Chinese history in departments of history in the United Kingdom

by Robert Bickers, Bristol University

Reflecting on the survey by Christian Henriot of the presence of historians of China in departments of history in France, led me to look into the situation in the UK. As a former co-director of a capacity-building project, the British Inter-university China Centre, which with its four peer centres, was funded precisely to try to engineer a firmer ‘mainstreaming’ of Chinese studies expertise in UK social science and humanities departments, this is a debate with which I am familiar.[1] This list below charts the first appointment into a British university department of history of a historian working on China. In some instances China was already being taught by non-specialists or by scholars who had retooled (eg Lawrance at Hertfordshire, Richardson at Bristol). This survey is restricted to departments of history in which undergraduates are studying for history degrees. Historians of modern China of world standing can of course be found in the area studies departments and faculties at Cambridge, Durham, Leeds, Oxford, Sheffield, and Westminster.

SOAS, also rightly seen as an area studies centre, occupies a different place, in that it had a history department in which students took a general history degree, though with a tight focus on Africa and Asia. Some elements of this were open across the University of London’s School of History. The Lectureship in ‘Far Eastern History’ at SOAS, as it was originally known, was also held by historians of Japan, but over time accommodated such historians of China as: van der Sprenkel, Twitchett, Gray, Wilkinson, Kahn, Curwen, and Atwell. Most recently the department included Barrett, Tiedemann, and Dikötter, and currently Laamann (who trained at SOAS), and Janku (Heidelberg).

I have listed date of first appointment as far as I can identify it, then first appointee, the university at which they secured their PhD, additional appointees, and also in some cases successors. It says something about the size of this field, that in nearly all cases I was able initially to draft this from my own personal knowledge. Of course, there are likely to be errors and omissions (and I am grateful to early readers who have spotted some) and I would be happy to receive corrections: I apologise in advance for all mistakes.

c.1970 Huddersfield (Roberts: Oxford -c.1999)**
1985 Edinburgh (Bailey: University of British Columbia -2010; 2008 Böcking: Cambridge; McDowell: Victoria University of Wellington)*
1994 Keele (Sheehan: SOAS -2003)** [1]
1997 Bristol (Bickers: SOAS)
1999 Cardiff (Benton -2010; 2011 Ferlanti: Ca’ Foscari)
1999 Warwick (Mitter -2001, Gerritsen: Harvard, then Chiang: Princeton, then Chen: Cambridge)*
2000 Newcastle (Standen: Durham, then Lawson: Victoria University of Wellington)
2001 Oxford (Mitter: Cambridge: joint appointment in History and Politics of Modern China)
2005 Oxford (Gerth: History Faculty, -2013, then 2019 Altehenger: Heidelberg)
2007 Birkbeck (Lovell: Cambridge)
2007 Manchester (Zheng: Cambridge; Moore: Princeton, 2010 -17; Fuller: UC Irvine, 2012-2019.*
2008 RHUL (Tsai: Leeds)
2009 Southampton (Rodrigues: Oxford; then Courtney: Manchester; then Forster: Oxford)
2010 Durham (Bailey: Durham, -2019; Akçetin: Washington, 2011-13; Aricanli: Princeton; Courtney: Manchester)*
2010 Leicester (Lincoln: Oxford)
2010 Loughborough (Klein: Freiburg)
2011 Birmingham (Standen: Durham [Medieval History Chair, 2013 Ye: Harvard [modern China])*
2012 Aberdeen (Jackson: Bristol, -2015)**
2012 Essex (Zhou: SOAS)
2012 KCL (Altehenger: Heidelberg -2019)***
2012 QUB (Cathcart: Ohio, -2013; then de Angeli: Lyon)
2012 York (Howlett: Bristol)
2013 Exeter (Ma: Bristol, then Gao: Edinburgh; Guo: KCL)*
2013 Leeds (Cathcart: Ohio)
2013 Sussex (Marinelli: Cagliari)
2013 Ulster (de Angeli: Lyon), -2015)**
2014 Liverpool (Rocha: Cambridge; then Wu: Nottingham)
2014 Nottingham Trent (Kilcourse: Manchester, -2018)**
2014 UCL (Chang: Oxford)
2016 Nottingham (Taylor: ANU)
2016 Sheffield (Ma: Bristol)
2016 LSE (Po: Heidelberg)
2018 Manchester Met (Kilcourse: Manchester)
2019 Lincoln (Rocha: Cambridge)

* Departments hosting more than one historian of China

** Departments no longer hosting a historian of China


This data provides grounds for some concluding observations. The incorporation of Chinese historians into departments of history in British universities has made substantial progress over the past two decades. However, it is still a quite recent phenomenon, and only 33 out of 83 research active departments (calculated from those which submitted to the 2014 REF) have made such appointments. Two thirds of these appointments were made in the past decade. Currently the number of history departments hosting China historians stands at 29.

