A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State, 1900-1949

A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State, 1900-1949

A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State, 1900-1949

A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation State, 1900-1949

Synopsis

In this path-breaking book, Tong Lam examines the emergence of the "culture of fact" in modern China, showing how elites and intellectuals sought to transform the dynastic empire into a nation-state, thereby ensuring its survival. Lam argues that an epistemological break away from traditional modes of understanding the observable world began around the turn of the twentieth century. Tracing the Neo-Confucian school of evidentiary research and the modern departure from it, Lam shows how, through the rise of the social survey, "the fact" became a basic conceptual medium and source of truth. In focusing on China's social survey movement, A Passion for Facts analyzes how information generated by a range of research practices--census, sociological investigation, and ethnography--was mobilized by competing political factions to imagine, manage, and remake the nation.

Excerpt

We take it for granted that the gathering of social facts is indispensable to everyday life, and even more so when it comes to governance. From United Nations yearbooks to U.S. Gallup polls, governments and institutions constantly occupy themselves with facts, so much so that some have referred to the contemporary world as a fact-based society. in recent years the Chinese government, too, has begun to deploy public opinion polls to popularize its policies and legitimize its rule. Individuals, for their part, govern themselves by religiously checking nutrition facts, stock indexes, and an infinite pool of numerical data, believing that a mastery of these numbers will lead to a good life. However, as common and universal as empirical facts appear to be in our everyday lives, this “culture of fact” came into being rather recently in this book, I will study one aspect of this global history by analyzing the rationale, politics, and passions behind the production of facts, especially what Chinese intellectual elites regarded as social facts (shehui de shishi), in early twentieth-century China. in particular, I will examine how and why the production of social facts was a crucial activity for constituting the new Chinese nation.

Central to this operation of gathering facts was what anthropologist Bernard Cohn called the rise of “investigative modalities” as political technologies of the modern state. These investigative modalities, whether they are censuses, ethnographic studies, sociological surveys, or similar modes of knowledge production, involve not only the collection of empirical facts by trained experts but also the ordering, classification, calculation, preservation, and circulation of facts for governing purposes. in turn, the very production of such facts fundamentally transformed the nature of governance by making the complex human world appear to be knowable and manipulable in ways that were not possible before. in the same fashion, empirical . . .

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