Chinese Historian Tenured at Harvard





After a worldwide search for a candidate to fill Harvard’s new professorship in Chinese social history, former Associate Professor Michael Szonyi was selected to assume the post on July 1, 2009.

Szonyi is a social historian who, in addition to reading historical texts, seeks to challenge historical accounts by speaking with village elders, collecting documents from villagers, and observing lineage and temple rituals in order to see history from a local perspective, he said.

“It takes a very different skill set than the one we usually associate with history,” Szonyi said about his method. “Together with Chinese colleagues, we are hoping to write a very different version of Chinese history than the one told by official government sources and the writings of the literati elite.”

Szonyi will now be able to recruit graduate students from Asia and the United States and train them in his method of study. He said he also hopes to establish a summer program that will encourage students to travel to China to examine history in a similar way.

“Szonyi helps to prepare undergraduates learn about Chinese culture first hand,” said East Asian Languages and Civilizations Professor Peter K. Bol, who teaches a course with Szonyi at the College.

Szonyi is currently studying the social history of the Ming Dynasty military. He has traced local cults from the Ming Dynasty and has found that some of these cults continue to exist. Their traditions can help historians better understand the role of religion in establishing local social orders, Szonyi said.

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