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 Political scientist Kevin O'Brien, right, is the latest in a line of CCS chairs that includes sociologist Tom Gold, who now directs the Berkeley China Initiative. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

A half-century of China scholarship at Berkeley
Born at the height of the Cold War, the Center for Chinese Studies remembers the days of Mao and Sputnik - and sees big things ahead

| 19 September 2007

Robert Scalapino joined the Berkeley faculty in 1949, the year Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader of China's Communist Party, took power as the head of the People's Republic of China. It was not until 1959 - following the decade-long "Red Scare" in the U.S. and a deep freeze on relations between the two countries - that Scalapino, a political scientist and Asia expert, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "to try to make contact with China by stages, beginning with an exchange of journalists."

It took until 1961, under President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, for the U.S. to make such an overture, Scalapino said last week. "But the Chinese said until the Taiwan issue is resolved, we cannot move forward."

Recounting some of the obstacles to scholarship at a reunion of past and present luminaries at Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies, Scalapino - the first director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, the center's parent entity, from 1979-90 - said it was "quite brave of the Center for Chinese Studies to be organized in that period" and to take the first tentative steps toward a fuller understanding of a an ancient civilization that has gone from Soviet-style socialism to capitalist superpower in just 50 years.

The event that brought Scalapino back to campus was a panel discussion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Center for Chinese Studies, whose growth, and growing pains, in many ways echo those of modern China itself. Speakers included past CCS chairs, including Joyce Kallgren (1983-88), David Keightley (1988-90), Tom Gold (1990-94), Wen-Hsin Yeh (1994-2000), and Liu Xin (2000-04), as well as C.P. Chen and Annie Chang, former head librarians at the 100,000-volume CCS Library.

Kallgren recalled how, when the center was located on Shattuck Avenue in the 1960s, there were times when staff and faculty "could see tear gas through the window." Subsequent quarters in the basement of Barrows made it "hard to breathe" and engendered anxiety about potential earthquakes.

Initially, she said, "there was no intent to have a library here - this was a controversial issue." What became one of the nation's most important collections for China scholars began as a small reading room meant to allow a single scholar to pore over government documents for a book he was writing. "The real breakthrough was when Clark Kerr gave the Center for Chinese Studies $50,000 to buy a microfilmed set of materials published in Hong Kong. That was a critical point in terms of moving toward a new library."

Chang added that even by 1974, when she started work at the library, "you really couldn't get very many materials" - a few periodicals, such as the Chinese Communist Party-controlled People's Daily, and "whatever a book dealer in Hong Kong could get to us," including titles on topics like "how to raise chickens."

By the 1990s - when Chang retired as head librarian - China had undergone what Yeh later described as "an enormous opening up." The resulting flood of information and ideas allowed China studies to flourish as well, and helped boost Berkeley to the ranks of the nation's undisputed leaders in China scholarship.

'The study of everything'

Days before the reunion, two faculty members with critical roles in the center today - Kevin O'Brien, its current chair, and Tom Gold, its chair from 1990 to 1994 and now the director of its fundraising arm, the Berkeley China Initiative - met at CCS headquarters, above the Cal athletics ticket office, to discuss the difference a few decades can make.

"I was 15 years old when Nixon went to China," recalled O'Brien, like Scalapino and Kallgren a political scientist. "And, as a typical alienated suburban kid, I saw a different system. It was the end of the Vietnam war, and I saw a system that seemed to be working on its own principles. And it just fascinated me."

"I was born three or four days after Sputnik," O'Brien said, referring to the Soviet Union's shocking satellite launch in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. "So I'm a child of exactly the generation of the Center for Chinese Studies." He started graduate school 22 years later, just as U.S.-China relations were thawing. "I was really in the first generation of people who knew they could go to China," he said. "Tom, just five or six years before, wasn't sure. [His generation] might have had to study China like ancient Greece or ancient Rome."

In fact, Gold, a sociologist, was part of the first government-sponsored group of exchange students to visit China in 1979. O'Brien traveled there for the first time in 1981. They discovered a culture far removed from the one they knew, and one that's scarcely recognizable from that found in China today.

"Women were still walking around on hobbled feet from foot-binding," recalled O'Brien. "What's happened in China in the last 60 or 70 years is just amazing - to think there were still people alive in the '80s and '90s who had had their feet bound. Now it's more modern than modern. And that provides opportunities for all of us."

"All of us," in this case, encompasses some 70 scholars in disciplines ranging from political science, sociology, and history - fields O'Brien dubs "the old bread and butter" - to agricultural economics, public health, art history, and architecture. Only a decade ago, the center could divide its $48,000 in available fellowship money among just three grad students. Last year, with dozens of applications, the Center spread its $62,000 fellowship budget among 13 different departments.

That budget got a significant boost recently with a $250,000 gift from the family of Elvera Kwang Siam Lim, a biologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who passed away last year in Oakland. With the aid of funds from the chancellor’s matching-gift program, the gift will yield $10,000 fellowships for two continuing graduate students, with preference given to those from schools or colleges in Shantou, in southern China’s Guangdong Province — where Lim was born in 1928 — or the surrounding region. The gift also establishes an annual memorial lecture in Lim’s name.

O'Brien and Gold hope to build up the center's endowment as a means of making the CCS the clearinghouse for all of the campus's far-flung China scholarship, as well as a nexus for interaction between the university and those in the Bay Area with an interest - academic, commercial, or otherwise - in things Chinese. The center runs about 100 programs a year, "several dozen" of which are organized by other campus entities, according to O'Brien. "We come in to advertise, to promote, to be the place where people can find out what's happening in China studies - and China studies defined in a way you couldn't have imagined before."

“The study of everything involves the study of China now,” O’Brien said. “And that wasn’t true just 10 years ago. Everybody on this campus has something to with China.”

"We're trying to put together combinations of people in areas of expertise that nobody else is doing," explained Gold. With the aid of a three-year grant from the Luce Foundation, he and O'Brien are spearheading a December conference on "China's Environment: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?" The two-day meeting will bring together people from the U.S., Europe, and Asia working in NGOs, the social sciences and humanities, business, policy, and other spheres to discuss data they've collected on various aspects of the Chinese environment. "We're looking for interesting combinations of people in earth and planetary science, and history, and maybe forestry who are looking at a similar region," said Gold, "in order to generate fresh questions that people wouldn't otherwise have thought of."

More generally, said O'Brien, "What we're trying to do is expand China studies in a massive way, and we here at the Center for Chinese Studies hope to be the recipients of all the hard work that Tom and the rest of us are doing to tap into the Bay Area, to tap into all of our graduates and to the enormous interest in China we have here, and to redirect it, particularly into building up our endowment."

Like China itself, the Center for Chinese Studies is making the difficult transition to a new economic model. In contrast to its early days - and particularly the 1990s, when Gold, dependent on dwindling state funding, oversaw a series of cutbacks in the center's operations - achieving financial self-sufficiency could lay the foundation for its next 50 years.

For more about the Center for Chinese Studies - and details of upcoming events - visit the center's website at ieas.berkeley.edu/ccs.