Shen Zhihua on State of Chinese Research on Relations with Neighboring Asian Countries

PRC diplomatic history scholar Shen Zhihua’s talk at a 2020 Tsinghua University “Workshop on China’s Border Regions and Asia” 中国边疆与亚洲研究”学术工作坊 is on YouTube.

In 2009,China’s Central Military Commission wondered why are relations with the DPRK so very difficult? Shen said those top leaders of the PRC military had very little idea of the true history of PRC – DPRK relations. Shen said he originally wasn’t interested in this topic, but he was asked to work on it so he did. After he assembled archival materials, he found that China’s relations with the DPRK were completely different from what one could read in Chinese textbooks and in the PRC press. Very basic facts and ideas were completely wrong. In contrast with the propaganda about glorious brotherhood between the PRC and the DPRK, PRC – DPRK relations were actually very tense during the 1950s. Shen observed that PRC – DPRK relations didn’t get better because China sent in troops; they got better only when China withdrew its troops at the end of 1958.

His current project grew out of archival research trips he made to neighboring countries during that project. He discovered early on that while the government of a neighboring country managed to have normal relations with China, he discovered that local people, after he had a few beers with him, would be frank and explain that they despised the Chinese. Shen felt this acutely on a trip to Mongolia during which Mongols treated him as a Chinese worse than his European colleagues — they would not let Shen as a Chinese enter a Lamaist Temple. Shen said that China’s relations with its neighbors were far worse that one would imagine from reading the Chinese press.

Shen said in 2015 he wrote a letter to the Chinese leadership pointing out that China’s relations with its neighbors were in fact far worse than portrayed in the Chinese press. Unless China was able to understand the reasons for this, it would not be able to manage well its relations with its neighbors. Three months after he wrote a letter he told that he was given a grant for indefinite periods to study China’s relations with its neighbors.

This archival work is done in archives in China’s ethnic areas (all of which, except for Ningxia are on China’s borders) as well as in neighboring countries. Shen stresses the need to develop a cadre of local scholars working in these areas — they will understand their area better than people from Beijing and advises students to make friends, have a beer, develop relations with local people and not just charge into their research. Shen comments that archival research in Xinjiang is now impossible whereas it could be done in 2009. Tibet has also become more difficult.

Shen said that Chinese propaganda about the Korean War with the 2020 anniversary of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War is full of misunderstandings and outright falsehoods.

Shen hopes that once archival research on China’s relations with its neighbors results in academic articles, these might have some effect on China’s diplomats. “When our diplomats speak untruths, they should be at least aware that they are speaking untruths.” Shen hopes that research will inform policymakers and that it will persuade them to change their thinking and their attitude towards China’s neighbors. Diplomats, Shen said, might have a good understanding of China’s foreign relations today but little idea of the history of their development.

Shen said the government support he gets through the PRC MInistry of Finance only covers 10 – 20% of the expenses for the research project on China’s relations with its neighbors; the rest he raises from contributions “from society”.

Shen said he had personally made many trips to look into archives in neighboring countries — everywhere but Afghanistan and Pakistan since those countries are “too dangerous”. Korea and Japan, excellent archives and good access. Nepal has archives but not organized, Shen offered to organize and give Nepal a copy and keep a copy but PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs not interested in pursuing the matter. He has the impression that Pakistan doesn’t really have archives. Vietnam and Mongolia generally don’t let Chinese see their archives — Shen comments to students — this shows the importance of making friends and drinking beer with local people… Got access that way in Mongolia. The first three periods of our work were collecting archival materials. WIthout those, our work would have no foundation.

In London, the Colonial Office archives have much valuable information about Tibet.

Shen says now that we have collected the archives, foreign affairs personnel could read them but that is not convenient for many of them. We need scholars to do research and publish on this archival materials so that people who work on foreign relations will better understand the history. Chinese ministries and other organs have issued a wealth of material that is restricted distribution yet would be an excellent resource for scholars. If scholars can use those materials, then they aren’t allowed to publish. This is a big problem for students — if they can’t publish how can they get a job? That is not a problem for someone like me who is already a professor, but it is a big one for them. The government should set up subsidies and grants to support students who do years of research on sensitive topics that they can’t publish. “We academics can do something about this ourselves. I set up an internal distribution only journal “China Border Areas and Neighboring Countries” which is supported by the PRC Social Science Research Fund. If students can’t publish anywhere else, they can publish in my journal. We published about twenty issues so far.

Shen added in China MA and PhD students must have publications if they are to graduate. Shen said I have suggested to my university (Xiamen University) that an exception be made for students who work on sensitive materials that cannot be published. Whether something is sensitive is a political issue, not an academic one. If we were not to study a topic because it is sensitive, would that not be a loss for our country?

Some areas of history are still sensitive. For example, Chinese troops sent to the DPRK were sent in part to fulfill what were at the time called China’s “internationalist obligations”. What did that mean? It means supporting world revolution, a sensitive topic.

Shen Zhihua He expects the archival research project including the copying and translation of much archival material from the neighboring countries will be completed in about two years and result in the publication of 110 volumes.

Shen also noted that the ranks of China’s scholars on Central Europe — mentioning Poland, Romania and Czecho/Slovakia have been completely depleted by retirements. On Czech/Slovakia they found a former diplomat who wanted to be a scholar — however he works on present-day relations not on history. Studying those countries requires rare language skills. Today no Chinese scholars have the language and research skills to do archive research in Albania or Bulgaria. This work is essential. How could anyone possibly talk about socialism with Chinese characteristics unless they know what socialism is like in other countries? If you don’t know them, how can you know if there are distinct Chinese characteristics?

