AAS Member Spotlight: Dorothy Solinger

Dorothy J. Solinger is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Irvine. She is a political scientist who specializes in China.

How long have you been a member of AAS?

Fifty years, I’m told. (I entered graduate school at Stanford in 1968—did I really join the AAS instantaneously, at such a tender age in my then non-existent career?)

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

If I really joined back then, someone must have told me I should; could be that my adviser, John Wilson Lewis (who died a year ago, September 4, 2017) did, or perhaps a tongxue, such as Gordon White, who began at Stanford the same time I did (and died in April 1998 in his mid-50s). Gordon already had an M.A. from Cornell, where he’d worked under Lewis, and was more or less brought to Stanford by Lewis when Lewis himself came that fall. Gordon liked to give me instructions.

Why I’d recommend joining: For fellowship, attending the annual convention, and subscribing to the Journal of Asian Studies, membership is essential.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

The odd thing is that some years ago (but long, long after 1959) I recalled that in 1959, when I was in the 8th grade, we had to create scrapbooks of photos of any place in the world. I chose to do mine on China and India, and I labeled it “Communism and Democracy in the Far East.” I still have the thing. I remember going to my grandfather’s house regularly to cut out photos on these countries from the National Geographic. My album is full of pictures of peasants laboring in the fields into the night under lanterns during the Great Leap Forward. But I probably had no idea then what all that was about.

Some years later, in 1966, as a major in a social science discipline (political science) at the University of Chicago, I was required to take a year-long sequence of classes on a non-Western country. The choices were just China, India, and Russia. I didn’t hesitate a moment. It was China then, and, as Gordon White told me in 1974, speaking about himself, “I never looked back.”

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

Five kinds of experiences quickly come to mind: teaching undergraduates (especially at UC Irvine, where more than one-third of the student body is Asian, mostly BORN in Asia, a high proportion of these from China itself, and hearing Chinese spoken all over the campus, constantly); doing interviews for my research in China, particularly with ordinary people, but also with urban officials; helping younger scholars by reading and making suggestions about their work; attending conferences and giving talks; and thinking and writing about China myself.

Tell us about your current or past research.

I’ve had seven research projects including my dissertation (1974); all eventuated in books. The dissertation concerned the politics of building the political center after the 1949 Communist victory. I focused on the then Southwest Great Military Administrative Region, arguing that the issues there had to be managed first before that isolated and complex area could be integrated into the nation. The next project, Chinese Business Under Socialism, demonstrated three approaches to commerce in China (bureaucratic, mobilizational, marketeer), showing how each dealt with industry, the private sector, and agriculture. Third, I became intrigued by a program entitled “economic readjustment” (1979-1982),  aimed at converting the output of heavy industrial plants  (machine-building, iron and steel) into light industrial products (textiles, bikes). I studied the program’s politics at the central level and its mechanics and troubles in the factories. Its book was From Lathes to Looms. 

The fourth, published as China’s Transition from Socialism, was grounded in interviews granted by the Wuhan City Government (1983-1988) I conducted with urban economic officials. It’s a fine-grained process study of how China’s economic reforms were designed and implemented in Wuhan. Fifth was my book on rural migration to the cities, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China—which won the Joseph R. Levenson Prize of the AAS for the best book on 20th century China published in 1999—the only one most people today have ever heard of. Next and last (so far) is my 2009 study comparing China, France, and Mexico on the causes and consequences of their joining supranational economic institutions (States’ Gains, Labor’s Losses). I’ve been publishing articles on the urban poor for over a decade; I’m starting to combine these into my (most likely) last book. I’ve also edited or co-edited another six books.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

First, get prepared to be for the long haul. Learn the language, ideally in an immersion program in China or Taiwan (or wherever is appropriate for your own work) that lasts at least nine months. Use the language as much and as often as you can. Read in an inter-disciplinary way about the country of your choice, and familiarize yourself with the history, even if your field isn’t history. But if your field is history look at the work of those in other disciplines. And spend time in the country, either often or for sizable chunks of time. Get to know people from the country. All of this is just common sense, but I can’t think of anything to say that is not.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself (your interests, hobbies, skills, etc).

I exercise every day, whether fast walking, swimming, Pilates, the gym, or biking. Practice piano most days and take lessons. Go to loads of concerts and some ballet. Tend to the flowers in the front yard and the plants inside all the time. Give dinner parties and keep up with a lot of old friends. Travel some. Still some conferences and giving talks (granted, not as much as I used to).