercial skills and were easily trained and disciplined; that is why the foreigners arrived in this area in the mid-nineteenth century as they did not have any difficulty in recruiting good workers; it was similar in nature to what happened in Japan; Ferdinand Braudel makes such a comparison saying that some parts of China and Japan were very close in these aspects; that is why this area was extremely successful in modernization; even in the early nineteenth-century, the Yangzi Delta was one of the largest industrial centres in East Asia, just like the Kanto area of Japan, and the biggest centre of textile production in the world before the war, with 800,000 workers in the textile factories; according to some modern studies, other areas such as the Pearl River Delta, or Manchuria before the Japanese occupation, had already an industrial base, but the most successful was the Yangzi Delta; during the Japanese occupation 30% of the industry of the Yangzi Delta was destroyed, but this area now in terms of GDP, if it was independent from the rest of China, would be the tenth largest economy in the world, almost the equivalent of Italy


56:45:00 Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong are friends of mine and we have very close contact; I actually translated a book of Bin's, 'China Transformed', into Chinese and also helped in publishing a Chinese version of Ken's 'Great Divergence'; I agree with them; I think the great divergence really existed and is the basis of today's great convergence, meaning a very fast catch-up with Western Europe; three decades ago the GDP per capita of the Yangzi Delta was only one eighth of Britain, but today is 60%; in this very fast catch-up I can see the great convergence, but without the great divergence I think it would have been impossible; many other parts of China - Yunnan, Gansu, or Henan - have never experienced the great divergence with the advanced parts of Europe, like England, Netherlands, maybe France; before the 1800s the difference between their economic growth and England and Western Europe and this area were totally different, so no great divergence, and still today they are quite different; however, in the Yangzi Delta in some aspects, particularly GDP per capita, or maybe living standards, or economic structures, they shared some economic features, but England changed first; I published an article in the early 1980s on energy and its impact on economic growth in the Yangzi Delta during the late Ming and early Qing; my conclusion was that the Yangzi Delta would have found it impossible to have an industrial revolution because it did not have enough energy; after I arrived in the US in the late 1980s I read Wrigley's article and found we had a similar view; later I published a serious article about energy, and also metal, timber, fertilizer and other elements, and my conclusion was that it was impossible for any part of China to produce its own industrial revolution; however, if these commodities had become available in the Yangzi Delta, other elements would have worked much better than in other parts of China and an industrial revolution would be expected, maybe even sooner than in Britain, and that is my major point; my PhD thesis focused on these things, both industry and agriculture, and was published in Taiwan.


1:03:35:00 One of my main points in my study of China's economic history is on the early industrialization of the Yangzi Delta between 1550 and 1850; this was published ten years ago and has been republished last year; one chapter focuses on human resources, not just hard work, but education, in particular practical education, useful knowledge and commercial skills; I think the Yangzi Delta performed very well in these three aspects; on the aspect of energy, however, it was totally different from the situation in Britain where they had coal and other non-human energy which was not available in the Yangzi Delta; human energy still dominated from the Song to the Qing, and that is the major difference between the growth of the economy of Britain and the Yangzi Delta; however, in agriculture animal-energy played quite a large role with buffaloes pulling ploughs etc., but it did not have useful water power, and wind power was not reliable, and of course, there was no coal, or sufficient timber; during the Qing this area could have imported coal and timber from other areas of China, but the transportation cost were too high, so not reasonable to replace man-power by machines; in my book, my conclusion is to compare the economic structure of Britain during the late eighteenth century with that of the Yangzi Delta, which we call the super-hire structure, i.e. human muscles


1:10:30:00 When we met at Cambridge two years ago one thing that impressed me was that you change your interest fields from British history to anthropology to technology history; you said you should have new challenges otherwise it is a painful thing for a scholar to do the same thing all his life; this idea really impressed me; I have been working on economic history for three decades mainly on the Yangzi Delta area, focusing on the mid-sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century; now I have got more interested in other fields, in military history and global history; the project I am now doing is on the late Ming military reform which happened at the turn of the sixteenth to seventeenth century; the international situation in East Asia changed greatly, and new and old, foreign and native elements, interact with each other, and the rise of the Manchu; I am interested in how to evaluate the Chinese response to this; just now I am looking, not just at economics, but also politics, social organization, diplomatic relations, technological advances, and also military actions, all together; I have just finished an article on central arsenals in Beijing in this period and will go on to other related things.