Member of the Week: Hong Zhang

Hong PictureHong Zhang

Associate Professor of History

University of Central Florida

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current research focuses largely on the history of Tianjin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Located about 120 kilometers southeast of Beijing, Tianjin is one of the four centrally administered province-level municipalities in China and the second largest city in north China. The city rose to political and economic prominence mainly during the late nineteenth century. The Convention of Peking of 1860, which concluded the Second Opium War between China and Anglo-French powers, sealed the fate of Tianjin and turned it into a treaty port and opened it up to foreign consulates and entrepreneurs. Concomitant with the designation of Tianjin as a treaty port in 1860 was the launching of the national reform movement by the Qing government, which soon appointed prominent proponents of the movement as governor generals of Zhili (now Hebei) province headquartered in Tianjin, who turned the city into a political and economic stage in north China to implement the modernization projects. Tianjin thus became a center for extensive military and economic reforms in north China. The co-existence of foreign commercial and cultural activities and Chinese endeavors as well as the interaction between the two moved Tianjin out of the shadow of Beijing and turned it into a pole of modernity and into a city that was more modern in its facilities and infrastructures than Beijing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am especially interested in the transformation of Tianjin as a result of the interaction, negotiation, and competition for influence and power between foreigners and Chinese.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I am teaching History of Chinese Civilization and Modern China this semester. My Modern China class relates well to my research. Standard history textbooks on modern Chinese history tend to focus heavily on wars and political upheavals, very often with only a brief allusion to the dynamic urban culture of the Republican era. However, political turmoil, warfare, and urban ills failed to represent the whole picture. A closer look at Tianjin of the Republican period reveals a cosmopolitan, multi-colored, and dynamic city. My teaching balances political events with cultural and social happenings and incorporates copious visual materials which constitutes a significant part of my research on Tianjin. For example, Beiyang Huabao, a pictorial published in Tianjin between 1926 and 1937, provides vivid images and rich materials on Tianjin in particular and on Republican urban China at large. Its colorful pages demonstrate the juxtaposition between things indigenous and things Western. My students  very much enjoy a look into Republican urban China through the visual lens.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My article titled “Yuan Shikai and the Significance of His Troop Training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin, 1895-1899” was published in the Chinese Historical Review last month. I became interested in the topic while doing research on Tianjin. This article explores Yuan Shikai’s troop training at Xiaozhan and its impact upon Yuan’s military and political careers and activities. China’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 shocked a number of high-ranking government officials into seeking ways to establish a truly modernized army in the Western fashion. Yuan Shikai, a much maligned political figure in modern Chinese history due especially to his ill-fated move to turn the Republic of China into a new imperial dynasty, was appointed commander in charge of troop training at Xiaozhan, Tianjin. Yuan’s military endeavors at Xiaozhan created a powerful army, earned him the loyalty of capable generals, and paved the way for his eventual rise to not only military but also political power. Recently, the Tianjin municipal government has rebuilt Yuan’s troop training site and named it the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park. The park has been open to the public since 2008. The local government has also made the site part of its “Viewing Tianjin Through the Lens of Modern China” Project. Like other recently rebuilt historical sites in Tianjin, the Xiaozhan Troop Training Park attempts to underscore the city’s political and military prominence in modern Chinese history.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies? 

I believe I can learn a lot from young scholars in urban studies. Since urban history can be approached from many different angles/perspectives, it is important to keep an open mind, read extensively, and follow the latest theories and arguments in related fields.

In addition to your research, you have taken on two translation projects. How did that come about, and do you have any advice or wisdom for scholars who might be interested in translating scholarly work?

I translated two scholarly articles, “Mothers and Sons in Warring States and Han China, 453BCE – 220 CE” by Miranda Brown and “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China” by Beverly Bossler, into Chinese, which were included in Women’s Studies: A Collection of Contemporary Western Studies on Chinese History published by Shanghai Guji Chubanshe in 2012. Because of my research interest in gender studies, the editor approached me with the translation project. The translation, however, entailed much more work than I expected. The two English articles examine mother-son relations of the Warring States and Han periods and courtesans of the Song Dynasty while my work on women in China focus more on the contemporary period. Consequently, the translation work also meant conducting a lot of research on the history of ancient Chinese women. It was fun and enlightening but also time-consuming. So, one probably ought to think twice before taking on a translation job, especially if it does not relate directly to one’s own research area.

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