AHA Member Spotlight: Chang-tai Hung
Chang-tai Hung is Chair Professor of Humanities emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He lives in Hong Kong and has been a member since 1991.
Alma maters: BA (philosophy), Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1973; AM (regional studies-East Asia), Harvard University, 1975; PhD (history and East Asian languages), Harvard University, 1981
Fields of interest: modern China: culture, politics, architecture, folk religion, popular and folk art forms
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
Inspired by the time-honored Chinese humanities tradition of wenshizhe bufenjia (nondivision of literature, history, and philosophy), I majored in philosophy and took courses in sociology and Western languages (French and German) as an undergraduate. I ended up doing a PhD in history and East Asian languages. After graduation, I was fortunate to be hired as an assistant professor of history at Carleton College, an outstanding liberal arts college located in Northfield, Minnesota, a town noted for its “cows, colleges, and contentment.” My decision to leave Carleton and return to Hong Kong in the early 1990s was not easy. I had a desire to return to my native home, however, and I found it irresistible to be invited to participate in the establishment of the humanities and social science division at the newly founded Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
What projects are you currently working on?
My book Politics of Control: Creating Red Culture in the Early People’s Republic of China (2021) explores how Chinese Communist leaders, immediately after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, created “red culture” to reshape the nation’s cultural landscape as part of building a socialist utopia. “Red culture” refers to an interlocking system of cultural policies that restricted book publishing, censored religious activities, and rewrote textbooks. This was the first period in the history of the PRC when coercive cultural control measures were formally organized and systematically enforced by the state. A general history of how this “red culture” evolved and its results (including the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s) is the subject of my next project. This is a most challenging task as China’s key archives remain closed to outside researchers.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
My primary research field has been modern Chinese cultural history, with an emphasis on the 20th century. I proposed to view China’s tumultuous century through three interconnected lenses: folk culture, popular culture, and high political culture. My first book, Going to the People: Chinese Intellectuals and Folk Literature, 1918–1937 (1985), chronicles an intellectual movement initiated by a group of folklorists in the early 20th century. They collected folk songs, legends, and proverbs in an attempt to rescue the genuine voices of the commoners, which they believed were stifled by an obsolete Confucian culture that caused China’s backwardness and political decline.
Culture became popularized during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), which is the subject of my second book, War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937–1945 (1994). In battling against the Japanese invaders, Chinese writers and artists utilized a variety of popular modalities, including street dramas, incisive cartoons, and easy-to-read newspapers to disseminate nationalistic messages with the goal of forging a united resistance.
Culture was turned into a political tool by the new Communist rulers after the founding of the PRC. In my third book, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic (2011), I examine how Chinese leaders reconstructed monumental public spaces in Beijing (exemplified by Tiananmen Square), mounted patriotic parades, and built national museums for the purpose of affirming the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These three interrelated cultural forms chronicle one of the most salient historical trends in 20th-century China: the sweeping politicization of Chinese culture. The result is the monopolization of culture by the CCP. In politics, whoever controls culture controls the minds of the people.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
A 1950s archival source I found in Beijing detailed the heated debates between Chinese city planners and their Soviet advisers concerning the redesigning of Tiananmen Square in the early days of the PRC. It revealed how Chinese planners rejected the Soviets’ proposal of rebuilding the centuries-old square in the image of Moscow’s Red Square. The outcome was a vast rectangular square that runs along the capital’s traditional sacred north-south axis. Its mammoth size of 44 hectares makes the 9-hectare Red Square look small by comparison. Chinese leaders have ever since touted Tiananmen Square as a sacred symbol of national pride.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I might recommend that members revisit Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt makes clear that a modern-day authoritarian regime relies on a number of devices to rule: unbridled power, terror, a one-party dictatorship, a dogmatic ideology, control of information, and a constant invasion of people’s private lives. In light of the resurgence of autocratic movements and leaders across the globe these days, her warnings are more relevant than ever.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
The AHA is a global forum that allows students of history to discuss the past freely and openly and debate their different viewpoints. Scholarship thrives on diversity, pluralism, and mutual respect. In scholarship as in everyday life, things are often much clearer when we can get an outside perspective.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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