X-Boorman (II): The Boorman Factory

This post aims at opening the Biographical Dictionary of Republican China (BDRC)’s factory – presenting its initial purpose, its editorial staff, the method for selecting biographies, contributors and sources, its implied biases, practical issues and intellectual challenges, and finally its contemporary and later reception. The observations in this post are based on the preface and explanatory notes in the BCRD‘s  first volume (August 1966), supplemented by book reviews published in academic journals (Fairbank, 1967 ; Bianco, 1968 ; Twitchett 1969) or periodicals (Bernal, 1972) at the time of publication. While it is important to locate the Boorman into its contemporary context, we will also reflect on its potential relevance in the early 21th century. We hypothesize that the BDRC has acquired a new significance for historians today due to technological changes (digital techniques for mining, extracting and processing big data), shifts in intellectual perspectives (reevaluation of the biographical and prosopographical approach, renewed interest in the study of elites, reevaluation of the Republican period) and the dramatic social and political transformation of China over the last decades.

The BDRC’s factory was a lengthy process that extended over 20 years (1955-1967). It is worth noting that the preparation process unfolded between the Communist takeover (1949) and the Cultural Revolution, which meant a limited access to primary evidence and first-hand witnesses in mainland China. According to the editors, the process was divided into three major cycles. After the initial research phase (1955-1963)  in the United States (mostly Columbia University, New York), a smaller team of more experienced researchers filled the gaps in coverage and completed the research work (1963-4). The last stage from 1964 onward consisted in checking, translating, rewriting  and standardizing the manuscript.

Pragmatic purposes and intellectual ambitions

Filling a gap

The BDRC project took its root in Boorman’s awareness of the lack of biographies and biographical reference work on the Republican period. It was initially designed to supplement Hummel’s Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing period (ECCP), which constituted Boorman’s main source of inspiration. The BDRC was meant to be for the Republican period what ECQD was for the Qing dynasty, with partial overlaps. It covers the period 1911-1949 but many persons included in the dictionary  were still alive at the time of publication.

Revisiting the Republican period and the biographical approach

In clarifying the temporal coverage of his work, Boorman assumed that elite studies could not only shed a new light on the Republican period but also help better understand contemporary China. This assumption suggests a profound reevaluation of the status of biography in historical research. It explicitly stood in reaction to (or to complement) the study of political institutions and economic systems that prevailed at the time. According to the editor, the biographical approach was particularly suited to the study of Chinese society in general (in view of the “three sames” tradition that patterned personal relationships in China: common home district, common school or university, common business or professional activity) and of the Republican period in particular (due to political and social instability, personal relationships assumed unusual importance during the period). “The events, the institutions, and the processes of change in Republican China may be best revealed through the lives of the prominent Chinese of the period”, Boorman concluded (1966, viii). This indeed has been one of the much debated issues among historians for many decades.

Practical difficulties and intellectual challenges

Aware that “random biographical research provided but a galaxy of discrete view of Chinese history”, building a solid research framework was an initial necessity (viii). A major challenge at the time was the scarcity of available sources and the lack of research guides, which maked particularly tedious the process of finding the exact dates for modern and contemporary actors.

Furthermore, the biographical approach raised two specific intellectual issues. First, how to relate individuals with broader social and economic conditions ? In a word, “how to balance life with times”? Second, how to reconcile first-hand knowledge with critical detachment? Boorman deliberately chose to place the emphasis on first-hand knowledge. The frustration American scholars experienced during the Communist regime fed their concern with preserving oral sources before they eventually disappeared. Yet this heavy reliance on oral sources inevitably challenged the necessity for critical distance and the ideal of objectivity.

Method for selecting persons

Starting with an early optimistic estimate of 800 articles in 1955, the editors ended with a more reasonable total of 600 in 1966 (and finally published 589, including one family [Song family]).

