Rewalking China Road

Mitchell Featured

Of course, sometimes there is the despair. The more I work, the further I get from an answer. But that’s the point—there are always new avenues, new paths for going forward with research.

At first glance, Harvard senior Adam Mitchell does not look like a scholar of Ming Dynasty economic history. He could pass for an indie rock star, or perhaps an actor in a Stanley Kubrick film, but this afternoon, when he presents his research to an audience of East Asian Studies faculty, he is giving another kind of performance. “We know about economic conditions in the Song, and we know that they were drastically different in the Ming. But how did we go from one to the other?” he asks his audience.

As if to confirm the room’s silence, he concludes, “It’s a black box. None of the leading theorists in this field have the data to back up their claims.” In fact, Mitchell has spent the past three years working on this problem. By designing a computer program to read large amounts of local records at once, Mitchell has been able to extract vital population statistics without having to spend hours navigating difficult tracts of classical Chinese. “And it’s not just statistics that I’m pulling out,” he adds. “I’m getting these fantastic stories about tigers and pirate attacks and dragons emerging from lakes.” The pirate attacks will be for a future project, he laughs.

Mitchell was first drawn into China studies when he encountered NPR journalist Rob Gifford’s book, China Road. At the time, he was fascinated by the idea of trekking the 3,000 miles from Shanghai to the Gobi Desert, especially in a country that remains so mysterious to the West. “China Road something you’d pick up at the airport,” Mitchell explains in an interview with Brevia. “Now, looking back, I’ve realized just how many misconceptions there are in that book. The more I study China, the more I realize I was wrong—and wrong in so many ways.”

Eventually, Adam Mitchell hopes to break down the barriers between academic work and narrative non-fiction. In the summer of 2011, Mitchell traveled to the northern province of Sha’anxi to record the stories of beggars. “The first thing that struck me was that many of these beggars didn’t have a name,” he remembers. “One woman was 90 years old. She was the fourth daughter of her family, and just went by that number as her name.”

Another woman he interviewed, Li Hongfang, had been disfigured by seven facial tumours, and had been forced to beg for money for treatment. After Mitchell photographed and recorded her story, Li’s plight made its way into local Chinese newspapers, the Huffington Post, and even a Japanese television show. Earlier this year, the local government paid for over $90,000 in restorative surgery, which has removed the majority of her tumours. “These people are living components of a history that’s constantly changing,” Mitchell says, “As historians, our duty is to bring those stories to a wider audience, not to breed misconceptions about other cultures.”

Whether through Ming Dynasty statistics or interviews with street beggars, Adam Mitchell is examining a slice of China that has yet to be discovered. “I want to say something new and creative and useful,” he says. “Of course, sometimes there is the despair. The more I work, the further I get from an answer. But that’s the point—there are always new avenues, new paths for going forward with research.”

The writer can be reached at rachelwong@college.harvard.edu.