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 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.

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. 



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 (module leader, 2018)

HIS2138: China's Last Empire

HIS3131: China in Revolution

HIS3000: Reading History (The Great Divergence)

HIS3020: Writing History (dissertation)

HIS8120: Missions, Missionaries, and Empires in World History