094: Eugenia Y. Lean, 40


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

94: Eugenia Y. Lean, 10-20-08

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, July 2002-present.
Area of Research: Late imperial and modern Chinese history with a particular focus on the history of emotions and gender, law and media, as well as consumer culture, science, and urban society, issues of historiography and critical theory in the study of East Asia
Education: Ph.D., Chinese History, University of California, Los Angeles, December 2001.
Major Publications: Lean is the author of Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China, (University of California Press, April 2007), which is a study of how a high-profile crime of female Eugenia Lean JPGpassion helped give rise to the moral and political authority of “public sympathy” in Republican-era China. The book was awarded the American Historical Association’s 2007 John K. Fairbank prize for an outstanding book in modern East Asian history.
She is currently working on Global Soap, Local Desires: Transnational Circuits of Science and Commerce in Modern China, which is a study of the global circuits of science and commerce that introduced modern soap to China.
Lean is the author of scholarly journal articles and book chapters in both English and Chinese including:
“Daode xunjie yu meiti xiaoying: Shi Jianqiao’an yu sanshi niandai Zhongguo dushi dazhong wenhua” [Moral Exhortation and Media Sensation: the Case of Shi Jianqiao and Urban Mass Culture in 1930s China]. In Wenhua qimeng yu zhishi shengchan [Cultural Enlightenment and Knowledge Production]. Ed. Chia-ling Mei, 213-232. Taipei: Maitian Publishing, 2006; “Shenpan zhong de ganqing yinsu: ji 1935-36 nian xiju xing de shenpan – Shi Jianqiao qi’an” [Emotions on Trial: Courtroom Drama and Urban Spectacle in the 1935-36 Case of Shi Jianqiao].” Zhongguo Xueshu (China Scholarship) 6.2 (2005): 206-231; “Liu Jinggui Qingsha’an: sanshi niandai Beiping de dazhong wenhua yu meiti chaozuo” [Love with a Vengeance: Media Sensation in Republican Era Beiping]. Beijing: Urban Culture and Historical Memory. Eds. Chen Pingyuan and David Wang, 269-84. Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2005; “The Making of a Public: Emotions and Media Sensation in 1930s China.” Twentieth Century China 29.2 (April 2004): 39-61; Gongde huo sichou? Yijiu sanshi niandai Zhongguo “qing” de guozu zhengzhi [Public Virtue or Private Revenge? Female Qing and the Chinese Nation]. Public and Private: Individual and Collective Bodies in Modern Chinese History. Eds. Huang Kewu and Chang Che-chia, 223-53. Taibei: Institute of Modern History, 2000; “Reflections on Theory, Gender and the Psyche in the Study of Chinese History.” Funü lishi yanjiu fukan [Research on Women in Modern Chinese History] 6 (August 1998): 141-173; “The Modern Elixir: Medicine as a Consumer Item in the Early Twentieth-Century Press.” UCLA Historical Journal 15 (1995): 65-92.
Awards: Lean is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
2007 John K. Fairbank Book Prize (awarded by the American Historical Association) for Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, April 2007).
ACLS/Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Junior Faculty, 2004-2005;
An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University, 2004-2005;
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Mellow Fellowship in East Asian Studies, Fall 2004 (Declined);
University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies Post-doctoral Fellowship, 2004-2005 (Alternate);
UCLA History Department Dissertation Writing Fellowship, 2000-2001;
Paula Stone Dissertation Fellowship (Center for Study ofWomen, UCLA), 2000-2001;
Herma and Celia Wise Fellowship (UCLA), 2000-2001;
ICFOG Pre-Dissertation Fellowship (UCLA), 1999-2000;
American Council for Learned Societies-Committee on Scholarly Communication with China (ACLS-CSCC), Dissertation Research Grant, 2/1999-12/1999;
Fulbright IIE, Dissertation Research Grant, 9/1998-2/1999;
Eugene Cota-Robles Four-year Fellowship, University of California, Office of the President, 1992-1994, 1995-1997.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor, History Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, July 2001-June 2002.

Personal Anecdote

My first book, Public Passions, historicizes the political uses of emotions. It explores a 1935-36 cause célèbre, the trial of Shi Jianqiao (a woman who assassinated a warlord to avenge her father’s death), to show how “public sympathy” (tongqing) for the female assassin gained unprecedented moral and political authority in early twentieth century China. The affair generated sensation and stirred passions precisely because it effectively mediated much larger social anxieties, including debate over proper gender norms, questions of legal reform versus vigilante justice, and concerns with attempts by the Nationalist (Guomindang) government to expand its authoritarian rule. In its ability to skewer politicians, cast doubt on official narratives, and enable serious exploration of social and gender issues, the sentiment-based public that arose in the case came, I argue, to exhibit qualities that much of the critical theory on political participation conventionally associates with “rational” publics.

In the course of writing this history of emotions, I found myself reflecting upon my own passions. There is no doubt that in writing Public Passions, I was informed by a range of sentiments. I had an unmistakable admiration for the “heroine” at the center of story; I was driven by a desire to recoup her “agency,” as well as the agency of China itself, too often depicted in historiography as a passive agent in the face of modernization wrought by the West. My penchant for cultural history was pivotal, and to be sure, I am easily smitten by romantic, even exotic, stories and narratives that shape the lives of humans in the past. Yet, a large part of being a historian lies precisely in reining in such passions so as to engage in rigorous analysis. As historians, we are taught to establish a critical distance with our object of study by faithfully interpreting our texts and materials, by carefully considering context, and by inquiring into the conditions that shaped historical agency and events in the past. Dispassionate analysis is the goal.

