China-US / People

Richard Smith: The accidental China expert

By MAY ZHOU in Houston (China Daily USA) Updated: 2014-10-10 06:34

Richard Smith: The accidental China expert

Richard Smith: The accidental China expert

Richard Smith, a professor of humanities and history at Rice University, talks about his scholarly life as an expert on China’s modern history and culture in his office. [MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY]

Richard Smith's expertise on China is such that he can tell a story of the Qing Dynasty through some broken tiles.

A week before a trip to China, members of a Rice University alumni group gathered at the school's presidential residence to hear lectures on Chinese history, culture and current affairs by three experts on China, including Smith.


Richard Smith: The accidental China expert

Passing two pieces of broken glazed tiles with dragon image (partially shown behind Smith on the right in the photo) around the room, Smith prodded the attendees to notice the difference in quality: the one with much better quality was from the peak of the Qing Dynasty, while the other was from its declining years.

"When you tour the Forbidden City, those are the details I want you to pay attention to," said Smith, who was given the tiles during a visit to the Forbidden City when it was under renovation.

A couplet, an original calligraphy work by the famous Qing Dynasty official Li Hongzhang, frames the window of Smith's office on the Rice campus. Bookcases that cover most of the room's walls are lined and stacked with more Chinese than English books - most of them are classic Chinese works, including different versions of I Ching.

Smith is a specialist in modern Chinese history and traditional Chinese culture. He is co-founder of the Baker Institute Transnational China Project and served as the director of Asian Studies at Rice for 15 years. He also helped to secure $15 million to establish the interdisciplinary Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice. Smith called his 41 years of teaching and research at Rice "just a happy accident, a very happy accident."

The "happy accident" has led to Smith publishing 10 books on Chinese history and culture, from Mercenaries and Mandarins: The Ever-Victorious Army in Nineteenth Century China (1978) to his most recent books, Mapping China and Managing the World: Cosmology, Cartography and Culture in Late Imperial Times (2013).

He also has co-edited or co-authored six volumes related to China studies and is working on several articles and two books on Chinese rituals, behaviors and Qing Dynasty.

Smith attended the University of California at Davis and pursued a career in professional baseball in the early 1960s. He met a girl during his junior year: "She was interested in Chinese history so I took the course with her ­- I thought it would be romantic."

Unexpectedly, Smith got very interested in Chinese history: "My professor Liu Kwang-Ching (a leading scholar of 19th century Chinese history) saw some nugget of potential in me. He said to me: If you want to go to graduate school, I will get you into the history program, get you a national fellowship and send you to Stanford for intensive Chinese."

This was at the time of the Vietnam War. To avoid the draft, Smith took Liu's offer and soon married the girl who accidently nudged him onto this path. "I came home one day and announced that I have to get a PhD; we both laughed and thought it's the funniest idea because I was such a non-student."

Professor Liu helped nurture Smith in his scholarly pursuits. "He tutored me in classic Chinese one on one and edited my work line by line," Smith said. "He has a very paternal way of teaching and a very rigorous way of doing research."

Another professor, Luo Rongbang, a grandson of scholar Kang Youwei, also tutored Smith and told him family stories related to the political events in the late part of the Qing Dynasty, which is the focus of Smith's research. "Professor Luo gave me the sense of the breadth of history, and Professor Liu gave me the sense of depth of history."

The late John Fairbank of Harvard and Joseph Needham of Cambridge, both noted scholars on China, also had an impact on his work. "They were good friends and mentors; I was so lucky; I had the best teachers and the best collaborators."

Smith has been to China at least 60 times since 1978. "I did most of my study at the National Library in Beijing and Shanghai Library" during those visits, Smith said. After years of studying Qing history, "I know it better than my own country's history, which is scary," he said.

Smith views Qing as a transitional period between traditional and modern China. "The changes taking place in China have their origin in Qing," he said. "I like to see Qing as the foundation and pre-cursor to the modern era. For example, the modern China boundaries are basically Qing Dynasty boundaries; the multi-ethnic state of China is basically the Qing state that poses interesting problems about ethnic integration."

Seeing the Manchurians as the multiculture ruler is Smith's current research angel. To him, the sinicization of the Manchurians is undeniable, but he is also looking at what the Manchurians had brought into the Chinese traditional culture.

From Qing history, Smith's research extended to Chinese culture and practices, particularly Chinese maps, almanacs and divination. Smith calls himself "the historian of the obvious" and said he likes to "think about how to think about culture."

He views cultural practices as a way to organize and understand life and reality.

Smith considers "superstition" a bad label for practices such as divination: "We all want to understand things that can't be understood directly through science, then these are the psychological and philosophical devices we use."

In studying Chinese culture and practices, Smith was led to its foundation: I Ching. "I spent 10 years trying to understand it," said Smith, who equates the importance and impact of I Ching in Chinese culture to that of the Bible in Western civilization.

His research led to the publishing of The I Ching: A Biography in 2012 in which Smith examines I Ching's evolution from a divination tool to its impact on the philosophy, religion, art, culture, literature, politics, science, technology and medicine throughout the world.

This work is viewed by many China scholars as "a masterpiece of scholarship" and the first book in English to explain the history and impact of this ancient text from a global perspective.

With his deep understanding of Chinese history and culture, Smith has his own perspective on the current trend in China.

"All the current leadership, including Xi Jinping, they emphasize Chinese culture," he said. "So, there is this idea of cultural renaissance or Guoxue, an effort … to tap and connect with the past because there is something there solid and substantial, a source of pride.

"I have been very struck by the New Confucianism - it's a way to build national solidarity and hold on to something that's deep and powerful and important," he said. "No matter how politically calculating it is perceived, there is more to it than that."

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