Presenting my own research, and finding place in world history

Started off my spring break last weekend with a visit to Savannah, to attend my first history conference. It was a fairly small assembly, the Georgia Association of Historians annual conference, but I was fairly nervous because I was presenting my paper on Young J. Allen and his mission and education work in China. This was my debut  as a historian, more or less, since this is what we do, talk about our research with each other. In a way, this was what I most worried about--concerned that I wouldn't be able to answer a question, or someone would grill me or point out a gaping hole I had somehow missed. It was unnecessary worrying. I've spent awhile on this paper, had the luxury of more time with it than other busy historians and professors have with newer ideas and less structured research topics, so I need not have worried over any hypothetical holes. That is not to say my work on Allen is done--it probably never will be. And my fellow panelists had several very interesting thoughts on avenues to pursue to further develop my paper and argument about the life and times of the Methodist educator. My voice never quavered, and I went away feeling satisfied and more confident. I sometimes have inklings that perhaps I am a fraud, undeserved to have my name down next to PhDs and seasoned professors and professional historians. I feel a little less so each day, and this was a big step in the right direction.

My panel fell in the last session out of five over the weekend. I attended a couple of the ones before it, the highlight being a panel of authors and editors of an upcoming history text for the survey-level world history course at the college level. The collaborators are all professors at University of West Georgia, and what they are creating is inspiring: a textbook, in two volumes, that tells the larger themes and histories of the world using place as the vehicle. Following a roughly chronological order, the author of each chapter takes the history of a specific city in the world that has larger significance in the scope of world history, and, because that author has been selected for their own connection to and expertise on the city, they can convey some of that personal connection to the student. If the work is as successful as the three chapters that were presented, world history will come across in a more personal way than any survey class textbook or method or pedagogy that I ever had--in high school or college.

I have personal beef with world history classes, as I always feel they have failed me. Somehow getting to all the political, social, cultural, linguistic, religious, technological, and other aspects of the human past across in any sort of order is our goal, and I've never felt I got all I could have from them. I get mixed up, twisted around, many important parts fall by the wayside in an effort to cram the "important" stuff. Ironic that I really do enjoy history, but have never done well in my own world history classes--literally I have poor grades to show for them.

My master's program so far has facilitated an ongoing conversation (with myself, but also with professors and classmates) about place, about what it means to residents and foreigners and immigrants and displaced people. About what it means to have a place or to be without one, about the literal and also figurative meaning and position of place in American history and world history, in family history, and local and regional history. Hearing that there will soon be a survey class textbook based on place, that conveys the complexity and drama of our global past via Xian, Crete, Mecca, Samarkand, Cape Town, Paris, Berlin, Dubai--it truly gives me hope for a course that I have had a lot of issues with in my own experience.

(The person who conceived the concept for this book is Elaine MacKinnon, who chaired the panel I attended. The book's working title is Places of Encounter: Time, Place and Connectivity in World History, slated to be published by CQ Press. Couldn't find much on this book online yet, but let's hope it gets more exposure soon.)

A hybrid port city on the coast of China: Shanghai, good and bad

Rev. Young John Allen, the man I spent last semester studying, was a foreigner living in Shanghai in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his day, the city was the only port open to the outside, although more would open as time went on. It was through Shanghai, then, that the world's collection of people came to see and trade with China, creating the "hybrid that confounds the very idea of East and West," as Brook Larmer writes in "Shanghai Dreams," in this month's National Geographic.

I felt that hybridity when I stayed there. I had been in other far more Chinese cities for nearly two months, and by the time I arrived in Shanghai at the end of my journey, it almost felt like I had already landed back in the West: Raisin Bran was for sale in the grocer's, stores accepted credit cards, and there was an H&M. My hotel charged inordinate daily prices on wifi, which I found insulting given the amount I had been paying in other dormitories and hotels across the country.