In the process of selecting biographies, Boorman relied on external consultants. Unfortunately, little is known these “consultants” and the subsequent biases. Each name was subjected to an informal discussion and sometimes stirred controversy among the editors. The sampling process was based on three main criteria. Common sense was the guiding principle for selecting major political leaders and professional fields with a clearly structured hierarchy. The availability of sources was the second major constraint. Some names were selected by “accident“, resulting from the unanticipated availability of sources or the unexpected discovery of qualified contributors – and on the opposite, from insufficient data or missing contributor.

The names were initially arranged into three main categories : domestic policies (subdivided into periods, movements or organizations), external relations (diplomats, overseas Chinese) and social-economical elite (a more elastic category grouping businessmen, bankers, doctors, scholars). The editors also included a separate category for women and “exotic species” (calligraphers, for instance). In his preface, Boorman acknowledged the biases implied by this preliminary classification and the difficulties for selecting persons involved in unstructured fields (arts and literature, medicine) (viii-ix). Some categories were deliberately excluded (Chinese doctors, athletes, cookers, fortune tellers…). Hence the preeminence of political and military figures, which became the central focus of criticism in contemporary reviews.

Composition principles

Boorman used tasty metaphors to describe the essence of biography. Comparing his whole dictionary as “a mansion with many entrances but no master key”, he viewed each article as a “jigsaw puzzle” part of the “larger mosaic” (the entire collection of biographies). If biography is a “compact story of human life”, Boorman wrote, the minimal standard was to establish a chronological skeleton for each biography. Yet biography should not consist in a mere enumeration of successive facts, he warned, insisting on the narrative quality of biographies. He concluded that the ultimate criterion to assess the quality of the biography lay in the following question: Has the biographer managed to communicate his readers the essence of his subject?

Basically, each article has three main parts:
1. An identifying paragraph;
2. A narrative of the person’s background, early life, career, writings and family;
3. A final critical judgment.

Some critics (Bianco, 1968 ; Bental 1972) pointed out the fact that the dictionary included a separate article for the Soong family (which the editor regarded as the most influential family at the time) and that some articles were longer than others (especially those devoted to major Nationalist leaders). In the Cold War climate of the 1960-1970s, Bianco (who may be labeled a French “leftist” historian) went as far as to blame Boorman’s leniency towards the Nationalist government, at the expenses of influential Communist figures.

Bianco also regretted that the articles were unsigned, which Boorman justified by the necessity for discretion (since many articles relied on first-hand knowledge, authors incorporated personal information and experience they did not want to be published); the intricate process of translating, revising and re-editing many articles multiple times; and the effort to appear as objective as humanly possible. In his defense, Boorman emphasized that professional biographers and editors relied on well established scholarly methods – research into original sources, thorough examination of evidence, and critical judgement.

Public and reception

It is important to remember that the book was prepared and edited in the United States for English-speaking readers. As a result, its content was reflected through the prism of “Western understanding”. Boorman acknowledged the inevitable biases of this Western viewpoint (which is a focal point of criticism in Bernal’s review). For instance, he felt uncomfortable with the Western translation of Chinese military ranks and university degrees. Contrary to Hummel, who relied heavily on Chinese scholars and Chinese-language sources, most contributors were American scholars (for further information, see the detailed list of contributors preceding the Preface) and most documentary evidence came from university archives in the United States. The “Acknowledgments” pages also suggest that the editorial board included no historians – but rather retired officers from the American Foreign Service or American consulates, and staff members of the School of International affairs at Columbia University (xii). Boorman himself was a graduate in Chinese language, not history. How this may impact upon the selection of names, documentary evidence, on the editing process, and the intended purposes and public of the book?

The publishing process extended over a decade. The first volume was released in 1967 and this is only in 1979 that the last opus (the index) eventually came out of press. Most contemporary reviews were laudatory. While pointing out the biases previously mentioned, China scholars immediately acknowledged that the book had no equivalent nor precedent. Not only would it revolutionize the history of Republican China, but it would probably become a reference work in the near future (the prediction eventually proved true, and we are now used to refer to it as “THE” Boorman). Although some considered that the BDRC did not reach ECCP‘s level of scholarship (Bental 1972), all reviewers praised the scholarly quality of the work and the colossal effort made to complete such monument.

