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Grant, USF Fellowship Support History’s Kuo’s Interest In China

Published: April 15, 2013

China may sit on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from Long Beach, but it has long been of close interest to History’s Margaret Kuo. Her new book and current fellowship at the University of San Francisco (USF) are dedicated to investigating China’s past.

Kuo, an associate professor of Chinese history, was awarded a two-year fellowship at USF’s Center for the Pacific Rim, funded by an $86,250 grant from the EDS-Stewart Chair for 2011-13. The topic of her research is “Law and Morality: John C.H. Wu and the Making of Modern China.”

The EDS-Stewart Chair Fellowship promotes cross-cultural understanding and scholarly cooperation between China and the West, while the grant is meant for research, teaching, publications, public lectures and symposia on topics related to the study of encounters between Chinese culture and Christianity. Kuo’s grant is sponsored by USF’s Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History, a premier global resource for the study of Chinese-Western cultural exchange with a core focus on the social and cultural history of Christianity in China.

Kuo was selected for the fellowship from an applicant pool of more than 80 other scholars. She expressed gratitude to the CSULB Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for supporting her fellowship, and to her department chair and deans.

Kuo book cover

“I feel very fortunate to have the support of history Chair Nancy Quam-Wickham and COLA Deans Gerry Riposa and Mark Wiley,” she said. “I know it wasn’t easy to extend that support in the current budget environment. I am grateful for this opportunity and am trying hard to make the most of it.” She also credits her history colleagues Emily Berquist and Marie Kelleher, both of whom received major external grants, for inspiration in applying for her current fellowship. “Emily was very helpful in giving me advice about how to apply,” she said. “Her example inspired me to do this in the midst of grading and prepping lectures. It was her encouragement that got me to do this.”

Kuo’s current research energies are directed toward the figure of Chinese legal scholar John C.H. Wu (1899-1986).

“I first became interested in Wu through his involvement in Chinese lawmaking where he was a key figure in drafting the Chinese constitution still in effect in Taiwan,” she explained. “He was a successful lawyer, judge, legislator and constitutional scholar who formed part of the 1920s-1930s elite of Chinese intellectuals.”

In 1937, this legal giant converted to Catholicism. “This conversion came at the same time as the Japanese invasion of mainland China,” she explained. “At the height of his career, in the midst of political intrigues, he turned away from politics and became devoutly Catholic. This is what set him apart from other modernizing Chinese intellectuals. He concentrated on finding spiritual meaning at a time when his contemporaries were obsessed with national strength, wealth, power, and the military. He also addressed Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism in his search for a syncretic version of Catholicism that would be more appealing to Chinese people. After the Communist Revolution in 1949, he lived in self-imposed exile and ended up teaching law in New Jersey.”

The reduced teaching obligation that is one of the benefits of the fellowship also has allowed Kuo to embark on new research projects.

“The release time has been so incredibly valuable,” she said. “It has been very productive to interact with a broad community of scholars, give talks and meet people you don’t get a chance to meet while focused primarily on teaching.”

The grant funded conference and research travel, enabling her to present her work at meetings sponsored by the American Historical Association, the Association for Asian Studies, Columbia University, UCLA, and at the Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China conference in Hangzhou, China. She also taught one course each semester at USF on such topics as East Asian civilizations and the international politics of the Asian Pacific.

Of her recent accomplishments, the one she is most proud of is the publication of her book, Intolerable Cruelty: Marriage, Law, and Society in Early Twentieth-Century China, from Rowman & Littlefield.

“The book reflects my training in both law and history,” she said. “That training strengthened my ability to scrutinize archival legal documents, to establish a comparative framework for my research, to engage with scholarship on Chinese history as well as law and society, and to anchor my study of gender and law in China to universal ideas of justice.”

Kuo’s Intolerable Cruelty explores key issues in modern Chinese history including state-society relations, social transformation and gender relations in the context of the Republican Chinese experiment with liberal modernity. Investigating both the codification process and the subsequent implementation of the code, Kuo challenges arguments that discount Republican law as an elite pursuit that failed to exert much influence beyond modernized urban households. Instead, she recasts these years from the perspective of women who actively engaged the law to improve their lives.

Margaret Kuo

Intolerable Cruelty reflects Kuo’s longstanding interest in Chinese women and their lives. She argues that the promulgation of a modern Chinese civil code enabled women in particular to adopt an emergent lens of rights and liabilities to articulate their personal grievances.

“Marital disputes were certainly not new to the Republican period, nor was the use of the law by women, but the scale of women’s engagement with the law became much more widespread and the legal and social frameworks under which such disputes were adjudicated shifted to include the idea of rights and gender equality,” she explained.

In a chapter on spousal abuse, Kuo addresses changes in the way Chinese people thought about their life choices—marriage as well as their expectations and disappointments about marriage.

“At the time, domestic abuse was thought of as a misfortune of fate,” she said. “Women had to endure and accept their lot unless the abuse was extremely egregious. Legal reform during the Republican period opened up new avenues for women to pursue their interests. Abuse that had been viewed as a matter of fate was now seen as an injustice. Women had grievances and sought remedies. They had the chance to take action and transform their lives so they didn’t have to live in an abusive marriage.”

Kuo concluded that, while the period of Chinese history from the 1930s and 1940s is usually thought of as grim years for Chinese women, a look at their individual court cases from that period reveals dramatic change. Her book brings out previously obscured social transformations that took place on a gradual, incremental scale through the agency of individual women, described as a “bloodless social revolution,” rather than by mass mobilization or violent upheaval directed by political parties.

“It wasn’t change on a grand scale that saw millions of women united behind a political campaign,” she explained. “These were the stories of individual women making changes in their own lives. In many ways, their domestic situations were more important than big political campaigns.”

The Taiwan-born Kuo received her B.A. from UCLA before acquiring a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. After practicing tax law, she returned to UCLA to pursue graduate studies in Chinese history, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. She also served as an assistant professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Her skill set includes fluency in Chinese and she deems language abilities, especially the ability to read modern and classical Chinese sources, as crucial to her research in Chinese history.

“Reading handwritten Chinese court documents was quite a challenge, but the deep empirical basis for the book is one of its strengths,” she said. “I looked at local court cases from a period in Chinese history when records were not uniformly typed. There were interrogations and depositions written in a running script that is hard to decipher even by native Chinese speakers.”

Other scholars might be tempted to rest on their laurels after so much productivity. Instead, Kuo already plans such projects as a photography book based upon the records of Passionist missionaries serving China’s Hunan Province from 1921-55.

“Instead of my more typical research into archival documents, for this project I am reviewing a valuable collection of photographs detailing the missionary work of nuns and priests working in churches, orphanages, schools and hospitals in Hunan,” she said. “The photographs are also rich sources for studying the local society. Many of these photographs have never been used by historians before. They tell us as much about rural China as about the missionaries who took the photos. In May, I plan to travel to Hunan to interview descendants of the Chinese Catholic families that have survived.”

Kuo looks forward to returning to CSULB over the summer and sharing the fruits of her research. Her fellowship has spawned new course ideas and new research topics that she hopes will benefit the campus community.