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: the multi-ethnic Southwest, and histories of the rural economy. My first book examined inter-group violence in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century upland southwest China. My new research has to do with economic and cultural histories of work in rural China from 1945-1980. I have also led a project to translate Mao Haijian's The Qing Empire and the Opium War: Collapse of the Heavenly Dynasty (Tianchao de bengkui), the most widely-read Chinese account of the First Opium War, into English. 

I grew up and in New Zealand, where I did my BA in history at Otago University, and my PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. Between 2004 and 2008, I lived in China where I taught English in Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Jiangsu, and studied Chinese in Xichang College (Sichuan). Between 2011 and 2013, I lived in Taiwan, where I was a postdoctoral fellow at Academia Sinica. Many of the questions in the background of my research and teaching relate to issues that seemed important in those contexts, or emerged from thinking comparatively about the different places I have lived: How comparable are colonial processes in different parts of the world? And: Why do societies become wealthier or poorer; or more or less equal? 

I am the senior tutor for the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology.

I am happy to supervise post-graduate work in any area of modern Chinese history.

Office hours for semester 1 2019-20: Tuesday 2:00-4:00, Thursday 2:00-3:00. 



My first book is A Frontier Made Lawless: Violence in Upland Southwest China (University of British Columbia Press, 2017). The book examines violence in Liangshan, in southwest Sichuan. The book considers Liangshan as a region beyond the control of a state. De facto, sovereignty was exercised by indigenous Nuosu clans, and negotiated or fought over at the frontier with the Qing and Republican Chinese regional state officials. Therefore, it serves as a case study for testing the notion, foundational in the Weberian tradition of social theory, that the rule of law can only be created by state authority strong enough to determine what counts as legitimate use of violence. To a certain extent, Liangshan demonstrates the rationale of Weberian thought: many conflicts developed out of clashes over land rights, which reflected the fact that Nuosu and Chinese had very different customs of land tenure, and there were no mutually recognized authorities for arbitrating disputes. However, a range of local institutions developed to contain violence, and there was much more local, upland ‘state-building’ than would be predicted by narratives of anarchist upland communities characterized by rejection of state-like authority. The bloodiest periods of violence in Liangshan stemmed not from local dynamics, but the consequences of disorder outside the region.

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 (module leader, 2018)

HIS2138: China's Last EmpireThis module is an introduction to early modern China. The focus is on the Qing empire, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. This was an era of economic, demographic and territorial expansion. The population tripled, leading to serious social, political and environmental problems. Qing conquests brought Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and Mongolia into the same political domain as China, and the idea of a multi-ethnic polity took shape. New directions emerged in Confucian thought, while attitudes to gender and cultural identity also underwent important changes. In the nineteenth century, civil wars and clashes with the West wrought profound changes and formed the basic context for China’s twentieth century revolutionary movements.

HIS3131: China in RevolutionThis module is revolution, violence, trauma, and its aftermath in twentieth century China. Key questions are: Why did many people want revolutionary change, and what kinds of visions were there for a new China? What explains the Communist victory over the Nationalist government, and the catastrophes that occurred under Mao’s rule? Beyond catastrophe, how did Chinese society change in the era of collectivization? How have people come to terms with the extraordinary violence of the mid-twentieth century? And why did a democratic transition take place in Taiwan, but not the People’s Republic? Attempts to make (and prevent) revolution defined Chinese politics for much of the twentieth century. Revolutionary movements struggled to unify China, and modernize its economy and culture; according to a plurality of visions of what ‘modernity’ meant. These struggles have shaped China to such an extent that without understanding them, understanding present-day China is impossible. 

HIS3000: Reading History (2018: Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory, in previous years: Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence)

HIS3020: Writing History (dissertation).

HIS8120: Missions, Missionaries, and Empires in World History