The Fall and Rise of Typical Sampling in 1950s China: Locating ‘Method' in Great Leap ‘Madness'

Talk by Arunabh Ghosh, Harvard University

1958 marks a watershed in the history of the early People’s Republic of China (PRC). The execution of the first five-year plan (1953-57) had been a success, meeting and in many cases exceeding targets. And yet, instead of a second five-year plan that built upon the first one, China was launched down the path of the Great Leap Forward (GLF; 1958-1961). Today, the GLF is inextricably linked with the massive famine that followed in its wake. As a subject of research, the GLF and the famine have been explored from various perspectives and the total number of deaths remains a hotly contested subject. Such scholarship typically acknowledges—though often only in passing—that the GLF was accompanied by the dismantling of statistical work, which fundamentally crippled the state and leadership’s ability to access reliable data. There does not exist, however, any detailed account of what precisely such ‘dismantling’ meant. In this paper, I explore that question by tracing the evolution of statistical capacity building since the establishment of the PRC in 1949 and determining what precisely happened to statistics and statistical work during the GLF. Relying upon archival reports, newspapers, contemporary professional journals, and memoirs, I trace how a form of typical sampling—典型调查 (dianxing diaocha)—was revalidated as the only true way to ascertain social fact. Such an exercise can help us think more broadly about the history of data, state (technical) capacity, and the ways in which ideas about ‘accurate’ and ‘representative’ measurement remain at the heart of global modernity.

Arunabh Ghosh
is a historian of modern China, with research and teaching interests in social and economic history, history of science and statecraft, transnational history, and China-India history.
Ghosh’s current in-progress book manuscript, entitled "Making it Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the early People's Republic of China, 1949-1959," is under contract with Princeton University Press. The book investigates how the early PRC state built statistical capacity to know the nation through numbers. He has conducted research for the book in Beijing, Guangzhou, New Delhi, and Kolkata, and his work has been supported by grants and fellowships from the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and Columbia University.
Other research projects include a history of dam and reservoir construction in twentieth century China and essays on 1950s China-India history (see publications).
Ghosh's graduate offerings include seminars and pro-seminars on different aspects of twentieth century Chinese history and Asian environmental history. He also offers examination fields in Modern Chinese History. At the undergraduate level, he regularly offers a survey lecture on Modern China (1894-Present) and has taught a conference course that investigates various large-scale technological and social engineering projects in post-imperial China.
Trained at Haverford College and at Tsinghua and Columbia universities, Ghosh joined the History Department in 2015 from the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, where he was an Academy Scholar for the 2014-15 AY.

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Duration: 00:43:46