Susan Mann: Pioneering Historian of China Wins Highest Peer Honor

Historians in the News

Susan Mann, a renowned historian of China, has been named the 2008 Faculty Research Lecturer by her colleagues at the University of California, Davis.

"Susan Mann is internationally known for her pioneering work on the history of women in China," history professor Alan Taylor said in announcing the 66th annual award last month at the spring meeting of the UC Davis Academic Senate. "... She revolutionized the study of Chinese history."

The Faculty Research Lecture is the highest honor bestowed by UC Davis faculty on their peers and recognizes outstanding scholarly research. It comes with a $1,000 cash award. In keeping with tradition, Mann will deliver a spring Faculty Research Lecture to the campus and community; the free lecture will take place at 7 p.m. May 6 in ARC Ballroom B. Titled "The Sex Education of a Sinologist," it will offer the first public preview of Mann's forthcoming book, "Gender and Sexuality in Modern China."

Mann grew up in a Detroit suburb, in what she describes as a "classic middle-class, postwar, 50s family." She was a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1961 when she first decided to study Chinese. At the time -- four years after the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite -- the United States government was encouraging students to study "exotic languages" as a way to gain ground in the space race and defeat communism. Mann went on to earn her bachelor's degree in Far Eastern languages and literatures at Michigan and her master's and Ph.D. in Asian languages at Stanford University. She then moved to Chicago, where she taught at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

She credits a group of radical women students at the University of Chicago in the mid-1970s with pointing her toward the field of women's history and gender studies. The students, who made up the Women's Union on campus, needed a faculty sponsor. They appealed to Mann. She agreed, and also acceded when the students asked if they could use her house as a meeting place. At the meetings, as the students discussed women's wages and the emergence of feminist theory in academia, Mann began asking new questions about her area of focus: China in the 18th century. At the time, no one had studied the writings of Chinese women of that era from a historical perspective.

"Where are the women?" Mann wanted to know. "What did life look like from their point of view?"

Mann has answered these and other questions in three books, four edited volumes and 35 research articles and essays.

She first made her mark with a 1987 article in the field's premier publication, the Journal of Asian Studies. There, she demonstrated new possibilities for studying women's experience and gender relations to yield novel insights about Chinese government and society.

That article led to her 1997 book, "Precious Records: Women in China's Long Eighteenth Century," which won the Joseph R. Levenson Prize, the premier annual prize awarded in the field of pre-20th century China.

In 2002, she was recruited by the editors of the "Cambridge History of China" to write a chapter on "Women, Families and Gender Relations" in the 17th and 18th centuries. The chapter "offers a thorough and elegant summary of a burgeoning field which she helped to create," according to Ted Margadant, professor and chair of history at UC Davis.

Her latest book, "The Talented Women of the Zhang Family," reconstructs the lives of three generations of women who married into, or descended from, a family of scholar-officials. The University of California Press, which published the book last year, says that it "illuminates a China that has been largely invisible."

Margadant, who nominated Mann for the Faculty Research Lecture award, also praised her teaching, leadership and service to the campus. "Her scholarly productivity is especially striking because of her commitment to teaching, her leadership in national organizations and her service to the university," Margadant wrote in his nominating letter.

Among her many honors, Mann in 2000 was elected president of the Association of Asian Studies, an organization of 7,000 historians, literary scholars and social scientists. At UC Davis, where she has been a member of the faculty since 1989, she has chaired both the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Department of History and received the Outstanding Mentor Award from the UC Davis Consortium for Women and Research.

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