As the meeting place between East and West though, Shanghai is not the sell-out I considered it when I arrived three years ago coming off a wave of what I then saw as "real China"--the interior cities and Beijing. For the other places were certainly modern, and had their western influences, and contained millions of people, years of history, and Chinese culture in each of them. But they seemed to me to contain something less obstructed by the outside than Shanghai. But that is not the right way to approach it.

In this city, when immigrants were coming, like Young J. Allen, from abroad, they were bringing to the city their own background, creating something altogether unlike the rest of China, and which would forever alter its make-up. It is an oft-seen geographical trend, a city growing into something quite unlike its surroundings, as New York City is entirely separate in culture from its New York state, and is a place quite its own compared to the United States. The "exotic stew of British bankers and Russian dancing girls, American missionaries and French socialites, Jewish refugees and turbaned Sikh security guards" that Larmer describes all contributed quite disparate pieces of a larger patchwork that would become its own Babylon. But atop these imports was the huge amount of Chinese migrants joining the mixture in the city; everyone contributed to what has since been dubbed haipai (Shanghai style).

Initially I dismissed Shanghai for some of those very reasons, that intermingling of a century of foreign visitors with Shanghai natives and migrant workers, combined with the struggle the city faced during the crack-down on culture and foreign influences during the communist era-- I found it translated into pseudo-Chinese buildings that had obviously been constructed within the last ten years and street markets that catered almost entirely to tourists and visitors seeking Chinese intrigue. But looking at this in a positive light, the city really does stand alone against the country in which it lies, even given its tourist facade and foreign cereals.

Young J. Allen spent his entire adult life working towards educating Chinese citizens in and around Shanghai about western ideas and religion. He used the schools he built, the sermons he preached, and the journals he published as outlets for this goal, and earned respect and criticisms throughout his life for these methods. He was a missionary, after all, and most Chinese were not receptive to his Christian message at the time. Today, however, Jinlin Church in Shanghai stands in his honor. When rethinking the city, Allen's mission contributed to the Shanghai of today. There is valuable culture in each layer that has been added to the port city's personality.

Shanghai resident Shen Hongfei, interviewed in Larmer's story, may have hit the nail on the head: "We're always accused of worshiping foreigners. But taking foreign ideas and making them our own has made us the most advanced place in China." Allen may have felt frustrated trying to spread his message in his Shanghai, but the citizens living there were equally frustrated by the pushy foreigners. And coming from that exchange is a city culture all its own, blending some of those imported ideas with Confucian ones, every side compromising a little to create the place we know today.

Adventures in an undergrad history thesis, or, four months with Young John Allen

The fall semester has ended, and with it, the largest writing project of my life (so far). The function of a senior seminar in history is to prove that you've acquired the skills to read and analyze scholarly work, do research in primary and secondary sources, and develop your own historical argument-- one that contributes to a larger body of work. The final written product needed to be around the 6000-word ballpark; we had four months to become semi-experts on the subjects we were researching, enough time to hopefully learn enough that our own thesis could grow out of the discoveries we made while reading. We read.

For two months we read an array of articles from the Georgia Historical Quarterly, on various topics in Georgia history from the Civil War to the early 1970s. During this time, we were each seeking to become well-read in our respective areas of interest, often guided through the sources by our professor, Dr. David Parker. Then around the end of September, we stopped meeting to discuss articles and hypothetical topics and started using that class time to scour the archives, the library, and the research databases we'd used to much less extent in previous classes: we had to come up with a thesis and flesh it out into a contextual and well-argued history thesis by Dec. 7.

No pressure.

Young J. Allen in his early twenties; he mentions in a letter to his aunt and uncle (who raised him) that he stopped shaving his beard at the outset of the American Civil War. It is apparent that he never picked up the habit again.

I had arrived in this class at the eleventh hour, signing up about two weeks before the start of fall semester-- and without one last prerequisite class I needed. And in fact it was quite surprising to some of my history major friends that I would end up in a Georgia History senior seminar after spending college studying Asia. But several weeks earlier, in mid-July, Dr. Parker and I had found a way to combine these two seemingly unrelated regions: Young John Allen.

