Interview with Yu-chi Chang

This interview is with Yu-chi Chang, the author of “Leaves, Silkworms, Yue Fei: Ways of Imagining the Territory in 1930s China,” which appears in the May 2024 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Yu-chi Chang will join Vassar College as an assistant professor of history in Fall 2024. Read the article here

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

I am a historian of modern China with a research focus on knowledge production, social and political culture, and state-building. I completed both my undergraduate and master’s degrees at National Taiwan University, where I primarily trained in premodern Chinese history. My master’s research explored the interactions between intellectuals and local society in the Ming era. I received my PhD from Brown University, with a dissertation focusing on maps and state-building in Nationalist China. I also collaborated with Lukas Rieppel of Brown University on a project investigating the Central Asiatic Expedition of the 1920s. Our coauthored article, “Locating the Central Asiatic Expedition: Epistemic Imperialism in Vertebrate Paleontology,” which addressed the controversy the expedition raised about global knowledge production, circulation, and accumulation, was published in the December 2023 issue of Isis. In the fall, I will start work as an assistant professor of history at Vassar College.

Your article discusses the history of imagining Chinese territory as a mulberry leaf and how this trope evolved in the 1930s. How did you come to focus on this fascinating topic?

In conducting my doctoral research on the role of maps and related visuals in forming perceptions of territory, sovereignty, and national identity in modern China, I noticed that maps were not the only medium used to visualize Chinese territory during the Nationalist period. In publications such as newspapers, periodicals, and textbooks, Chinese territory was often represented with simple illustrations or map-like visuals, and the leaf trope was likely one of the most common tropes at the time. It appeared not only in illustrations but also frequently in textual narratives. The begonia leaf trope was also used extensively in textbooks during the Nationalist rule in Taiwan, so the leaf trope has, to some extent, influenced the perceptions of Chinese territory among people like me who experienced this curriculum as students. Therefore, in this article, I wanted to explore how such a trope became one of the most recognized territorial tropes and how geographic knowledge production like this could have a long-lasting impact.

In this article, you focus on Yue Fei, a Song dynasty military commander. Why did you choose to expand your modern history to discuss this Song-era figure?

In the process of knowledge production and dissemination in modern China, many concepts and phrases, sometimes considered “new” in the twentieth century, are actually reinterpretations of existing intellectual elements rooted in historical and cultural references. These intellectual elements can be appropriated in different contexts. The historical image of Yue Fei was primarily associated with the “restoring territory” narrative during the 1930s and 1940s. For Chinese patriots of that era, Yue Fei’s declaration, “restore our territory” (還我河山 huan wo heshan), although likely a twentieth-century invention, served as an effective propaganda tool to inspire patriotism. Moreover, the “restore our territory” slogan existed not only in texts; Yue Fei’s calligraphy frequently appeared in newspapers and periodicals during the Japanese invasion. Consequently, “restore our territory,” represented in both textual and visual forms, became another popular method for conceptualizing territory. I aim to highlight the profound historical implications behind “restore our territory” and uncover how it evolved into a significant way of imagining territory in Nationalist China, rather than merely treating it as a patriotic cliché.

How does your history of conceptualizations of Chinese territory speak to the overall history of Republican China?

I believe that by revisiting the conceptualizations of Chinese territory, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the myriad state-building efforts of the 1930s and 1940s. Discussing various territorial conceptualizations can further elucidate how the concept of the nation-state took shape in daily life during the Nationalist period. Moreover, this article focuses on visuals usually created by nonstate historical actors. It provides a perspective on how the concepts of the nation-state and territory were constructed in the Nationalist period through knowledge production and dissemination that were not necessarily driven by official initiatives.

In this article, you argue that the conceptualization of China as a mulberry leaf under attack by silkworms representing the imperial powers was a collective effort by authors, artists, and their audiences. How does this history add to our understanding of nationalism in China?

I view the creation and dissemination of the leaf trope as a dynamic process actively engaged with by all participants, including authors, illustrators, map-makers, and their audiences. The interpretation, adaptation, and reception of historical metaphors and cultural tropes, especially in the context of foreign incursions, collectively contribute to the emergence of geographic nationalism. Therefore, tracing the historical and cultural underpinnings embedded within the leaf trope can provide a multifaceted understanding of nationalism in China. This understanding acknowledges that the rise of geographic nationalism partly stems from grassroots efforts in society, where various intellectual resources have been appropriated. This is not to overlook the role of the state and official initiatives in shaping territorial concepts; indeed, my current book project investigates how the Nationalist regime sought to create official territorial narratives through various means and how this also influenced visions of the Chinese state. However, this article aims to highlight the diverse processes of knowledge production that spurred geographic nationalism, which may not always align with state agendas.

Your article is an interesting study on imagining Chinese territory as a mulberry leaf. How did you conduct this research?

