School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Staff Profile

Dr Joseph Lawson

Lecturer in Modern Chinese History


I am an historian of nineteenth and twentieth century China. Broadly, my research falls into two themes: social histories of conflict in rural China, with a particular focus on the multi-ethnic Southwest; and histories of the rural economy. 

My first book manuscript, ‘The Cool Mountains: Violence in Upland Southwest China, 1800-1956’ considers violence on the frontiers of Liangshan, in southwest Sichuan. I argue that land-related conflict stemmed from conflict over land rights, not Malthusian pressures on resources. Several factors that have been seen as causes of violence--including opium and local paramilitary organizations--were also not as destabilizing as has been claimed. Local measures to control conflict were often successful, with the exception of the local government practice of taking hostages from indigenous villages as surety against indigenous raids, which encouraged a widespread pattern of captive-taking. Finally, the region was repeatedly destabilized by the unanticipated consequences of conflict elsewhere in China. 

I have also led a project to translate Mao Haijian's Tianchao de bengkui, the most widely-read Chinese account of the First Opium War, into English.


BA(Hons), University of Otago (2003)

PhD, Victoria University of Wellington (2011)

Previous Positions

Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taiwan); post-doctoral research fellow, 2011-2013


My next major project considers human, animal, and mechanical labour in Chinese agriculture from the 1940s through the 1970s. After World War Two, there was a vigorous and often emotional debate about mechanization in agriculture. UN experts, provincial government officials, and wealthier farmers began to see mechanization as the key to rural prosperity and China’s economic modernization. In retrospect, some developmental economists agreed, and argued that agricultural mechanization was a key component of the post-war economic success of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Yet critics of Maoist mechanization programmes viewed them as fruitless quests for a “symbol of socialism and modernity” with little economic gain, given the critics’ assumption that China had a large pool of underemployed labour and a shortage of land in relation to the size of the population. The aim of this project is to revisit some of these assumptions and develop a better understanding of how and why new mechanical technologies were used in agriculture after World War Two, and with what impact.



HIS1025: World Empires

HIS2138: China's Last Empire

HIS3131: China in Revolution

HIS3000: Reading History (2014-15: The Great Divergence)

HIS3020: Writing History (dissertation)