Thus, by definition, my passionate commitment to unraveling and probing this event in the Chinese past had now become a methodological challenge of the present. Indeed, if you think about the relationship between passions and history writing, things become quite complicated. The tension between subjective passions and critical objectivity was implicitly at the heart of some of the thorny theoretical and methodological debates that consumed academia in the 1990s during my graduate student days. Post-structuralism levied a serious critique of objectivity and empiricism. For many historians, this critique led to a reconsideration of some of the fundamentals of our discipline, which rest on the assumption that we are able to retrieve through empirical fact the objective truth regarding the past. Many were forced to think seriously about how our subjectivity and passions come into play when writing history. Questions swirled about how best to handle the need for dispassionate analysis in historical inquiry while recognizing our subjective perspectives as historically-situated subjects.

I do not profess that the writing of a history of passions has resolved this vexing issue for me. Yet, what has been made clear to me is that passions inevitably inform the endeavor of history writing and thus, matter in writing history. Passionate curiosities, for example, can help animate stories of yesteryear. Emotional investment in one’s historical topic can sustain what is a long, often grueling, process in writing and researching about that past. Thus, while unbridled passions certainly risk obfuscating the “objectivity” we historians should constantly strive to achieve, I want to take seriously something that I suggest in my book, namely, that passions are not necessarily mutually exclusive from critical inquiry, and under certain conditions, might even enable it. In other words, historians should add to their disciplinary tool kit the ability to acknowledge their passions and interests, and reflect seriously on how they shape our ways of knowing events of an earlier age. Only by doing so are we better equipped to take a step back, when necessary, and create the needed critical distance crucial for good history writing, all without sacrificing the affective element of the endeavor that often makes it all possible and indeed, worthwhile.


By Eugenia Lean

  • What the study of the Shi Jianqiao affair suggests is that the very qualities of commercialism, sensation, and sentimentalism that Lin Yutang and others bemoan as evidence of political apathy were, in fact, prime conditions Public Passions JPG for the making of a critical public. It was precisely the sensationalism in Shi Jianqiao’s case that enabled accounts of her affair to fly undetected under the radar of state censorship, and thus provide a forum for the public airing of pressing social and political issues. Not subjected to the kind of control exercised over conventional venues of “serious” journalism, serialized fiction based on the case allowed the reading public to explore radically new gender norms during a period when calls for constraints on female morality were increasingly strident among Nationalist ideologues. Dramas inspired by the killing were also not strictly policed. By celebrating Shi Jianqiao as the female knight-errant antihero and a superior bearer of national justice, theatrical productions could articulate alternative forms of public justice that lay outside the official court system. [p. 75]. — Eugenia Lean in “Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China”

About Eugenia Lean

  • “What [Lean] finds is political debate but conducted in very different terms from that suggested by Jürgen Habermas and with very different implications. This is the world of the mass media; of politics as scandal, sensation, and entertainment; of popular political participation that is active indeed but focused around emotional involvement in stories told by the popular press rather than rational debate among bourgeois men. Lean makes us look again at the new, and conflicting, ways in which Chinese in the twentieth century were invited to participate in politics.” – Henrietta Harrison, author of “The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village 1857-1942”
  • “This book is at the forefront of the next generation of scholarship on early-twentieth-century China. Lean makes a number of important claims about sentiment and modernity, puts forward broader claims that go beyond China studies, and poses stark questions about the place of ‘rationality’ in modernity that will compel others to defer to her study for many years to come.” – John Fitzgerald, author of “Awakening China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution”
  • “This ingeniously crafted book provides intriguing ways of linking the past to the present, weaving debates that stretch as far back as the Qin with questions of contemporary Chinese culture and politics. Through exhaustive examinations of media, political, and judicial records, the author vividly shows how the debate on emotions that Shi’s case engendered was a manifestation of a ‘modern public’ in China.” – Ruth Rogaski, author of “Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China”
  • “It is increasingly clear both that culture influences the perception and representation of emotions and that emotions play a great role in human behavior and in historical events. This book shows how dealing intelligently with passions can be extremely useful in writing history.” – Paolo Santangelo, author of “Sentimental Education in Chinese History”
  • “This fine study offers a new and promising direction for our thoughts on the forces that have shaped not only Republican and Communist China, but also Western Europe and the United States.” – Susan Glosser, author of “Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953”
  • “[A]s a corrective to an overproduction of scholarly efforts to apply Jürgen Habermas’s public sphere ideals to republican China – this book provides a welcome shift of focus in understanding the murky realm of the public.” – Bryna Goodman, author of “Native Place, City and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853-1937”

Posted on Monday, October 20, 2008 at 2:33 AM

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  1. Fabricating the Future: Coastal Cuttlefish, Magnesium Carbonate and a Strong Dose of Vernacular Industrialism in Early Twentieth-Century China | Imagined Futures

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