Meet the contributors to Chinese Characters: James Carter
Tell me about the first time you went to China.
I first went to China in the summer of 1992, to work on my Chinese after my first year in graduate school. I remember my arrival very clearly: I’d invested a lot of time, money, and energy into a PhD program studying a country I had never visited. As the plane broke through the clouds, descending into Beijing, I wondered, what if I hate it?! Happily, I didn’t. My first meal in China was at a street fair of some kind, near the Beijing Hotel on Chang’an Boulevard. To this day I don’t know if it was animal or vegetable.
I spent six weeks in Harbin. The contrast between Harbin in 1992 and Beijing/Shanghai in 2012, is of course stunning. Two examples surrounding communication will illustrate. In the summer of 1992, if I wanted American baseball scores, I had to walk to the adjacent campus where issues of the China Daily would be posted, usually 3 to 4 days behind. If space permitted, the scores would be posted. When I traveled to Beijing in winter 2011, the group I was with was eternally frustrated because the football scores from America relied on the wireless connections for their smartphones. Often, results were 15 minutes—or more!—behind.
The other sharp contrast was calls home. In 1992, they required a 15-minute walk to the center of town, where a single hotel was equipped for international calls. I would book the call at the desk, wait for it to be connected, and after 5 to 20 minutes be directed to a phone where I could speak for about $1 per minute. Today, if a hotel does not have a broadband Internet connection (rare) I can almost always find a nearby Internet cafe.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from working on your chapter for Chinese Characters?
Writing for Chinese Characters I was reminded of Faulkner’s comment on history, now approaching cliche status: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” I had started researching Lok To’s teacher, Tan Xu, in the mid-1990s, never expecting to find his heirs and students living an hour’s drive from my home. As it turned out, the connections between present and past were one of the most important parts of my book about Tan Xu and the chapter for Chinese Characters enabled me to develop those connections in even more detail, this time with an eye on the present.
Where are you right now and what are you working on?
I’m based in Philadelphia, at Saint Joseph’s University. Right now I am starting research for a book centered on the last race at the Shanghai horse track, which was on May 8, 1941, before the war closed them down. The idea is to focus on a single day, and to illustrate the interactions among empires at a moment packed with symbolism.
James Carter is a professor of history and the director of International Relations at Saint Joseph’s University. He is the chief editor of Twentieth-Century China and the author of 2010 book Heart of Buddha, Heart of China. He is pictured here with the monk Lok To in the Bronx, 2005. Find him on Twitter @jayjamescarter.