Writing this note in the midst of a trade war between China and the United States, I cannot help but think of China in the global economy and the role science plays in making this rising power not only a political giant but also a leader in technological innovation, such as the next generation of wireless technology.
It is certain that many are eager to know whether China has raced ahead of the West, or which technology makes China a leader in the world, just like those who wanted to know the secret of how Japan created advancements in science and technology in the early 1980s. And if we take a step back and consider it as an academic task, readers may wonder whether STS can contribute to a better understanding of how science and technology have evolved along with society in China, in particular after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949.
EASTS does not avoid this daunting challenge. In our first decade we have published fifty-four research articles; thematic issues featuring Chinese medicine (8:1 and 8:4), traditional knowledge (4:3), everyday technology (2:2), and criticisms of health reform in China (5:3); and fifty book reviews, many of which were on books written in Chinese. This rich scholarship not only reflects an increasing interest in China in the past thirty years but also reveals a peculiar STS understanding that builds on the history of science and technology. Just as Shigeru Nakayama, one of the founding fathers of Japanese STS, has done in interpreting how science and technology developed there from the Meiji period to the millennium (see the brief introduction in “News and Events,” 11:1), for scholars the best way to capture science and technology in society is to situate them in the historical context in which modern East Asia emerges.
The three articles presented here—“Less Reproduction, More Production: Birth Control in the Early People’s Republic of China, 1949–1958” by Sarah Mellors, “From Sonic Models to Sonic Hooligans: Magnetic Tape and the Unraveling of the Mao-Era Sound Regime, 1958–1983” by Chuan Xu, and “Layer upon Layer: Mao–Era History and the Construction of China’s Agricultural Heritage” by Sigrid Schmalzer—enrich our understanding of what we might call “Mao-era science”: science and technology under the CCP strongman Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung, 1893–1976). Originally submitted as individual articles, we found them to be closely related in terms of the era in which the authors framed the issue and their commitment to providing new perspectives for interpreting it. After intense discussion with our editor Sigrid Schmalzer, an authority in the field and one of the authors, we decided to take this opportunity to make even better use of these articles. Professor Jia-Chen Fu has kindly penned for us a historiographic review, while Professor Arunabh Ghosh offers an inspiring commentary that skillfully links our cases to an expanding body of scholarship on China before it opened to the world. We cannot claim that this issue has fully covered all issues on Mao-era science, yet we sincerely want to show that STS cannot be absent in dealing with China, and that a historical approach is useful and constructive.
Of course what would be even more meaningful is an account from scholars within China itself. Since its inception, EASTS has received contributions from Chinese scholars—as editors, authors, and reviewers. One of our recent publications was an analysis of the development of STS in China by Zhengfeng Li and Xiao Lu (12:2), who noted that STS is useful as it provides “a platform for multidisciplinary communication, which also calls for efforts to reconcile the conflict between problem-oriented research and discipline-oriented research” (194). Ironically, in 2018 Tsinghua University decided to dissolve its STS program, one of the oldest in China, on the grounds that STS has not built itself into a well-established discipline (xueke). We believe that our current issue demonstrates the importance of history in doing East Asian STS; we also want to use this issue to support our colleagues at Tsinghua University. Just as with China studies, a clear disciplinary line cannot be drawn for STS. May they keep their research spirits high after their relocation, making this an opportunity for STS to be done well and to shine brightly.