Interview with Xavier Paulès and David Serfass

This interview is with Xavier Paulès and David Serfass, guest editors of the special issue of Twentieth-Century China entitled “State Building through Political Disunity in Republican China,” published in January 2022. Xavier Paulès is an associate professor at EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris. David Serfass is assistant professor of Chinese and East Asian modern history at Inalco (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris) and research fellow at IFRAE (French Research Institute on East Asia). Read their introduction to the special issue here

Before we start discussing this special issue, could you tell us a bit about your academic backgrounds and your current research projects?

XP: I am a historian and have been an associate professor at EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris since 2010. I got my PhD from Lyon 2 University in 2005, and I published my first book in 2010—Histoire d’une drogue en sursis. L’opium à Canton, 1906–1936—with Éditions de l’EHESS [English translation by Noel Castelino, Living on Borrowed Time: Opium in Canton, 1906–1936 (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 2017)]. My latest book-length publication is La République de Chine, 1912–1949 (Paris: Les Belles lettres, 2019) This 423-page book is an attempt to provide a new outline of the Republican period. Drawing on the most recent scholarship in English, Chinese, and French, it reconsiders the Republican period in a new light and not as an interregnum between the Qing and the CCP or as a teleology of revolution. The book encompasses all aspects of the period, with five chapters devoted to the chronology of events and four chapters devoted to the key issues of economy, state building, society, and culture. My next book project is on the history of fantan (番攤), a gambling game whose history spans two millennia, from the Western Han dynasty to today’s Macao casinos. I wrote it in English (quite a challenge for me!), and it should be published next year.

DS: I studied history at the Sorbonne and Chinese at Inalco (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations) as an undergraduate, before spending one year as an exchange student at Taiwan Normal University. Then I received an MA and a PhD in history at EHESS. During the first few years of my doctoral work, I studied Japanese at Inalco and Waseda University. I am currently working on an online biographical dictionary of occupied China and a book manuscript based on my PhD dissertation on the Wang Jingwei regime. My next project will look at the spatial configuration of state power in twentieth-century China, that is, how state expansion related to the evolution of the administrative map in China.

How did you come to guest edit this issue of Twentieth-Century China?

XP: David and I held a seminar on the issue of state building during the Republican period at EHESS in 2013–2014. The idea that it was necessary to consider state building in Republican China as a process involving a multiplicity of actors and not only the succession of central governments was a central idea in David’s PhD dissertation. At that time, I too was struggling with that question in a chapter of the book I was writing on Republican China. But, given the highly fragmented nature of the Chinese politics during the Republic, we agreed that it was necessary to bring in more study cases and regional approaches to capture the complexities of state building. That is why we decided to convene an international conference on “State-Building through Political Disunity in Republican China,” in Paris in September 2018. It was a mix of junior and senior scholars in the field. We were very glad the majority of the conference participants rewrote their papers in order to fit into the format of this Twentieth-Century China special issue.

In the broadest terms, your special issue reconsiders the idea of the Chinese state as the state in China. After your own research and after editing this issue, how do you conceive of the state in China? How has your notion of the Chinese state changed?

DS: The original premise of this project was more empirical than conceptual. We just wanted to offer a broader vision of state building in Republican China by better taking into account the contribution of “centrifugal forces” such as warlords and pro-Japanese governments. It was only later, when Xavier and I began to piece together the different papers, that a new conceptual framework appeared necessary to conciliate this

contribution with the existing state-building narrative. Since the 1980s, this narrative has moved away from the teleology of the 1949 Revolution, but only to replace it with a teleology of modernization that reappraises the role of the Nationalist government as a precursor of post-Maoist state building. Although this approach has produced tremendous works, it tends to consider “the Chinese state” as synonymous with the successive central governments (Qing-Beiyang-GMD-CCP), thus rejecting “centrifugal forces” as either obstructive (warlords) or irrelevant (“puppet” regimes). To be sure, such a definition is not without justification, since the central government was indeed identified as “the Chinese state” by foreign countries and by the Chinese population. However, the way “the Chinese state” was perceived in terms of legal status and legitimacy should not be confused with the way it was transformed in terms of state making. In other words, studying “the Chinese state” makes it difficult to detach the process (multicentered state building) from the result (a successful centralization under the PRC)—what we call the “teleology of the central state.” Instead, we suggest studying the formation of the “state in China,” by which we mean all the state-building endeavors—either deemed “legitimate” or not—that took place in China (whose territorial definition is another matter, although our approach can help with “rescuing history from the nation,” to quote Prasenjit Duara’s famous title).

This special issue focuses on historical actors that were previously dismissed as ancillary or obstructive to state building in China. How do you  hope to reshape the historical narrative through these studies?

