Conference: “Beyond Modernity: Understanding Change in China”



Madeleine Zelin, the Dean Lung Professor of Chinese Studies, has been a key member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute community since joining Columbia’s faculty in 1979. In addition to directing the Institute from 1992-1993 and from 1995-2001, she has mentored generations of undergraduates, MARSEA students, and PhD students. During the 35 years that Professor Zelin has been teaching at Columbia, she has also gained international recognition for pioneering the study of Chinese legal and economic history.  

To honor Professor Zelin’s important contributions to our understanding of the roots of China’s business culture and legal practice, her colleagues and her former PhD students—many of whom are now leading historians of China—convened a conference at Columbia on September 19 and 20, 2014 titled “Beyond Modernity: Understanding Change in China.”

The conference, co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, The Columbia University Seminar on Modern China and the Department of History, brought scholars from around the world to campus in order to critically assess the concept of “modernity.” The topic of “modernity” was apt because Professor Zelin’s scholarship has demonstrated the limits of a stereotypical understanding of Chinese economic and legal actors as “pre-modern” and has questioned the validity of modernity-based periodizations and static notions of modernity itself.  Professor Zelin has passed this methodology along to her students, who, regardless of their fields of study, were trained to adopt the same attention for the detail, careful readings of sources, and distrust for meta-narratives.

“As a previous advisee, I can add that Matti is a great advisor for many reasons, including the fact that she lets students explore the topics they want with her direction, while other advisors tend to steer students toward their own areas of interest,” noted Margherita Zanasi, a professor at Louisiana State University. “This allows students to maximize their potential. It is also why her students can be found in such a large variety of research areas.  She always stresses the importance of sources, a habit that remains with us and strengthens our work. Despite the focus on sources, she always brings her students back to the basic question ‘Why is this important?’—keeping us focused on the main argument to develop it to its full potential. Personally, I have also found in Matti a lifelong friend and I am lucky to still be able to enjoy, and benefit from, discussing my research with her.”

Organized by Zanasi as well as by Fabio Lanza (University of Arizona) and Rebecca Nedostup (Brown), the conference brought together Professor Zelin’s students Daniel Asen (Rutgers), Li Chen (University of Toronto), Alexander Cook (UC Berkeley), Joshua Fogel (York), Arunabh Ghosh (Harvard), Sue Gronewold (Kean), Kristine Harris (SUNY New Paltz), Joan Judge (York), Josephine Khu (independent scholar), Elizabeth LaCouture (Colby), Weiwei Luo (Columbia), Georgia Mickey (Cal Poly-Pomona), Thomas Mullaney (Stanford),  Sarah Schneewind (UCSD), Harold Tanner (University of North Texas), Hui-yu Caroline Ts’ai (Academia Sinica), Xu Xiaoqun (Christopher Newport University), Benno Ryan Weiner (Appalachian State), and Peter Zarrow (University of Connecticut).

The conference also featured Professor Zelin’s friends and colleagues Robert Barnett (Columbia), Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU), Myron Cohen (Columbia), Robert Gardella (US Merchant Marine Academy-Kings Point), Robert Hymes (Columbia), Rashid Khalidi (Columbia), Dorothy Ko (Barnard), Elizabeth Köll (Harvard),  Eugenia Lean (Columbia), Feng Li (Columbia), Benjamin Liebman (Columbia), Andrew J. Nathan (Columbia), Jonathan Ocko (North Carolina State), Peter Perdue (Yale), Haruo Shirane (Columbia), David Weiman (Barnard), and Chuck Wooldridge (Lehman College).


Madeleine Zelin


Eugenia Lean and Haruo Shirane


Elizabeth LaCouture, Dorothy Ko, Andrew J. Nathan, Kristine Harris, and Thomas Mullaney


Fabio Lanza


Margherita Zanasi and Robert Hymes


Rebecca Nedostup introduces the conference


Kristine Harris and Madeleine Zelin


Jonathan Ocko and Li Chen


Rashid Khalidi, Myron Cohen, Eugenia Lean, and Haruo Shirane


Reception in Room 918


Dorothy Ko


Li Feng, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Weiwei Luo, Robert Hymes, Georgia Mickey, Sarah Schneewind


Joan Judge, Sue Gronewold, Peter Perdue, Eugenia Lean, Hui-yu Caroline Ts’ai


David Weiman, Josephine Khu, Chuck Wooldridge, Fabio Lanza, Rebecca Nedostup


Robert Barnett, Joshua Fogel, Benno Ryan Weiner, Alexander Cook


Li Chen, Robert Gardella, Rebecca Nedostup, Margherita Zanasi, Arunabh Ghosh


Li Chen and Madeleine Zelin


Benjamin Liebman, Jonathan Ocko, Daniel Asen, Elizabeth Koll, Xiaoqun Xu


Discussion in Room 918


Reception in Room 918


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