Interview with Federica Ferlanti

This interview is with Federica Ferlanti, the author of “Educators and Power Brokers: Political Mobilization and Violence in Wannian County, Jiangxi Province, 1926–1935,” which appears in the October issue of Twentieth-Century China. Federica Ferlanti is a lecturer in Modern Chinese History at Cardiff University.  Read the article here

Before we start discussing the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I was born and raised in Italy academically (and physically). I come from the rolling hills of Tuscany, but I attended university in the north of Italy: my alma mater is Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. After my graduation, I continued my postgraduate studies first in Cambridge (UK, MPhil), then in Cagliari (Italy, PhD), and finally in Oxford (UK, postdoc). In between and during my PhD and various postdocs, I pursued my research in the United States, the UK, the PRC, and Taiwan. 

Your article focuses on the political actions of local Qing-era elites in Wannian County, Jiangxi, and their interactions with the younger May Fourth generation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang (GMD). How did you come to focus on the local elite?

I wrote my PhD dissertation on the GMD and the New Life movement in Jiangxi Province. At that time, I read a couple of articles by late Professor Stephen Averill about the Communist Revolution in Jiangxi Province and how the local elites facilitated the circulation of progressive ideas in market towns and rural villages. I got incredibly interested in the topic and in this region of China, but over time, aside from Averill’s works, I could not find anything substantial on the political relevance of the local elites and their relationship with the GMD. Not only were the local elites pivotal in their interactions with the urban May Fourth generation, the CCP, and the GMD, but they were absolutely crucial in “making things happen”: they transmitted, supported, or rejected revolutionary and conservative ideas and everything in between. I felt that the microcosm of the local elites in Wannian County was the nexus, to use Prasenjit Duara’s terminology, between the local and the national at a time of political turmoil and violence. 

Your case study is based in Wannian, Jiangxi, a region far from the cosmopolitan urban centers more often studied by historians. How did you choose Wannian for your study? 

Wannian County chose me! I came across archival documents on Wannian County, and they piqued my curiosity. I had previously done research on the First Chinese Soviet Republic, the CCP, and the GMD in Jiangxi, so I was able to place the case I discuss in this article into the wider regional and national context

 Were there any local research sources that steered this decision? 

While I was doing research for my PhD at the Guoshiguan (Academia Historica) in Taipei, I came across the Wannian murder dispute. These archival sources offered much background and many details. I became particularly intrigued to see the same story—the killing of the two young Communist activists—retold in different ways. Over time, I came to think that, paradoxically, the killing was not necessarily the “story,” and I became increasingly fascinated by the cultured background of the protagonists and the shifting positions of local elites. I also visited Wannian County and met with local historians, who shared with me their publications. Unfortunately, I found that the local archives and libraries did not hold much material on this case.

Previous studies of the Republican era have noted the numerous tensions between the elite politics of the GMD leadership and the grassroots politics. How would you characterize your work in terms of the relationship between party center and local periphery?

I feel that in comparison to the grassroots history of the CCP, we still know little about the relationships among the central GMD leadership and local elites and society at large. Often, individuals did not have a choice with regard to who governed them, but, even so, there existed a political and physical “space” in which the central government interacted with local dynamics, generating either consensus or opposition to the GMD. These dynamics are central to my work. In other words, I am interested in studying the space between the local, in which individuals (or groups) operated and navigated, and the central, national power. I am looking at the ways in which local histories intersected with, and often influenced, central politics. 

As you mention in your article, your work complicates the existing historical narrative of the political activities of both the CCP and the GMD in Jiangxi. Can you tell our readers a bit about how your research complicates the previous historical narrative?

Starting from the 1920s, these two political parties dominated the political scene in Jiangxi, or so the story goes. However, in the longer-term perspective, we see that, locally, the parties were newcomers and were building from scratch. The article questions the identification of the various local elites with a neat divide between CCP and GMD. Not only were local factions more diverse than we account for, but individual loyalties were predicated on the “local” (e.g., regional, county, market towns) rather than on the national struggle. By focusing on the local elites in a specific area, we can appreciate the nuances and motivations that led individuals and groups to act and make choices that were often motivated by the intersection of local and national political confrontations. I think that it is important to continue exploring the local interaction between the GMD and the local elites to gain a better understanding of how the party built support locally. 

In this article, you describe the pre-existing local Qing-era elites and their struggles to maintain power and influence in a shifting world. Do you see any continuity in this piece of your study with other eras of Chinese history?

This is such a challenging question! And my first reaction would be to say that I don’t see any continuity because this was a unique period of change in Chinese history, marking the end of the dynastic period and the early experiments in building a republican nation. However, on second thought, reforms and regime changes generally bring opportunities to some and challenges to others, or both at the same time. For instance, the transition to the People’s Republic of China and the 1950s were times of great social transformation. Not only were there consequences for the Republican-era rural and urban elites who had not supported the revolution, but those who embraced the new government also saw great changes to their status and lifestyle. 

How did your research into local elite and political struggles in Wannian change your thinking about the Republican era as a whole? How did this change your view of the national conflict between the CCP and the GMD? 

It made me re-evaluate the role of the late Qing elites as power brokers. I had originally thought of the May Fourth generation as being the movers and shakers of political life. I was aware of the significance of the late Qing elites, but my research made me realize the extent to which they were still influential in the 1920s, especially through their control of local education, as discussed in the article. Education worked not just as a channel for local social mobility but also as a point of connection with national politics. It allowed the elites living in Wannian County, which, as you put it, was “far from the cosmopolitan urban centers often studied,” to develop a familiarity with the national power struggle and pragmatically interact with it. As for the national conflict between the CCP and the GMD, the struggle in Wannian made me reconsider the consequences of the GMD’s April purge of the Communists and how it widened the gap between the two parties, especially in a local situation where violence was already rife. Ideology played an important part, but the conflict between the GMD and the CCP was also the sum of the clashes that sprang up across China locally, often dictated by pre-existing dynamics, as was the case in Wannian. 

In this article, you see through the stereotypical dichotomy of local elites as good gentry vs. “evil gentry” and instead portray a more nuanced picture of conflicting local interest groups. What led you to a more nuanced view?

Attention to the sources led me to this nuanced view. Both sides of the confrontation discussed in this article presented to the authorities petitions that described the shortcomings of the opposing side in an almost identical way. It looked as if all protagonists of the story, regardless of which group they sided with, were cut from the same cloth. And, in fact, they were. When I compared their biographies, I discovered that they had very similar educational, professional, and political backgrounds. This made me question the dichotomy of good vs. evil. The question then became, “How and why did schoolmasters end up being suddenly accused of murdering people, kidnapping, and committing arson?” It became clear to me that these labels were the results of the repositioning of the local elites and the interplay of multiple players on the ground who used these labels to score political points.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

Yes and no. I am not planning a monograph on Wannian County. However, the issues that I raised and tried to provide answers to and the approach that I have used inform the monograph that I am working on. That current project focuses on state building, civilian mobilization, and political culture in Nationalist China. 

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

You are making a very big assumption here. What I would say is that I would like to contribute to changing the perceptions of the political culture of and political participation in Republican China. 

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

Stephen C. Averill’s work above all, but I would also like to mention other historians who have taught me a great deal about Republican China during my formative years, such as Guido Samarani, Hans J. van de Ven, Frederic Wakeman Jr., and Wen-hsin Yeh. Further reading: everything you find in the footnotes, but for anyone interested in the Republican period, there is no shortage of great monographs. Do get in touch, and I will be happy to share.