XP: We hope that this special issue will contribute to reshaping our understanding of the role various local regimes across China played during the Republican period in two principal ways: first, by showing that their state-building efforts largely paralleled those of the central governments; second (and maybe even more crucially), by emphasizing that it is important to carefully distinguish the role of local power-holders as a hindrance to political unification and centralization from their altogether rather positive action in the realm of state building. The notion of “local power-holders” we bring in is quite instrumental, as it takes in at the same time warlords and collaborationist regimes, as well as the areas under foreign control (concessions and leased territories) and the CCP soviets. Our special issue pays less attention to CCP bases and to foreign territories not because they are unimportant but because a great deal of scholarly attention has already been paid to them.

This issue also touches on the concept of continuity from the Republican era into the PRC. How did these studies refine your understanding of these trans-regime continuities?

DS: Previous scholarship on state building in Republican China reassessed the notion that the “New China” that emerged from the Civil War also meant a brand-new state, by showing the continuities between the Nationalist and the Communist party-states across the 1949 divide. The case studies collected in this issue question not so much this continuity as the process by which the Republican state that the PRC inherited in 1949 was formed.

XP: Yes indeed, in terms of state building, the CCP after 1949 has been able to build on a heritage that came as much from the GMD’s efforts as from the actions of a variety of local power-holders. This idea was inspired by my dissertation research in the Sun Zhongshan wenxian tushuguan (Sun Yat-sen Library and Archives) in Wendelu, Guangzhou. This large and beautiful building was erected during warlord Chen Jitang‘s rule of Guangdong (1931–1936) and was Guangzhou’s first municipal library. It has been used for the storage and preservation of one of the most important collections of documents pertaining to Republican Guangzhou and is a fine example of a very valuable infrastructure inherited by the PRC from a warlord regime.

Xavier Paulès: In this issue, you wrote an article entitled “Warlords at Work: Four Crucial Realms and Four Dynamics of State Building in Republican China, 1916–1937.” In this article, you demonstrate the numerous contributions of warlords to the overall process of state building in the Republican period. What do you see as the most important contribution?

XP: One of the reasons that warlords’ contributions to state building during the Republic has not been taken seriously has to do with the fact that almost all related studies deal with one particular warlord. This is not surprising, as many warlords were fascinating figures, in not a few cases the protagonists of colorful rags-to-riches stories. To mention only one case, Lu Rongting was a former bandit who was in the Qing army. After profiting from the events of the 1911 Revolution and subsequent years, he succeeded in putting under his personal control the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. As a consequence, scholars were inclined to opt for a biographical approach to warlords and to pay a disproportional attention to their taking part in the great race for the reunification of China, at the expense of their local achievements outside the realm of military reinforcement. What strikes me the most is their contribution to education. The number of warlords who were truly committed to developing primary education is indeed impressive. This leads us to one of the aspects that, sadly, is rarely put forward as one of the most prominent features of the Republic: as scholars like Marianne Bastid and Thomas Curran have demonstrated, it was a period of great expansion for primary education.

David Serfass: In this issue, you wrote an article entitled “Collaboration and State Making in China: Defining the Occupation State, 1937–1945.” Your article argues that state building under Japanese occupation governments was a crucial piece of the formation of modern China. How do you hope to reshape our understanding of the Japanese occupation governments?

DS: One might wonder why a state-building effort that lasted eight years (1937–1945) and expanded over China’s most developed and populated provinces has, so far, attracted so little interest from historians working on the Chinese modern state in general, Timothy Brook [Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)] being one major exception. Granted, most of this state-building effort was hampered by militarized resistance and corruption and was, eventually, superseded by a victorious adversary, but so was GMD-led state building before and after the Second Sino-Japanese War. I do not argue that state building in occupied China was more crucial than the one that took place in Nationalist and Communist areas during the war but simply that the occupied-area piece should be included in the modern Chinese state-building puzzle, rather than forming a puzzle of its own. Not only does this piece fill a major lacuna in the overall picture of China’s post-imperial state making, but it might shed new light on this process as well. Indeed, the very fact that “puppet” regimes appear to be so remote from the ideal-type definition of the modern state offers historians who study them the chance to grasp more easily the historical—one might even say “artificial”—nature of any state. Moreover, considering both Chinese “puppet” governments and Japanese agencies in China as part of one “occupation state” helps to unravel the complex process of state building in the context of Sino-Japanese collaboration, as I explain in my article.

David Serfass: The existing historiography of occupied China is naturally laden with Chinese nationalism. Did this nationalism affect your research? How does your work interact with modern PRC and ROC historiography of the Second World War?

