Tong LamDec 22, 2011
A Passion for Facts
Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949
University of California Press 2011
We tend to take for granted that we have bodies, that these bodies are knowable and measurable, and that we understand how to relate our own bodies to those of the people around us. To put it more simply: if I were to ask you how tall you were, how much you weighed, or what year you were born, while you might balk at providing an honest answer you wouldn't be flummoxed by the question. We are modern bodies, and as such we are walking, talking, identifiable, and countable collections of facts. Tong Lam's A Passion for Facts: Social Surveys and the Construction of the Chinese Nation-State, 1900-1949 (University of California Press, 2011) explores the practices through which this became possible in the context of China during the first half of the twentieth century. Lam's book looks closely at the construction of the Chinese nation-state through censuses, social surveys, and other social and political technologies. His sources range from census forms, to diaries, to fiction in 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. A Passion for Facts also poses a particular methodological challenge: what can it look like to trace the emergence of categories that change the way we understand the world?