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The Stories We Tell: The Politics of History in China and the United States

March 7, 2023 @ 4:30 pm 6:00 pm

Read our blog post on the event: The Stories We Tell: Can the U.S. and China Reset their Conflicting Narratives?

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law, Harvard University; Staff Writer, The New Yorker
Wen YU, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Boston College

Moderator: Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, Harvard University

If every nation needs a shared history, what is our story, and who gets to tell it? These questions haunt both the United States and China.

The revival of nationalist interpretations of American history has rekindled debates about the role of history in shaping the meaning of American identity and the country’s shared values. Since the creation of a shared history that begins with the nation’s founding ideals has been central to the construction of American identity, debates about shared values in the United States are often inseparable from debates about the meaning of the past. Similarly, in China throughout the 20th century and into the present, the interpretation of Chinese national history has been the battlefield for defining the country’s identity and shared values.

Jill Lepore, Professor of American History and author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” and Wen YU, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Boston College, will examine the similarities between the ongoing debates in both countries. In a conversation moderated by Michael Puett, Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, they will also explore the tensions between history as a nation-building story and as a mode of inquiry that allows for self-examination and the integration of the historical experiences of other societies.

The Fairbank Center Big Questions Initiative, conceived by PhD candidate Benjamin Gallant, aims to challenge conventional views of fixed cultural differences through a series of public conversations that examine how China, America, and other societies have debated and addressed ​​a similar set of central questions. By inviting prominent scholars from outside of Chinese studies to engage in dialogue with scholars studying China, we hope to encourage the audience to think in more complex ways about China and the United States, and in the process, to gain a deeper understanding of how we are all connected.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law at Harvard University. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her many books include, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018), an international bestseller, named one of Time magazine’s top ten non-fiction books of the decade. Her new book, “The Deadline,” will be published in 2023. She is currently working on a long-term research project called Amend, an NEH-funded data collection of attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution.

Wen YU is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Boston College. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2018 and served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan from 2019 to 2021. Her research focuses on China’s history of social and political thought, ideological movements, and intellectual culture from the seventeenth century to the present. She is working on a book project based on her award-winning dissertation, entitled “The Search for a Chinese Way in the Modern World: From the Rise of Evidential Learning to the Birth of Chinese Identity.” It explains how defining Chinese cultural identity has become central to the intellectual debates about the political system and moral values in modern China.

Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. His interests are focused on the inter-relations between history, anthropology, religion, and philosophy, with the hope of bringing the study of China into larger historical and comparative frameworks. He is the author of “The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China” and “To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China.” His course, “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” is one of the most popular courses at the university.

Benjamin Gallant is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages at Harvard University whose research focuses on the intellectual and legal history of early China. His dissertation project examines how people used and debated the past in ancient China as the emergence of legalist statecraft and an imperial bureaucracy introduced enormous tensions between the state, the family, and the individual. His research has been supported by the Fulbright Program, the Gerda Henkel Foundation, and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Also available on Zoom. Register at: https://harvard.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_d-hUobBFTZOvmU8n5amfzA

YouTube recording of “The Stories We Tell: The Politics of History in China and the United States”


March 7, 2023
4:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


CGIS South, Tsai Auditorium (S010)

1730 Cambridge St
Cambridge, MA 02138 United States

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