Q&A with history professor Pamela Crossley

by Charles Chen | 1/10/19 3:00am

Pamela Crossley is a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and is the Charles and Elfriede Collis professor of history. Her focus is on modern Chinese history and the Qing dynasty, but she has also researched and written about central Asian history, the Mongols and global history. Crossley has authored numerous books and two textbooks, and her work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC among many others. She teaches several courses involving Chinese history and the Mongols. She taught History 74, “Intellectual History of East Asia,” last fall and is teaching History 72, “Late Imperial China in Global Context” this term. Her newest book, “Hammer and Anvil: Nomad Rulers at the Forge of the Modern World” came out last December.

What first got you interested in history?

PC: That’d be so far back I couldn’t remember! I don’t know … life?

What brought you to study East Asia and the Qing Dynasty and modern China in particular?

PC: I think it built up over various things. My last year in high school was the last year of the war in Vietnam, so I had an idea that when I went to college I could take a course in Vietnamese history. But the college I went to was too small — they had Chinese history and not Vietnamese history. By coincidence, a lot of the people I was close to in college were people of Chinese background, from Taiwan [and] Hong Kong, and they spoke Chinese a lot. I was recruited for a Chinese language class. I took some courses on Chinese history because that as close I could get, and it turns out that was really, really interesting. I was an English literature major, but I took these courses and my Chinese history professor suggested that maybe I could go to graduate school in Chinese history. I did, and it all worked out! As for the Qing, I think it’s a little different now, but at the time I was in graduate school [the Qing dynasty] was the biggest field. Most people were doing that. It is very interesting, but there were just almost inexhaustible documents to work on and if you want to understand modern China, the Qing is the place to look. I also had a fantastic advisor. It was gradual.

What led you to Dartmouth?

PC: Dartmouth offered me a job! Really, in this field that’s what it amounts to. They reached out to me, because of some people that were on the faculty here, I accepted the job, and once I was here, it turned out it’s a fantastic place to live!

You are considered a leading scholar associated with the New Qing History school of thought. Could you tell me a little about what it is and your work within it?

PC: What you say is true, but also false. From early on, I wrote very critical essays about the very idea of “New Qing History”. That’s a label that some people decided to put on themselves, and I never have. I think their work has followed in a lot of paths that I originally did, but I don’t believe in a label like that. I think what people are referring to when they refer to “New Qing History” is the tendency of historians, not just Chinese but American as well, to look at issues like comparative empires, conquest and imperialism, looking at the Qing as one of the great overland empires of the early-modern period. I don’t think there is such a thing.

Your work has also faced criticism, notably by Chinese scholars. What are these scholars responding to?

PC: They don’t say, but they don’t want the Qing Dynasty to be seen as an empire of conquest. I don’t know what an empire of non-conquest would be, but this was an idea that was embedded in American scholarship on China for a long time, that empires in China just get real big. That China started out as this small thing on the Yellow r\River and it just gets bigger because everybody wants to become Chinese and become part of the Chinese empire.

Can you tell me a little about your current research or work?

PC: I have a book coming out on the role of conquest empires between the medieval and the early modern period and setting up the conditions of modernity in Eurasia, and I’m working on a book about a famous Chinese merchant called Wu Bingjian, and Cambridge University Press has asked me to do my own history of the Qing.

Can you tell about the process you go through when writing your books?

PC: I’m just contrasting the way I might have done it at the beginning of my career to the way I would do it now. When you’re first starting out as a historian, the real object is to get training in developing original knowledge, so you’re working in the archives and trying to find out stuff that people never knew before, and the main skill of historians is being able to analyze and evaluate information. How reliable is it? What is the meaning of it when you put it in context? So you do all that at first, but later you get into comparative perspectives and some broader treatment. Then, you might be reliant on your own scholarship but also on a lot of other people’s. At that point you’re doing a kind of synthetic project. The two [books] that I just mentioned, one is the first type — I’ll be working with archives and original information in relation to Wu Bingjian. But for the second, I’ll be using my scholarship and ideas that I’ve built up over … now, many years, but then I’ll be using a lot of other people’s scholarship as well, put it all together, and do my sort of ‘grand narrative’ of the Qing.

Do you have any advice for students interested in studying history at Dartmouth?

PC: They should do it. History is about information. I think information is important to what everybody does. History is one of those fields where we are trained to deal with information at the rawest form. Before others can even see it as information, we have to start dealing with it. A lot of other people are into analyzing information, processing information; we are actually trying to see exactly how information gets generated. I think that’s an enormously valuable skill, and I would recommend to anyone that goes to Dartmouth.

If you could travel to any point in history, whether for pleasure or knowledge, where and when would you go?

PC: Any point in history … Well, I’m a woman, so I don’t want to go back in time. I think I would stay here, and I expect a hundred years from now any woman you would ask would say she wanted to stay then. It’s really interesting now, and I expect people 50 to 100 years from now are going to be really, really curious about what’s it’s like to be alive now. So this is good.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.