We are so accustomed to compare BDRC to ECCP that is has become difficult to think of its distinctive nature, background and purposes. Most intriguingly, while the dictionary soon gained its reputation as a “reference” work, it seems to have fallen into scholarly oblivion since then. Who still uses the BDRC? And how, for what purpose? Who goes beyond consulting a single biography from times to times? Like the Bible and other literary monuments,  the BDRC was deemed to languish on a dusty library shelf. Can we, historians of the 21th century, give it a new life?

The Boorman today

We first need to put the BDRC factory in perspective, to reflect upon the process and its implications for our own research today. What has changed since Boorman’s times in terms of primary sources and scholarly methods?

First, (almost) all the living are dead now (except for one), which means oral sources are no longer available. But this also opens the opportunity for adding extra information (about final careers and dates of death) and for increased critical distance. The availability of new sources (newspapers, directories, archives) in China offers the opportunity for cross-referencing Boorman’s oral sources and for balancing the American angle. Massive corpora of newspapers and directories are digitized that can be harnessed with innovative techniques (Natural Language Processing, database, Social network Analysis). This allows for an unprecedented change of scale and perspective. We can now read the BDRC “as a whole”. Random techniques for mining, extracting and processing information also have the potential to free historians from the a priori selection and categorization of elites.

These new sources and methods make it possible to raise this vital question: To what extent is the BDRC “representative” of Chinese elites in the Republican period? As a fact, not only does it exclude foreign elites in China (except for one missionary), but it also underplays the “ordinary” elite who may have left an imprint on the daily press, the annual yearbooks or the Who’s who, but who did not achieve the necessary notoriety to get caught in Boorman’s net. What can we say about those silent businessmen, professors and civic leaders who did not reach the highest military ranks and political spheres, but acted more silently to make their business prosperous, to train the next generations of students, and  humbly served their local community. The BDRC certainly reinforced, if not shaped, the mainstream view of the Republican period as a period dominated by militarists and political leaders that still prevailed today. Had the BDRC contained more professionals, entrepreneurs or researchers,  would we have a different view of Republican China? How can we harness alternate source and methods to revisit this enduring representation of Republican China?


Bernal, Martin. “Who’s Who in China“” New York Review of Books, 1972. (Bernal’s review is part of a more general surveys of biographies published in the early 1970s, which testified to the “rebirth” of the biographical approach in Chinese history and in historical research in general).

Bianco, Lucien. “Howard L. Boorman, editor, Richard С. Howard, associate editor, Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, vol. 1.” Annales 23, no 5 (1968): 1133‑35.

Boorman, Howard L, et Richard C Howard. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Fairbank, J. K. “Review of Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Volume I, Ai-Ch’u, par Howard L. Boorman et Richard C. Howard.” The American Historical Review 73, no 2 (1967): 565‑66. https://doi.org/10.2307/1866318.

Hummel, Arthur W, et Library of Congress. Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, 1644-1912. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1943.

Twitchett, D. C. “Book Review: Biographical Dictionary of Republican China.” Political Science Quarterly 84, no 4 (1969): 650‑52.

Cite this blog post
Cécile Armand (2019, August 9). X-Boorman (II): The Boorman Factory. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/o8kk

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), mes travaux portent sur la publicité, l'histoire urbaine, les migrations intellectuelles entre la Chine et les Etats-Unis et les méthodes computationnelles appliquées à la recherche historique. Mes recherches ont reçu le soutien des fondations Chiang Ching-kuo, Coca-Cola, Andrew Mellon (Program DHAsia, Stanford), de l'Agence Nationale de la Recherche (Access ERC, ENS-Lyon) et du Conseil Européen de la Recherche (projet ENP-China, Aix-Marseille).

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