My hunch is that this is a better situation than in most other disciplinary departments across the humanities and social sciences.

The historic area studies centres have played an important role in training this cadre of scholars, but the details provide ample evidence of the openness of the British university system to researchers trained elsewhere in Europe and overseas.

However, looked at another way, this internationalisation is also evidence of the impact of the absence of funding to train British researchers. Several of those listed were trained by the last large-scale HEFCE-led intervention to increase research capacity in Chinese studies (amongst others), the Language-Based Area Studies initiative launched in 2006 after the HEFCE report on Strategically important and vulnerable subjects (2005). Funded by AHRC, ESRC, the BA, and HEFCE, this was curtailed after the 2008 financial crisis, and the latter phases of the scheme included no PGR training. British higher education remains parasitic on overseas centres of excellence that have trained a good proportion of the scholars now in post. Of course, a second generation of UK historians trained by those appointed before 2007 is now in post, and their own PhD students have now started to graduate.

Compared to the situation in France, British departments of history are models of openness, but there is hardly any room to be complacent. In most departments China’s history before the late Qing is barely taught: most of those in post are modernists.

And of course, to adapt an observation I first heard from Mark Swislocki, if we were to staff history departments with research expertise that matched the regional share of the current global population, they would be vastly different in character. My own 38-strong department might host 5 historians of Africa, 20 Asianists, 1 scholar teaching North America, 5 for North Africa/Middle East, 3 teaching Latin America/Caribbean, and 4 the history of Europe, with one of the latter told off to teach, as a side-line, the history of a small and increasingly insular off-shore set of islands: the British Isles.


1. University history departments without postholders in Chinese history include Cambridge, Glasgow, Hull, Kent, QMUL, Reading, St Andrews, Swansea, and UEA. Jack Gray (Oxford) held a post in Chinese history at Glasgow from 1964 until about 1980, although his research largely lay in contemporary Chinese politics; Patrick Cavendish (Cambridge) also taught there. Retired Malayan Civil Service official Victor Purcell held a University Lectureship in Far Eastern History at Cambridge from 1949 until 1963 where he taught special subjects on the Opium Wars and on the Boxer Uprising.

2. Ten only of those listed holding posts were trained at doctoral level in UK history departments (including SOAS): Bickers, Courtney, Gao, Guo, Howlett, Jackson, Kilcourse, Laamann, Ma, Wu, Zhou. Fewer still came from undergraduate history degrees in the UK, and not from Chinese studies programmes.

3. Nine were UK nationals when they commenced doctoral study: Bickers, Courtney, Howlett, Jackson, Kilcourse, Lincoln, Lovell, Mitter, Standen.

4. Gender: out of 36 current postholders, 17 are women; four women hold professorships, as do three men.

5. Five concentrations of UK training represented here are: Bristol, Cambridge (where Hans van de Ven has worked since 1988 and has supervised several of those listed), Durham, Oxford, and SOAS. Research projects at Oxford (Leverhulme projects), Bristol, and the AHRC/ESRC-funded British Inter-university China Centre (Bristol-Manchester-Oxford), have trained several as doctoral students, or employed others as postdoctoral research fellows who have then gone on to secure posts.

6. Economic History departments have also hired historians of China eg: LSE (Deng: La Trobe, 1995-; Ma: UNC Chapel Hill, 2006-), and Glasgow (Elvin: Cambridge, 1968-72).

[1] The Language-Based Area Studies (LBAS) scheme. The centres were funded from 2006-2011, and then at a much reduced level by AHRC until 2016:

[2] The late Jackie Sheehan the moved to the Department of History at Nottingham but after either one year or two transferred to the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, working there until 2013. She then moved to a Chair at University College Cork’s Centre for Asian Studies. Other Irish university history departments appointing historians of China include 2015 TCD (Jackson: Bristol), and 2019 UCD (Bond: SOAS).

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, March 10). Chinese history in departments of history in the United Kingdom. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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