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A Passion for Facts Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900–1949

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The Rise of the Fact and the Reimagining of China

To take such [a scientific] attitude is to seek truth from facts. "Facts" are all the things that exist objectively, "truth" means their internal relations, that is, the laws governing them, and "to seek" means to study. We should proceed from the actual conditions inside and outside the country, the province, county or district, and derive from them, as our guide to action, laws that are inherent in them and not imaginary, that is, we should find the internal relations of the events occurring around us. And in order to do that we must rely not on subjective imagination, not on momentary enthusiasm, not on lifeless books, but on facts that exist objectively.

Mao Zedong

When Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote about the importance of "seeking truth from facts" in guiding the Communist revolution in 1941, he was describing a brief that was already widely shared by Chinese intellectuals from a broad political spectrum. For them, political and military solutions were insufficient in themselves to address the social dislocation and political breakdown caused by the encroachment of colonial powers, the collapse of the longstanding dynastic order, the bitter power struggles among contending warlords and political parties, and now a total war with Japan. They believed that if China were to survive its chaos, its political leaders had to be guided by the right approach, an approach purportedly grounded in science and objective truth instead of in the ostensibly timeless tradition or false ideology that they blamed for the nation's disintegration. Only by examining facts carefully, they insisted, could the truth about Chinese society and the proper way of remaking it become self-evident.

But this conviction that empirical facts somehow held the key to social reform and nation building, however prevalent by this time, was actually remarkably novel on the Chinese intellectual and political scene, even though the expression of "seeking truth from facts" had long been used by Neo-Confucian scholars to describe their empirical inquiries into the human and natural worlds. Just a century earlier, when American missionary and linguist Samuel Wells Williams (1812-84) first published his monumental study of China, The Middle Kingdom (1848), one of his biggest complaints was that Chinese censuses were full of "discrepancies and inaccuracies." Written at a time when statistics and social science were still geminating, Williams's work was not so much a social scientific analysis of China but instead was in line with the tradition of political arithmetic that sought to use numbers to compare state strengths. Nonetheless, his comment, made at the onset of China's violent encounter with the industrial West, was evidence of the growing frustration among Western observers who considered China incomprehensible due to the absence of reliable facts that were commensurable with their own conceptual framework. This idea of China as a place without facts not only frustrated Western social experts and practitioners; eventually it also compelled Chinese authorities and intellectuals to scramble for facts about their country, for they hoped that these facts could help to elucidate and transform the moral and material conditions of Chinese society.

This chapter is an examination of the rise and transformative power of the fact as a conceptual medium in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to provide a context to make sense of the profound cultural shift and ramifications that will be discussed in later chapters. Although my focus here is on the moment of epistemological encounter and its political effects, my intention is not to approach this historical episode in terms of the essentializing binaries of East versus West or tradition versus modernity by suggesting that empiricism and quantitative precision were innate only to European civilization. It is important to emphasize that both Europe and China, in part because of mutual economic and cultural influences, had experienced rapid changes in the centuries leading up to their violent encounters in the nineteenth century. Moreover, just as early modern European thinkers had reversed their earlier skepticism about empirical evidence and called for quantitative precision in political thinking, their Chinese counterparts also increasingly came to affirm the role of empirical evidence in statecraft and scholarship. Meanwhile, the "culture of fact" that first emerged in Europe during the early modern era had also undergone drastic changes in the subsequent centuries. As a result of economic and political upheavals starting at the end of the eighteenth century, the older paradigm of "political arithmetic" that used numbers and measurements as the basis of political discourse was replaced by a new statistical science that was inseparable from the new realities of the emerging nation-based empires, colonialism, industrialization, and global capitalism. While economic development followed a rather different path in China, territorial expansion, economic prosperity, and population growth during the early and mid-Qing dynasty (1644-1912) also led to innovations in statecraft theory and practice. My discussion of the rise of the fact as a conceptual medium to make sense of China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is situated precisely at this historical juncture where multiple changing cultural paradigms, economic systems, and political structures converged and collided.

Particularly, I argue that the perceived Chinese factual deficiencies became an obsession not only for Chinese cultural and political elites; the desire to overcome this weakness also provided a new condition for the masses to make sense of their social and political existence afresh. Central to this process was the rise of a certain kind of conceptual thinking, what Talal Asad has called "strong languages," exemplified by statistics and social science that could afford to ignore all local differences in order to produce a standardized and commensurable framework of knowledge that claimed to be universally applicable. Compelled by this strong language, the late Qing regime was the first in China to embark on new census and survey projects to reconceptualize and convert its diverse populations and territories into a unified social body and geobody. In the decades after the collapse of the Qing in 1912, the Nationalist and Communist regimes, as well as a broad spectrum of intellectuals who may or may not have been connected to any of the contending political parties, also urgently carried out their own surveys. In fact, it was during this time that discussions about the meanings of facticity as well as the importance of surveys found their full articulation. The passion for collecting facts about China eventually led to a social survey movement that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, when competing political factions and intellectual parties used surveys to assemble the empirical contents of the social world that they were striving to construct and govern.