DS: Occupied China is, indeed, a sensitive topic, maybe even more so since the “War of Resistance against Japan” became a central part of the CCP-sponsored nationalist narrative in the 1980s. Maoist-era remembering of the war tended to blur the line between pro-Japanese collaborators such as Wang Jingwei and “reactionaries” led by Chiang Kai-shek. By replacing the revolutionary lens with a nationalist one, this “new remembering” (Arthur Waldron), aptly analyzed by Rana Mitter in his latest book, China’s Good War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2020) has reinforced the hatred against the hanjian (漢奸) who collaborated with Japanese occupiers. This being said, I think we should be careful not to overinterpret this evolution as the symptom of a threatening Chinese nationalism, because it prevents us from seeing how familiar this remembering of the Second World War is to Western societies and also from giving PRC historians the credit they deserve. To give but one example, France’s top national television channel yesterday evening (2 November 2021) showed a new drama on Pierre Laval (France’s most infamous collaborator after Philippe Pétain). Its depiction of Laval as a complex character has provoked outraged reactions from journalists and historians. To be sure, today’s memory of collaboration in France focuses less on “treason” than on the participation of the Vichy regime in the Shoah, but these reactions reflect how much occupation remains a pervasive and sensitive topic in French society as well (not to mention the political instrumentalization of the figures of De Gaulle and Pétain in the current presidential campaign’s debate).

As far as historiography is concerned, I am indebted to several generations of Chinese specialists on collaboration, including their most orthodox representatives, such as Cai Dejin, if only because they edited numerous primary sources. My work built, in particular, on Pan Min‘s book Jiangsu riwei jiceng zhengquan yanjiu, 1937–1945 [A Study of the Grassroots Puppet Governments in Jiangsu, 1937–1945], published in 2006 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe), in which she explores the transformation of the pro-Japanese administration at the county and sub-county levels in occupied Jiangsu. I was also greatly influenced by the excellent work done by Taiwanese historians, especially by Lin May-li’s research on rice-control policy under the Wang Jingwei government and Wu Jen-shu’s book on occupied Suzhou.

How would you relate the broader conclusions of this special issue to other fields? How does this study of Republican China fit into global history? Moving beyond China, what do you think is the significance of the issue’s purpose and methodology for the field as a whole?

DS: As I just mentioned, the modernization narrative has reassessed Republican China as a pivotal moment in the transition between the Sino-Manchu imperial state and the Chinese national state. This transition was part of a global transformation that can be summed up as a redefinition of sovereignty both internally (equality among sovereign citizens) and externally (equality among sovereign states). Numerous studies on nation-state building have explored how this redefinition has transformed the role of the state in the sense of an expansion of its reach in society. While this scholarship has done much to deconstruct the teleology of the nation by adopting a transnational perspective, it often addresses “the state” as a monolithic actor as far as state building is concerned. We hope the conceptual framework put forward in this special issue and the case studies gathered to illustrate it can contribute to the broader discussion on this aspect. Not so much by rejecting states as a pertinent scale at which to study state building but rather by cautioning against shoehorning this broad process into the teleology of the central state.

XP: This study can fit, to a certain extent, into global history, or at least in what is in my view a global trend: the advent of a certain kind of world state. It is clear, of course, that we are not yet in the era of a world state except for the extremely incipient form of the United Nations and other international organizations. Yet in my view the advent of a form  of world state is unavoidable, as it is the only way to deal with the great challenge that will dominate the twenty-first and (most probably) the twenty-second century, namely, coping with global warming and with the environmental crisis more broadly. From that perspective, the parallel advent of the state’s scope and reach in each nation that we observe as a trend in the longue durée at a world scale is a preliminary stage of the process. For quite some time the process of building the world state will, I guess, be also a case of “state building through political disunity”!

What historiography shaped your view of Republican China? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

XP: If I must choose only one article, it would be a piece by Joseph W. Esherick, “Ten Theses on the Chinese Revolution“ [Modern China 21, no. 1 (1995): 45–76]. It remains a milestone in terms of both conciseness and accuracy. Even though it was published more than 25 years ago, it remains extremely stimulating and seminal because seeing the Republican period through the lenses of Revolution remains a very common trope.

As to further readings, there are many pathbreaking recent works by young historians that skillfully challenge the commonly accepted vision of Republican China: Pierre Fuller’s Famine Relief in Warlord China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019) is a must-read for a more careful balancing of the role of the Beiyang governments and of the warlords during pre-GMD Republican China.

DS: In the guest editors’ introduction to this special issue, we mention two PhD dissertations that have not yet been published but can be accessed online: Lane J. Harris’s “The Post Office and State Formation in Modern China“ (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2012) and Kevin P. Landdeck’s “Under the Gun: Nationalist Military Service and Society in Wartime Sichuan, 1938–1945“ (University of California, Berkeley, 2011). Both dissertations thoroughly examine one major aspect of the state in Republican China while also illuminating state making in general.