History Department
History Department

Graduate Student Spotlight: Zhaojin Zeng

Tue, July 10, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Zhaojin Zeng
Zhaojin Zeng, Ph.D.

Hosted by the Institute for Historical Studies, the New Work In Progress (NWP) Series showcases current Ph.D. candidates and their research. While this year’s series has recently concluded, we are continuing to highlight our graduate students on this website with a series of Q&A articles. We will feature both their NWIP papers and different stages of graduate student life post-comprehensive exams, including archival research, teaching, publications, conference presentation, and job placement. This article features Zhaojin Zeng. Zhaojin will join the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences this fall as Visiting Assistant Professor.

Interview by Shery Chanis, Ph.D. Candidate, UT History Dept.

Shery Chanis: In your New Work In Progress paper, you talk about industrial technology in China during the Cold War era. How did you become interested in this topic?
Zhaojin Zeng: During my archival research for my dissertation project, I found that even in the Mao era foreign technology continued to play a very important role in China’s industrial production. China had three major waves of technology transfer in the Cold War era: from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, from Western European countries and Japan in the early 1960s, and from a wider group of both Eastern and Western countries including the United States in the late 1970s (a pattern that continued into the Reform era). It seems to me that the Chinese industrial economy was a Cold War factory, utilizing different technologies between the East and the West. In this paper, I attempt to understand how Chinese factories incorporated these technologies of different national origins and standards into their everyday operation.

Chanis: You emphasize the centrality of the local industry in the making of the modern Chinese economy and you focus on a local case study of a company in the province of Shanxi, the "northern hinterland," as you put it. Remarkably, the company went through five regimes. Can you tell us about this company and how you connect it to state policy and Cold War diplomacy?

Zeng: The company in my case study is one of the regional industrial enterprises founded at the turn of the twentieth century in the aftermath of the 1894 Sino-Japanese War. Started as a fully merchant-managed private corporation, the Baojin Company continued to operate in the northern hinterland of Shanxi through the warlord era under Yan Xishan (1912-1937), the Japanese colonial period (1937-1945), and the People’s Republic (1949-2004). Its history, unique in its archival integrity but common in the overall experience, allows me to explore how the changing state-business relationship shaped the institutions and culture of Chinese factories. Rather than look at how state policy transformed the factories, as most previous studies have done, I shift my focus of analysis from ruptures to continuity in twentieth-century China. One key question I try to answer is how the earlier management, culture, and technology were integrated to the subsequent development of Chinese factories.
Chanis: How does your New Work In Progress Paper fit into your dissertation?
Zeng: My dissertation project examines the rise and fall of industrial factories in China’s hinterland economy from the late imperial Qing to the Reform era. Currently this paper is a spin-off from my larger dissertation project. It uses the materials on technology transfer and management. My goal is to develop it into a journal article on the history of technology, but in the future I think I will do more research on the intersection between industry, technology, and politics. The combination of the three elements is essential to understanding the formation of China’s industrial economy.
Chanis: In Fall 2016, you taught a course titled Modern Chinese Economic and Business History. How did you conceptualize the course? How did you design the course from developing course objectives to choosing topics and readings and deciding the assignments?
Zeng: I see this course as a great opportunity to get students familiarized with the history of China’s economic transformation – how China was able to transform from an agrarian country in the late nineteenth century into a global economic powerhouse and the world’s factory in the early twenty-first century. I structured the course content along the major chronological thread of China’s twentieth century. Topics and readings were selected to reflect major political, economic, and social changes. The main textbook I used in the class was The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence, supplemented by journal articles. I also adopted multimedia options in addition to lecture. When I was teaching the Mao era, for example, we watched documentaries on the Great Leap Forward and factory life in the 1970s-1980s.
Chanis: What was the most rewarding aspect of teaching this course? What was the most challenging aspect?
Zeng: I think the most rewarding as well as the most challenging part of my experience was to get used to the pattern of teaching on a weekly basis: preparing well in advance and getting to class on time each week. Unlike writing your dissertation or doing your own research in the library, which doesn’t require a formal regular work pattern, teaching is so different as you have to be fully committed to your students and the course you teach. No matter what happened, you have to be there to either give a lecture or have some other activities in the classroom, equipped with a normal level of energy and passion. By the way, I think it is really important for graduate students to develop such a working mechanism and apply it to not only teaching but also writing, research, and even life.
Chanis: In your experience, how do teaching and dissertation writing inform each other? How has your dissertation helped your teaching and how has teaching helped your writing?
Zeng: My course is largely based upon the content of my comprehensive exams (comps), which revolved around the economic and business history of modern China. When preparing for my comps, I read the literature in the field widely and collected a lot of very useful teaching/reading materials for this course. My research on industrial factories also allowed me to include several detailed cases into the lecture. Teaching helped my writing as it always pushed me to pay attention to the larger picture and the bigger problems, especially when I tried to include too many details in the dissertation chapters.
Chanis: What advice would you give your fellow graduate students about teaching?
Zeng: Teaching experience seems to be very important for job applications today. But I also fully understand that not everyone could have the opportunity to teach their own course as a graduate student. So, my suggestion for fellow graduate students is working as a TA but thinking like a professor or instructor. Assume you have to stand in front of the whole class and give a lecture for 90 minutes or even more. What would you do? How would you organize your lecture or structure your class? What if you had to lecture for 90 minutes twice a week and then four weeks in a row? How would you sustain it in terms of course content or personal energy? These questions are not hypothetical; this is the real challenge you will have to face as a faculty member. Think about these questions, develop some of your own strategies, and observe history professors’ teaching and then apply it to a course you might teach in the future. Try to think in this cycle and build a teaching mindset.


Above: A Full View of the Baojin Company, 1920.
Source: The Yangquan Iron and Steel Company: A Picture Album, 1995, The Archive Office, Yanggang liushouchu, Shanxi, China.

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