Evidential Practices in Early Modern China and Europe

For those who are familiar with imperial Chinese history, Euro-American assertions that the Chinese possessed little empirical knowledge about themselves and their empire certainly sound preposterous. With a long tradition of centralized bureaucracy, successive Chinese dynastic regimes had produced an enormous amount of empirical knowledge about different aspects of the empire. While such cultural and political stocktaking was often compiled in the form of local gazettes and travel writings by scholar-officials who needed to demonstrate their scholarship and officialdom, the imperial authorities also were directly involved in censuses and territorial surveys for purposes of statecraft. By the time of the Qing dynasty, the growing complexities of the empire further encouraged the imperial state to carry out mapmaking, ethnographic surveys, and other large-scale knowledge projects that were comparable to similar efforts undertaken by European states.

In addition to these statecraft projects, there also were plenty of empirical inquiries into, as well as scholarly discussions of, legitimate and suspect forms of empirical knowledge. Charlotte Furth, for example, observed that empirical and specialist knowledge in imperial China was articulated in terms of "cases" (an), as opposed to facts, in legal and medical discourses. Benjamin Elman has shown the prevalence of empirical studies known as evidential research (kaozheng) since the late seventeenth century. This particular approach to empirical inquiry, known as shishi qiushi (commonly translated as "seeking truth from facts"), emphasized the search for authenticity, interpolations, and original meanings of the classical texts as the basis for reconstructing the truth established by the ancient sages. While the so-called "fact," or shishi, in this approach was mostly textual evidence, such empirical inquiries also flourished in the fields of natural studies, mathematics, and medicine.

In other words, while empiricism as a general philosophy and methodology could appear in many forms, what imperial China lacked was the particular mode of empirical knowledge production that the industrial powers insisted upon. Elman, for his part, argues that China's indigenous intellectual development nonetheless prepared it for a rapid adoption of European science and technologies in the nineteenth century. The main concern of this book, however, is not a comparative study of different modes of evidentiary practices and their commensurabilities, even though these important questions have yet to be adequately examined by scholars. Instead of asking whether or not indigenous Chinese empirical thinking was compatible with its European counterpart, this study is more interested in how and why the indigenous mode of empirical inquiry, however prominent and useful it might have been, was suddenly rendered invalid and irrelevant by European scientific thinking around the turn of the twentieth century. Why, moreover, when elements of the indigenous knowledge system resurfaced in the new context, did they have to be refashioned as modern science in order to remain relevant?

It is indeed hard to imagine today how we could possibly study human, social, or natural sciences without respecting facts by collecting, classifying, and analyzing them. Yet, as common as empirical facts appear to be in modern societies, recent works by cultural historians demonstrate that our preoccupation with the fact as the conceptual medium for understanding the world has specific or even peculiar cultural and historical origins. Lorraine Daston, for example, has shown that fact and evidence were closely linked to prodigies and miracles in Christian theology prior to the seventeenth century. She explains that medieval and even early modern European thinkers routinely regarded facts as divine manifestations because these observed particulars defied comprehension based on conventional wisdom. It was through the development of natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, she argues, that facts were gradually naturalized and emptied of their marvelous connotations. As formerly bizarre anomalies with religious significance gradually evolved into mundane facts, they were also "the mercenary soldiers of argument" that were ready to be enlisted in accordance with their evidentiary fitness. Similarly, Mary Poovey has traced the history of the fact in a wide-ranging survey of cultural practices from the first manual on double-entry bookkeeping to economic writings and statistical discourses in early modern England. She also illustrates how the fact as an "epistemological unit" acquired the prestigious qualities of being universal and value neutral over time and became what she has referred to as "the modern fact." This modern fact, which also became increasingly interchangeable with numerical fact, has been the conceptual medium through which our lives are now understood and governed.

The development of the category of the fact from its specific medieval and early modern meanings into an instrument for a broad range of cultural practices such as news reportage, travel writing, history, ethnography, science, and even fiction in the eighteenth century marked the beginning of a fact-based culture. In the area of human affairs, this "culture of fact" was manifested especially in the seventeenth-century ascendancy of political arithmetic. Leading political arithmeticians such as John Graunt (1620-74) and William Petty (1623-89), among others, argued that governance should be based strictly on numbers and measurements instead of theories and rhetoric. As a device to study the relationship among population, disease, and wealth, political arithmetic was critical to thinkers and practitioners of political economy in their bids to strengthen the power of the state.

The question of state strength remained central even when political arithmetic was losing ground to the emerging branch of knowledge known as statistics in the early nineteenth century. After all, it was no coincidence that the term statistics was derived from the German Statistik, which referred to the use of science in politics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, in much of the nineteenth century, when the term statistician was yet to be invented, British statisticians were called "statists." Their work, accordingly, was to describe the conditions of a particular country within a particular timeframe. For example, immediately after the Statistical Society of London was established in 1834, it began to promote statistical science as an objective and noble undertaking because of its critical role in examining and managing the well-being of nations and empires. In the inaugural introduction to the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, published in 1838, the society stated that statistical science was by no means "inferior in usefulness to any other science" precisely because it produced facts that helped to "determine and explain the civilization, riches, power, and happiness of our own and of other nations." To further illustrate its point, the same inaugural issue also included reports and tabulations such as "Statistics of the British Empire" and "Statistics of N