The American Historian

OAH China Residency 2017

Nathan J. Citino

I made my first trip to China this summer. In fact, I had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career participating in the Organization of American Historians’ China Residency Program. I led a seminar on American foreign policy since World War II and the history of the international Cold War for graduate students and faculty who came from different parts of China. The China Residency program, now in its fifth year, is sponsored by the Ford Foundation. My seminar was held at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an during the week of June 19–23, 2017. By describing this trip, I hope not only to promote interest in the China Residency program but also to add to the store of knowledge shared by U.S. historians who have taught overseas.

For many reasons, this opportunity came at an interesting time. The election of Donald Trump raised expectations for a more nationalist, “America First” foreign policy defined in part by a more confrontational approach toward China. In terms of scholarship, Cold War historians are studying the role of China more and more, and recognizing increasingly its global importance alongside the United States and the Soviet Union. Although I specialize in U.S.–Middle East relations and conduct research in Arabic, I was aware that numerous historians, some based in China and others in the United States, were incorporating Chinese sources into scholarship published in English. Finally, many recent histories, including those focused on the Asia-Pacific region, have reconstructed past transnational networks by which people, goods, capital, and ideas crossed national borders. The China Residency offered me a walk-on role in just such a network, as I established ties to historians in China and Chinese scholars came to U.S. institutions as part of an exchange administered by the OAH and the American History Research Association of China (AHRAC). Politics, scholarship, and pedagogy came together to make for an eye-opening encounter with Chinese colleagues. I gained a fresh perspective on my own field and witnessed how national politics could affect transnational links. In sum, I learned as well as taught.

I interpreted my role in the seminar not simply as presenting material from my existing courses, but as representing the state of the field in English-language scholarship to a non-U.S. audience. Therefore, I read most of the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War (2010), as well as important recent monographs by Timothy Nunan, Gregg Brazinsky, Carol Anderson, Guy Laron, and Nancy Mitchell. I tried to get up to speed on U.S.-China relations scholarship. I also supplemented my existing knowledge of literature on U.S. labor, civil rights, and cultural history in a Cold War context, and collected primary sources available through the National Security Archive, the U.S. State Department Office of the Historian, the Cold War International History Project, and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. I spent months preparing, and it paid off in the sense that it allowed me to more effectively advise Chinese students on historiography. It also gave me the opportunity as a mid-career scholar to refresh my knowledge.

Over the five days of the seminar, I planned to cover the origins of the Cold War; the Cold War and U.S. society; the Cold War in the Third World; crises in Cuba and Vietnam; and the end of the Cold War. My hosts wanted me to lead the seminar for six hours per day for five days, mostly by lecturing. They otherwise gave me latitude in organizing the schedule, although, unsure as I was about participants’ abilities with English, I was limited in the amount of reading I could assign and the extent of discussion I could expect. I decided to assign one or two article-length readings per day, with some short primary sources to supplement. About three weeks prior to the seminar, I sent these readings as PDFs to my hosts, who circulated them among the participants. I was advised to install a VPN connection on my laptop computer prior to leaving for China, and this proved useful in circumventing China’s censorship of the Internet. Like many U.S. scholars, I teach with the Internet and take for granted its accessibility in the classroom, but I couldn’t be confident about its availability during the seminar. I therefore brought media in portable formats: mp3 audio files of presidential recordings and Vietnam War-era music; a DVD copy of the film The Atomic Cafe (1982); an original copy of Life magazine; and numerous images. I prepared fifteen lectures plus ten discussions. I confirmed ahead of time that I would be able to use PowerPoint, and made sure to bring plug adapters. Once I arrived, my graduate student hosts were very accommodating in finding me anything I needed to facilitate my presentations. They sensed my modest technical abilities and noted the obsolescence of my personal iPhone and university-issued laptop. Our group of about forty met in a seminar room in which most students could fit around a large seminar table, while others sat on chairs lining the walls. The room was equipped with a large screen at one end to which I could connect my laptop, as well as with microphones, which students could use to ask questions, and which were essential to preserving my voice.

