Images courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Top: Surveyors on parade

Middle: Weight measurement for students

Bottom: Bicycle training for surveyor trainees


Copyright Tong Lam . All rights reserved. 


In the turn of the twentieth century, as a result of China’s ongoing domestic unrest and foreign encroachments, Chinese intellectuals and elites worked to transform the dynastic empire into a nation-state to ensure its survival. Central to this process was not only political and institutional changes, but also new technologies of government that entailed drastically different ways of thinking about what was considered as legitimate knowledge and admissible evidence. This involved particularly the rise of the social survey as a pivotal mode of knowledge production, as well as “the fact” as a basic conceptual medium and source of truth about the world. Focusing especially on the history of the Chinese social survey movement in the first half of the twentieth century, this book analyzes how social facts generated by a diverse range of survey practices such as census, sociological investigation, and ethnography were mobilized by competing political factions to imagine, manage, and remake the nation. It also shows how the production of social facts was itself a mass mobilization that involved not just the training of credible observers but also the making of new political subjects. By placing this previously unexamined dimension of Chinese history in a global context, A Passion for Facts is a study of the histories of science, sentiment, colonialism, nationalism, and modern governance. As well, it sheds lights on the unusual pattern of political and economic development in China’s post-revolutionary era.


List of Illustrations


1. The Rise of the Fact and the Reimagining of China
2. From Divide and Rule to Combine and Count
3. Foolish People versus Soulstealers
4. The Nationalization of Facts and the Affective State
5. Time, Space, and State Effect
6. China as a Social Laboratory




“This fascinating book is a fundamental contribution to the global history of social science. Tong Lam demonstrates how Chinese reformers struggled to build a modern society on a foundation of facts and statistics. Their ambitions were no mere dream, but were made real in a prodigious social survey movement which aimed as much to enlighten peasants as to inform administrators.” —Theodore Porter, author of Trust in Numbers

“Lam’s approach is highly original. A Passion for Facts presents an impressive host of new material from Chinese and American archives that challenges interpretations of China and Chinese exceptionalism or independent development. Lam makes a compelling argument that the techniques developed in the early twentieth century and refined over several decades have been critical to state-building in China.” —James L. Hevia, author of English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth Century China

“Lam supersedes the current ‘China-centered approach’ and the earlier framework that explained ‘modern China’ in light of global colonialism. He illuminates how the search for ‘facts’ empowered modern Chinese to reimagine their social and political realities in a global colonial context.” —Benjamin A. Elman, Chair, East Asian Studies Department, Princeton University


"Tong Lam's rich and provocative [study] should be of interest to all scholars of China, and because Lam engages so seriously with such an impressive range of secondary literatures, his work should also attract historians focusing on science, colonialism, modernity, and the state in other areas of the world as well."—Sigrid Schmalzer, American Historical Review

"A rich and focused work that will appeal to anyone interested in the ways that the concept of the modern nation is shaped by the histories of science, soulstealing, society, and sentiment."—Carla Nappi, New Books In East Asian Studies

"It is a splendid achievement... Lam's excellent book deserves to be widely read."—Fa-ti Fan, The Journal of Asian Studies

"Based on the use of extensive archival materials, the book is well written and a fascinating read. It will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of historical sociology, historical demography, cultural sociology, and the history of social science of China.—Guobin Yang, American Journal of Sociology

"A remarkable contribution to the historical epistemology of the social sciences, A Passion for Facts crystallizes the complex historical trajectory in which the transmission of modern Western social survey empiricism in twentieth century China nested long-standing indigenous preoccupations with truths about society and the details of human life.""—Howard Chiang, ISIS

"Readers will find A Passion for Facts compellingly written, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking."—Maggie Clinton, The China Beat/Twentieth-Century China

"The author's ingenuity is also evidence in his examination of the emergence of the 'social survey movement' as a global event, thereby linking nation-building in China with the rise of scientism in other regions and countries... Scholars of China as well as scholars outside that field will find much of interest in the book."—Q. Edward Wang, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Lam's study provides a much-needed critical evaluation of survey data from this period that scholars today continue to use as value-neutral empirical facts..."—Matthew Z. Noellert, Chinese Historical Review

"The book will speak to students and scholars in Chinese studies as well as to historians of transnational history and those interested in the historical social science. It is a major contribution to our understanding of the multifarious processes of nation-building, the trajectories of epistemological shifts, the everyday contestations of 'facts,' and the history of surveys and social sciences in China."—Jennifer E. Altehenger, The China Quarterly

"Lam’s observation on the significance of the [Qing] census provides an important corrective to much of the scholarship of the last two decades, which often tends either to overemphasize the continuity between dynastic statecraft and the political technologies of the Chinese modern state, or to overstress the abrupt nature of the change."—Michael T. W. Tsin, Social History

"Rich, persuasive studies [that] open new avenues of inquiry for the second half of the twentieth century."—Robert Culp, Cross-Currents

"A valuable attempt to understand modern Chinese history from the perspective of world history and engage in conversation with non-Chinese historians at theoretical and metanarrative levels."—Liu Wenwen, Journal of World History

"Lam's intensive and engaging book... inspires readers to think of more questions and thus opens more topics for future research."—Yu-ling Huang, East Asia Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal

" 本書的理論基礎深厚,作者嫻熟於當代民族主義與殖民理論之相關研究,但他並非原封不動地將理論套用至晚清民初的中國... 除了廓清近代中國社會調查的歷史事實,本書同時揭露了在背後支持著「追求事實」理念的熱誠,從而勾勒出近代中國社會調查的政治、學術、文化與社會等多層次 面貌,值得讀者品味。"張育齊,漢學研究通訊

University of California Press (2011)
hardcover - 280  pages - 9 illustrations

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