I had the privilege of meeting Shen Zhihua twice during his talks at the Wilson Center over the past several years. I am again much impressed with him.

Shen Zhihua followed a remarkable path into scholarship that I wrote about on this blog. See PRC Diplomatic History Scholar Shen Zhihua


Conference Schedule

China Borderlands and Asian Studies” Workshop

The day before the cloud lecture


Since the “One Belt, One Road” initiative was proposed, Chinese academics have invested a lot of resources to investigate and study the history, culture, politics, economy and society of Asian countries in all aspects. However, Asian studies (especially Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, etc.) still have a long way to go in China due to various reasons such as weak academic accumulation for a long time, distinct disciplinary barriers, and insufficient talent reserves. On the other hand, the study of China’s frontier history, including the study of northeast, northwest, and southwest frontiers, has a long tradition and good academic heritage in the discipline of Chinese history, and there are many achievements and experiences that can be inherited and carried forward in the perspective of global history.

Tsinghua University intends to hold an academic workshop on “Chinese Borderlands and Asian Studies” on October 11, 2020 (Phase I). The workshop will take the Chinese frontier as the starting point and extend outward to the neighboring countries of Asia for in-depth investigation, to make use of the existing advantages and foundation of Chinese frontier historical research, to bridge the disciplinary divide between Chinese history and world history, to improve the overall quality of Asian studies in China, and to create a paradigm of Asian studies with Chinese characteristics.

The workshop is co-sponsored by the Department of History of Tsinghua University and the Rising Sun Institute.

Venue: Room 440, Meng Minwei Humanities Building, Tsinghua University

Tencent Conference: ID 656 724 015 Password: 987 654

Translated with (free version)

[Keynote Speech] (Host: Ni Yuping) 8:45

Zhang Baijia (Central Party History Research Office) Some Reflections on the Study of the History of China’s Frontiers, Borders and Peripheral Relations

Shen Zhihua (East China Normal University) — Strengthening Historical Research on China’s Relations with Neighboring Countries: What We Have Done and What We Will Do

Wang Yikang (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

From Dao to Lying-Up States–The Evolution of Administrative Divisions of Han and Tang Dynasties in the Four-Yi Regions and Its Implications

【First presentation】(Moderator: Chen Zhirui)10:40

Yuan Jian (Central University for Nationalities)

Regional Knowledge in the History of Frontier Thought: Frontier, Central Asia and 20th Century Geopolitics under the Interweaving of the Concept of “Cross-border Peoples

Chen Kangling (Fudan University)

An Experiment on the Geopolitical Ties of Ancient China’s Foreign Relations: The Great Wall, the Silk Road, and Ritual and Music as Examples

Cai Weijie (Shenzhen University)

A Comparative Study on the Indigenization of Han Chinese Migrants in Inner Asia and the Maritime Frontier in the Qing Dynasty

Cao Yin (Tsinghua University)

Chinese Frontiers, Asian Studies and the Construction of Global History with Chinese Characteristics

【Second Presentation】 (Host: Zhong Weimin) 14:00

Wei Ling (School of Foreign Affairs)

Understanding Southeast Asia: From the Cold War Frontier to the ASEAN Community

Chen Boyi (Xiamen University)

A Continual Odyssey of the Hokkien: Economic Interdependence and the Continual Regenerated Enclave, 1550-1850

Zhang Jie (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

A Comparative Study of the Differences in Perceptions of Related Countries on the Historical Issues in the South China Sea

Xie Kan Kan (Peking University)

The Battle of Renationalism: A Re-examination of Chinese Education in the Dutch East Indies (1900-1942)

[Third Presentation] (Host: Wang Zhongzhen) 16:00

Jin Ying (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

Epidemic and Civilization: An Experiment on the Transformation of the Way of Communication between China and the World in the Era of New Globalization

Bi Yana (Party History Research Office of Guangdong Provincial Committee)

The Creation History of China-Japan Economic Knowledge Exchange Society and Its Impact (1981-1989)

Gu Tao (Tsinghua University)

Ritual Governance in East Asia after Breaking Free from “Fu Weng

Closing Ceremony] 17:20


重点讲座 | “中国边疆与亚洲研究”学术工作坊



自 “一带一路” 倡议提出以来,中国学术界投入了大量资源对亚洲各国的历史、文化、政治、经济、社会等领域进行全方位的考察和研究。但由于长期以来学术积累薄弱、学科壁垒分明、人才储备不足等多方面的原因,亚洲研究(尤其是东南亚,南亚,中亚等)在我国仍然有长足发展的空间。另一方面,我国的边疆史地研究,包括对于东北,西北,西南边疆的研究,在中国史学科中有着悠久的传统和良好的学术传承,有不少成果和经验可以在全球史的视野中得以继承和弘扬。

清华大学拟于2020年10月11日举办 “中国边疆与亚洲研究” 学术工作坊(第一期)。工作坊将以中国边疆作为出发点,向外扩伸至亚洲周边各国的深入探究,发挥中国边疆史地研究的既有优势和基础,打通中国史与世界史的学科分界,提升我国亚洲研究的总体质量,打造具有中国特色的亚洲研究范式。



腾讯会议:ID 656 724 015 密码:987 654





















A Continual Odyssey of the Hokkien:Economic Interdependence and the Continual Regenerated Enclave, 1550-1850














About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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