Many of my U.S. colleagues, some in my home department, have experience teaching history in China. This transpacific exchange speaks to China’s growing presence in global education, including in the humanities, but it raises questions about academic freedom not necessarily present in scientific fields. More than one veteran of teaching in China also cautioned me that students’ English skills could be uneven, and that Chinese graduate students might be reticent. With respect to English, our group had a range of abilities: some were fluent and easily tackled the readings I had assigned; others were less capable in English, but even among this group several made a determined effort to participate and came prepared with questions that they had carefully composed ahead of time. PowerPoints helped students to follow along with lectures. I also distributed bibliographies and other printed materials. Above all, I was delighted that many students asked questions. On the first day, I gave introductory remarks and showed them where I was from on a map. I also encouraged them to pose questions, offer alternative perspectives, and tell me about research in China, especially their own. I stressed the importance of exchanging ideas and passed out some small gifts (they burst into applause!). The students took my requests to heart. Not only did they ask questions as part of each session, but on more than one occasion I scrapped the planned lecture in order to respond to their interests. I received numerous questions about U.S. political history and requests to define terms such as “liberal,” “conservative,” and “neoconservative.” Students were especially interested in the politics of anti-communism. With primary sources, I tried to show how anti-communism could be adapted to serve antithetical political agendas, from civil rights activists to “Dixiecrat” defenders of Jim Crow. Students were fascinated by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s aide Roy Cohn and Cohn’s later role as fixer for New York real estate developer Donald Trump. While seminar participants were generally familiar with U.S. foreign policy, they wanted to learn about American society.

Prior to traveling to China, I had concerns about academic freedom. This issue was particularly sensitive given the subject matter of the Cold War. As an invited foreign scholar my speech was not restricted. Students, however, were constrained in what they could say on certain topics. Although there were some faculty present as members of the seminar, I did not feel that they controlled the course of discussions. On the first morning, the Communist party secretary for the university gave a speech to the seminar in Chinese. She then left. All of my lectures were filmed. The camera stayed mostly on me, although some students were filmed asking questions. During our discussion about the end of the Cold War, one student asked how U.S. scholars teach about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. I replied and then turned the question around, asking how those events were discussed among Chinese historians. Off-camera, the student silently gestured to indicate that critical discussion of this topic was off-limits. The conversation moved on, although people later privately expressed a range of opinions.

Because of our focus on U.S. foreign policy, and my critical approach to it, there were differences of opinion, but no direct conflict. While I modeled the scholarly criticism of my own government permitted in the U.S., many of our discussions addressed the deleterious consequences of American Cold War policies in Asia. Overall, our exchanges were relaxed and friendly, with many light moments, such as when we chuckled at photos of Richard Nixon fumbling with chopsticks during his trip to China in 1972. At the end of the week, every seminar participant received a certificate of completion bearing my signature, and I was photographed handing the certificate to each person. Many expressed their thanks, and I encouraged them to keep in touch.

The informal chats I had with students and faculty were as enjoyable as the seminar discussions. In talking with faculty, I learned that certain concerns among history professors are universal, such as encouraging students toward finishing their dissertations and balancing administrative duties with research. In the evenings, I dined at Xi’an’s excellent restaurants with small groups of faculty and graduate students. At the beginning and end of my week at Shaanxi Normal University, faculty and administrators held a dinner in my honor with many toasts. Faculty accepted some gifts I brought for them, and I left a signed copy of my recent book with Professor Bai Jiancai, whose research is related to mine. In addition to the principal coordinators of my visit, Professor Bai, Liang Hongguang, and Guo Ruizhi, I wish to thank Bai Jiaoping, Chang Xia, and Jin Xiaoyong for their warm welcome and for taking time to show me around.

In many of our exchanges, students and faculty wanted me to appreciate the social and geographic diversity of China and its rapid economic growth. I also had many conversations about U.S. society and politics. My hosts were especially eager to understand the implications of Trump’s election, and to talk about U.S.-China relations. During the weekends that bookended the seminar, I visited major attractions in Xi’an, including the Terracotta Warriors, the Drum and Bell Towers, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, and the Muslim market street and mosque. At the end of the week, I traveled via high-speed train to Beijing, where I met up with my wife Sharon. We spent a week visiting tourist sites, an educational experience which my honorarium helped to support. I’m glad that Xi’an was my first experience of China, because it gave me an appreciation for non-Han Chinese populations and a sense of the politics surrounding the government’s “nationalities” policy through which it seeks to manage ethnic and religious differences.

The informal discussions enhanced the seminar experience and made the China Residency program highly educational and enriching for me. Discussions about contemporary China and the United States often had direct tie-ins to historical material. Examining how American and Chinese propaganda during the Cold War each criticized the other’s treatment of minorities flowed into conversations about the status of Muslims, Tibetans, and African Americans today. The “One Belt, One Road” policy of today’s China also had important antecedents in China’s Cold War assistance of developing, postcolonial countries. I made new friends and colleagues and became acquainted with historical scholarship and teaching in China. Graduate students and faculty gave me a window into the kinds of historical questions that Chinese scholars from my field are asking and the types of primary sources they consult. I observed the effects of the country’s dramatic growth, and came away with the strong desire to return. I am grateful to the OAH, AHRAC, and the Ford Foundation for this valuable opportunity. Moreover, thanks to a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, the OAH will continue the teaching seminar in the People's Republic of China, sponsored by AHRAC through 2019. As part of this program, three Chinese students and scholars of American history attend the OAH Annual Meeting, and then do research at various host institutions across the United States.