Agents of Knowledge transfer? A preliminary sketch of the Chinese Rockefeller fellows, 1910s-1950s (Lin Yi-Tang’s Conference)

Last Thursday April 11th we were delighted to welcome Dr. Li Yi-Tang for a talk on “Agents of Knowledge-transfer? A preliminary sketch of the Chinese Rockefeller fellows, 1910s-1950s” in our regular seminar.

Lin Yi-Tang

Lin Yi-Tang is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva for a 4-year Swiss National Scientific Foundation project entitled “Rockefeller Fellows as Heralds of Globalization: the Circulation of Elites, Knowledge, and Practices of Modernization (1920s-1970s) ”, under the direction of Profs Ludovic Tournès, Thomas David, and Davide Rodogno. Lin Yi-Tang is also a lecturer at the University of Lausanne and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL). In 2017, she completed her PhD at the University of Lausanne on the subject of “Statistics as a World Language for Public Health? International organizations, transnational actors, and local agencies in China(s), 1917-1950s”. Her main research interests include the history of quantification and the transfer of statistical practices, the history of international public health policy, and the history of international organizations in the twentieth century, especially in China.

In her talk entitled “Agents of Knowledge-transfer? A preliminary sketch of the Chinese Rockefeller fellows, 1910s-1950s”, Lin Yi-Tang traces the life trajectories of Chinese fellows at the local, national and international levels, paying special attention to their actual practices on the ground so as to better illuminate the transnational circulations of knowledge and the processes of knowledge transfer at the national and local levels. More specifically, she seeks to understand how Chinese fellows implemented American methods locally and adapted them to the Chinese context, in the context of political changes in Republican and Communist China. One of her major research question is to investigate how/to what extent Chinese Rockefeller fellows contributed to the modernizing effort of China. Since most of them were trained during the interwar years and survived the Culture Revolution, her ultimate goal is to illustrate ruptures and continuities between the interwar period, WWII and the postwar Communist era.

Relying on the fellows’ individual recorder cards held at the Rockefeller Archives, she is constructing a database of more than 600 Chinese fellows. While the general structure of the database mostly draws on the Swiss elite database, it is also adapted to the specific needs of the Rockefeller project (including a specific field for fellowship).

Drawing on her initial training as a sociologist at Taiwan University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, Lin Yi-Tang skillfully uses multiple correspondence analysis to combine various variables (such as the approval period, the granting division, the length of stay, studies, extension, gender, number of countries, or age range) and to identify subgroups of fellows based on these combinations. As a result, at this stage of her research, she was able to identify six subgroups among the 666 fellowships granted to China from 1915 onward (most of them in medical science or medical-related fields).

In order to complement this macro-sociological approach, she portrayed three cases of fellows who were all trained at the biostatistical department of John Hopkins University  but who followed different paths once they returned to China (either as public health administrators, as professors and academic researchers, or in the military system). Her preliminary findings suggest that those who opted for the military career usually escaped from prosecution during the Cultural Revolution.

Overall, Lin’s effort to trace the trajectories of these Chinese Rockefeller fellows strongly resonates with our current experiment on the Boorman’s biographical dictionary, aimed at reconstructing the life trajectories of a rough sample of 600 Chinese personalities, focusing on their education (especially the returned students who were trained abroad) and their subsequent career in China.

More generally, Lin’s talk intersects in many ways with our current research in the ERC project, notably:
  • As a socio-history of elites (or an elite group)
  • The construction of a biographical database
  • The tools and methods for visualizing and analyzing the life trajectories of individuals at both a macro and micro level, and at a local, national and international scale.

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mes recherches actuelles portent sur l’émergence des experts, “l’influence” américaine, la naissance de la presse et d’une “opinion publique” en Chine moderne. Dans une démarche d’histoire sociale, mes centres d'intérêt englobent aussi l'histoire spatiale, les outils et méthodes numériques et l'épistémologie des sciences sociales en général.

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