The leaf trope is one of the ways of imagining Chinese territory, among others, that is discussed in the article. While conducting this research, my goal was to look beyond textual sources and explore visual historical materials as extensively as possible. I collected many textual and visual materials related to territorial imagination and geographic education from the Textbook Library of the National Academy for Educational Research in Taipei. I also came across some interesting maps and atlases in libraries across the United States, which allowed me to further my analysis of the production and dissemination of visual geographic knowledge. Additionally, I used sources from periodicals and newspapers of the Republican period, most of which are available in online databases. My goal is to treat visual sources and imaginative visuals depicted in textual sources as central to my study, rather than merely viewing them as background props.

In the article, you touch on children’s textbooks and other popular cultural products depicting the narrative of national humiliation. How do these materials expand historical discussions on national humiliation?

“Touch on” is an appropriate description, since the focus of the article is on ways of imagining territory, rather than providing an in-depth analysis of the concept of national humiliation. There is already substantial scholarship on the concept of national humiliation and on maps titled “national humiliation.” The cases discussed in this article aim to demonstrate that the concept of national humiliation can be found in diverse mediums and contexts. In the narratives about geographic knowledge and territorial imagination during the 1930s and 1940s, “national humiliation” and “lost territory” are often linked; to many, it was the “lost territory” that had led to “national humiliation.” Revisiting the “sense of loss” during that time may further our understanding of the concept of national humiliation. I addressed several “national humiliation maps” in my dissertation, and my book project will further explore this genre from the perspectives of publishing history and knowledge production.

Prior works have discussed the conceptualizations of territory in modern China. How does your research complicate or complement these prior works?

I hope this article contributes to the field by offering a close look at visuals that contain many interesting messages, if we consider them more than just background. As this article mentions, even when authors wrote about textual conceptualizations of territory, they illustrated an imagined landscape. When readers engage with these descriptions of territory, they simultaneously visualize their own conceptions of Chinese territory. Therefore, research on conceptualizations of territory could benefit from more visual analysis.

Furthermore, this article aims to contextualize certain narratives regarding the conceptualizations of territory. Taking the leaf trope as an example, beyond the superficial resemblance in shapes, embedded historical and cultural references further solidified the leaf trope in the collective memory. The territorial discourses of the 1930s and 1940s unfolded against a backdrop of foreign aggression, but beyond the obvious catalyst of warfare, why did certain narratives of territorial imagination become more popular than others? This requires a deeper exploration of the influence of many “intellectual resources” from the past.

I also hope that the article offers some glimpses into how conceptualizations of territory were disseminated and received by the public. My book project will devote more space to this issue.

How does your study speak to continuing debates on the borders and geographic definition of China today?

Territorial conceptualizations, especially at the grassroots level, do not always align with official definitions of borders. Conversely, in the case of the Nationalist regime, state cartographic surveys and “frontier research” projects played a crucial role in defining boundaries and territorial disputes. This article aims to highlight how certain ways of imagining territory have become part of collective memories and shaped national identity. Even if they provide only a vague impression, these conceptualizations can create preconceived notions of territory and stir patriotic emotions. The examples mentioned in this article, which explore how people have imagined what constitutes Chinese territory, can provide historical context for the public’s reaction to territorial debates.

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

Yes, this article is partly derived from my dissertation and includes some ideas that I plan to expand upon in my current book project. The project, Imagining Sovereignty: Maps and State-Building in Modern China, investigates the role of maps and related visuals in forming perceptions of territory, sovereignty, and national identity in modern China. It examines the initiatives taken by the Nationalist regime in cartographic surveys and map oversight as it sought to craft a unified territorial narrative. The book project further explores the cultural and political implications of territorial imagery that emerged during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. Additionally, I plan to analyze territorial imaginations in Taiwan under the Nationalist regime.

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

I hope this research provides another perspective on the history of territorial conceptualization and encourages more engagement with visual primary sources in the field of modern Chinese state-building. Also, by contextualizing various territorial imaginations from the early twentieth century, we can further our understanding of how contemporary territorial claims may have been similarly shaped.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

My goal is to complete the book project that offers a more comprehensive investigation into the enduring influence of maps and visual representations of territorial knowledge, as well as the continuous importance of both producing and interpreting visual-based territorial representations in shaping national identity and patriotism in modern China. The book project will also examine various initiatives of the Nationalist regime, including frontier studies, cartographic surveys, and regulations for map publishing.

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

This project has been inspired by the concepts presented in Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1994). I have also benefited from works on geographic education in modern China, especially Robert Culp’s Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1940 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007) and Peter Zarrow’s Educating China: Knowledge, Society, and Textbooks in a Modernizing World, 1902–1937 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Conceptually, my research has benefited from the scholarship of Professor Wang Fan-sen (王汎森) of Academia Sinica, Taiwan. I recommend all of his works on intellectual and cultural history, which span from the Ming era to modern times.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

I would like to thank Twentieth-Century China for providing this platform to share my thoughts and for making this article open access. Readers, I thank you for your time and hope you find the article enjoyable.