In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, we sit down with Glenn Tiffert, LRCCS Post-Doctoral Fellow.
LRCCS: How did you first get involved in studying China?
Dr. Tiffert: I started out doing International Relations and Comparative Politics on the Poli-Sci side of things. At that time, China was the up-and-coming power, so I took a class and got bit by the bug. After undergrad I spent a year in China doing language work, then went to a law school with a strong program in Chinese law.
LRCCS: Where were you living after undergrad?
Dr. Tiffert: Beijing. I did the CET program, a full-year immersion program. This was in the early 90s. I got a chance to live in the dorms alongside Chinese students.
LRCCS: Your specialty is history of law, right?
Dr. Tiffert: Yes. The way I explain it is that I’m a 20th century China historian, who happens to work on law. Those are the sources I know best, and the questions I want to pursue in Chinese history, I can follow using legal materials.
LRCCS: What’s important to you about that?
Dr. Tiffert: What led me to the history of law was a desire to understand the present. Law helps us test and destabilize received truths about Chinese history, and the 1949 revolution. Law tends to be a bit resilient; it doesn’t change overnight. Through it, you can demonstrate how ’49 is not the disjuncture that it’s often presented as being. Ideology can shift quickly, but there are structures of knowledge and practice that carry through.
LRCCS: How do you conduct your research?
Dr. Tiffert: Some of the people active during the period I study are still alive, so a lot of my research was initially oral interviews. At this point, they are very old.
I also do a great deal of archival research. There was a period recently when state archives were much more open than they are today, and I was lucky to be in them at that time. Many of the resources I used are no longer accessible because the political climate in China has shifted.
LRCCS: Have you ever encountered any funny stories while doing your research?
Dr. Tiffert: At one point, I was based at Renmin University Law School. They had arranged for me to do research in their archives and other archives around China, without telling anyone I was a foreigner.
Dr. Tiffert: Yeah. And I had an experience over and over again where everything was cool until people realized I was a foreigner. The arrangements were made but when I showed up they would say ‘Oh, you’re that guy?’
The first day would be good, because everyone’s just uncomfortable and embarrassed, but I would see heads sticking out, phone calls getting made, and then I’d come back the second day and suddenly No. The doors were figuratively locked.
Sometimes I’d be working on something and I’d go to the bathroom and come back and it’s like I’d grown horns. A conversation had clearly happened in the interim. Foreigners can have that experience. There are some prominent foreign historians who use Chinese grad students as research assistants to circumvent that problem.
LRCCS: What’s your favorite library in Beijing?
Dr. Tiffert: Oh, well this is the history geek in me, I don’t even work on this stuff, but I loved going to the Number One Historical Archives in the Forbidden City. Back when I went, you could actually hold memorials that the Qianlong Emperor had written. You could look at the script; see how the paper was constructed. Nowadays everything is digitized and you don’t have those opportunities as much.
LRCCS: What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
Dr. Tiffert: I’m trying to bring the dissertation out as a book. I feel like it has something to say, especially changing the way we talk about 1949 and contemporary Chinese law. I’ve been working on it a long time and am eager to see it fly.
There’s also a new professional society called the International Society for Chinese Law & History (http://chineselawandhistory.com). An explosion of younger historians of China working in legal materials felt the time was right to organize. Right now we’re trying to establish the field and build representation in various conferences. It’s exciting to be a part of something that’s just getting started.
LRCCS: What kind of an impact do you want your research to have on the world?
Dr. Tiffert: My research straddles many different communities – law, social science, contemporary China studies. I want to find a way to talk to all of these audiences, while also being accessible to the general public. It’s a very hard needle to thread. If you can get your ideas out there, it can change people’s understanding of China today.
And I really enjoy doing it!
Thanks for reading the latest edition of the LRCCS Spotlight! Stay tuned for more interviews with the LRCCS Post-Docs.