Interdisciplinary panel on China views distant past, present and future

Interest in China is strong, and scholars and students alike continue to be intrigued by the country, whether viewing it through the lens of the past two or 2,000 years. That intrigue proved evident on Thursday, Jan. 28, when a record 110 people crowded into a room in York Lanes for the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) monthly Research Matters event.

The focus of the event was on China, and attendees were anxious to get insight from researchers on the country’s history, culture and rising international prominence.

Martin SingerMartin Singer (right), dean of LA&PS and a historian of China, opened the session and recalled how his own fascination with China began when he was an undergraduate student. Despite some skepticism from family and friends about the career prospects of specializing in such an area, Singer went on to pursue graduate studies in Chinese history at the University of Michigan. Before Singer became a professor at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University in 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau surprised Canadians with his journey to China and the relations he established. The PM’s visit was quickly followed by a visit by US President Richard Nixon. These high-level delegations clearly indicated that China’s importance was rapidly increasing on a global scale.

Though China and Canada were just beginning to develop a mutual understanding of one another in the 1970s, Singer noted, "York University was a powerhouse of China-related activity at the time." He welcomed the continued commitment to sinology today, pointing to the tremendous wealth of expertise on China in LA&PS and across the University.

Joshua Fogel (right), Canada Research Chair in the History of Modern China in the Department of History, reached deep into the past to illuminate the historiography of a 2,000-year-old golden seal, originally given by Emperor Guangwu to an emissary from Japan in 57 CE – the first known material object exchanged between China and Japan. It was unearthed in 1784 in a Japanese farmer’s field and, since then, there has been much debate about its true nature and the implications of the characters inscribed on it.

Some scholars believe that the seal is authentic and holds great significance, while others claim that it is an outright forgery. Fogel is writing a book on the debate, which he hopes will shed some light on the true meaning of the seal and its implications.

Professor Lee Li of the School of Administrative Studies discussed why Chinese companies seem to enjoy a competitive advantage in world markets. His research looks beyond the commonly held belief and superficial claim that China’s economic dominance originates simply in its low-cost labour. If low-cost labour was the key to such success, Li argued, then why aren’t other developing economies experiencing the same advantage?

Li asserted that the advantage Chinese companies enjoy results from a number of interconnected factors, including cost-leadership; a diverse bundle of valuable resources; efficient production methods; a robust, domestic market demand; strong cultural and related industries; and a focus on developing partnerships with Western companies that enable them to learn and adopt various manufacturing, management and research-and-development innovations.

Right: Professor Lee Li discusses his research into China’s competitive edge on the global stage

The two speakers following Li talked about their research on China in a much more experiential way. Both professors have deep ties and have developed long-term relationships with the country and its people.

David Lumsden, chair and undergraduate program director in the Department of Anthropology, spoke about the contingent nature of the research enterprise, the serendipitous opportunities that have led to his projects and how he came to be a China scholar. Lumsden was the master of Bethune College from 1983 to 1989 and credits his initial interest in the country to fellow scholar Rod Stewart and visiting international students. In 2006, he embarked upon a two-year sabbatical at Southwest University in Chongqing, China, where he taught graduate students and conducted research on the impact of Chinese reforms on peasants and migrant workers flooding into cities. Lumsden received the Great Wall Friendship Award, China’s highest award for foreigners, in 2008.

Left: Professor David Lumsden

The final speaker was Professor Bernie Frolic of the Department of Political Science, director of the Asian Business & Management Program in the York Centre for Asian Research and the Schulich School of Business. He also worked as first secretary, cultural, at the Canadian Embassy in China in the mid-1970s. Frolic discussed the subject of the book for which he is currently doing research: contemporary Canada-China relations. He detailed his difficulties in accessing information from government files and the restrictions placed on his ability to record what he had access to.

Left: Professor Bernie Frolic

Frolic noted the essentially consistent nature of Canada-China relations, regardless of political leadership in Ottawa, from the 1970s until 2005. Engagement between the two all but ended at this time and only recently have relations improved. One of the greatest challenges, he lamented, has been accessing information about the current government’s relations with China. As a result, the best he could do with all of his research was to deliver an approximate depiction of relations. He noted, "I settled for an impressionistic painting rather than a photograph."

For more information, watch a video of the presentations online, or click through an edited version of the speakers’ onscreen presentations, both are available on the Research Matters Web site.