Dr Toby Lincoln (Centre for Urban History), a founder member of ChiSRA, has recently spent time in China. Earlier this year I caught up with him to find out how his research was progressing.
How did you first become interested in China?
I first went to China in 1999 to teach English in a small town called Chengde a few hours north of Beijing. I hadn’t previously had any special interest in the country, but after my undergraduate degree wanted to experience a completely different culture, and China certainly was that. I made some great friends who showed me the country, and later moved to Taiwan, where I worked for a publishing company and began to study Chinese seriously at university. That formed the foundation for a Masters in Chinese Studies and then the D.Phil.
Where have you been so far on this trip?
The last two months in China have been spent in Shanghai and Hangzhou. Shanghai is where my research materials are, but the Centre for Urban History has an agreement with Hangzhou Normal University, and I’ve been doing a little teaching there. I’ve also attended a conference and started to have discussions about becoming involved with a heritage project, although this is still in its early stages. In Shanghai, as well as my research, I’ve given talks at Shanghai University and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
Where are you going next?
As I write this I am on my way to Hong Kong to give a talk at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and then to Tokyo to give another talk at Sophia University. I’ll spend a short time in Taipei collecting further sources, before flying back to the UK.
What are you currently researching?
I am researching several projects at the moment, but the main focus is a history of urban planning in China throughout the twentieth century, which will eventually become my second book project. Aside from this, I’m working on an article about changing perceptions of Lake Tai, and another about the celebration of the end of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance.
How has your fieldwork fed into this?
I have spent most of my research time this trip in the Shanghai Library, which has excellent and easily accessible materials. Having the time to look at materials, assess their relevance and then explore how they relate to the historiographical debates has been extremely valuable in focusing my mind and my search for further materials. Aside from this, the opportunity to discuss my research with Chinese scholars has been fantastic, and as always they have been a great help in suggesting readings and avenues of enquiry.
Any challenges or epiphanies so far?
Although it has become easier to access published materials, archival research remains difficult and above all requires time. This is the case even for archives that I have been to before, where many files are deemed too sensitive and remain off limits, even for Chinese scholars. Central government archives remain closed and further time will be required to visit different local archives in the future. In addition to this, the sheer scale of my project on urban planning is a little daunting. Previously my work has concentrated on the city of Wuxi, and working out how to write about multiple cities throughout a very tumultuous twentieth century will be interesting.
Aside from the publications that I’ve mentioned above, I hope to be able to apply for money for the heritage project in Hangzhou. I’m currently half way through a British Academy funded project on the Habitable City in Chinese History, and so am concentrating on how to put together an edited volume. However, I expect that together with colleagues around the world, I shall think about a larger project exploring East Asian urbanization.