Young J. Allen (yes, Young is his first name, not a kindly prefix) graduated from Emory College when it was just a newly-founded school in Oxford, Georgia, and spent his life as a Methodist missionary in Shanghai, China. He left the United States in Dec. 1859 and remained in the Far East until his death there in 1907. His manuscript collection as well as a large library of his own books reside at Emory University in Atlanta, deeming Allen the subject of a day's trek over to the archives at their Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). What started as a fun mini-project for my summer class (which I also took with Dr. Parker) would have to become my senior thesis topic; when else was I going to find a subject that would so perfectly blend documents in Georgia and three years' worth of my knowledge about Chinese culture, language, politics, and religion? Plus, I was raised Methodist, so I would get to know a little more about that history to boot.

What I would discover was much more than the life, failures, and triumphs of Young J. Allen and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in China, but simply how enthralling it is to pour over documents that he poured over more than a century earlier. Call me a dork, or a call me a historian, but it felt utterly like touching history. Thankfully, he had somewhat legible handwriting, so I read what I could of his hand-written letters, journals, sermons, and notes for the books he wrote. It felt romantic in the way it seems when you read The Historian and follow a generation of historians across Cold War Europe in search of Vlad Tepes (the prince who inspired tales of Dracula) but also monotonous in the way that you feel work must inevitably be. The result is a happy medium, a wholly rewarding experience and with any luck, worthwhile when you sit down to write.

What did I find?

Allen would spend his life devoted to not only evangelism but the added social goals of education, journalism, writing, and translating.

I found a man inspired by God, baffled by Confucius, and bound to pragmatism. The state of the young Methodist mission was sad when he arrived, and much as he tried to expand it, the American Civil War stole any hope of support or funding from abroad. Allen and his fellow missionary J. W. Lambuth spent nearly a decade working odd jobs to keep themselves afloat. Their families were present in Shanghai too; in fact, Allen had six children with his wife Mary Houston Allen, but only three survived past toddlerhood. By the time funding returned in any sense, Allen had made his own revelation about Chinese society. The non-receptive citizens he'd been preaching to had been anything but successful; but the young men he taught while working at a government school seemed just the type, the upper class families, who may have more influence in a hierarchical Confucian society. Maybe, he decided, reaching these people first and educating them in western subjects (including but not exclusively Christianity) could later influence more people through the top-down formation of their citizenship. These people would not only receive the accompanying western education that Allen considered paramount, but might have more success at reaching the laypeople with whom he'd become so disenchanted.

Allen spent the rest of his life working to varying degrees in education in Shanghai. The Anglo-Chinese College, Shanghai would eventually merge with two others to become Suzhou University in 1901, which had been one of his life's goals. He would also play his hand in journalism and publishing, using his Wan-kuo kung-pao magazine to propel a combination of world and national news, essays on religion, and attacks on Confucian lifestyle. He contributed many translations of tomes on politics and religion, including The Relations Between East and West that was popular among his colleagues and governmental gentry. He wrote several books of his own as well, including one that you can find on Google Books today (by the way, it's in Chinese!). While he did not abandon his evangelistic goals, he expanded those initial plans by adding his social missions to his ambitious strategy to win converts. He wound up somewhere in between fully accepting Confucian society and fully condemning it, and allowed students to learn about Christianity in a non-pressured way. At the end of the day, he saw both mental and spiritual parts of man to be significant.

My thesis touches on this and other aspects of what made Allen a combination of the two worlds of missionary work that grew out of that late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Americans and other missionaries encountered reluctant natives in the field; a strong camp of traditional strictly evangelical missionaries would go forth alongside the newer social progress proponents. It wound up being around 8000 words (thirty pages double-spaced). I had an embarrassing number of library books checked out from mine and other university libraries across Georgia.

It was an incredible exercise in being a historian. Almost every person in my ten-student class ended up spending at least a few days in an archive somewhere in Georgia, from Emory to Koinonia Farm and in between. What any of these theses will become in the future remains to be seen, but I think we all felt like historians during those months. I am one of the only living experts on Young J. Allen, and I think that's pretty darn cool.