Oral Histories

Interview of David Johnson

Historian of pre-modern China; professor, University of California, Berkeley
Chinese Studies Scholars Oral History Project
Chinese Studies
Area Studies
Biographical Note:
Historian of pre-modern China; professor, University of California, Berkeley
He, Jianye
Johnson, David
Persons Present:
David Johnson and Jianye He
Place Conducted:
C.V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
This interview was conducted by Jianye He, librarian for Chinese collections, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley.The interviewer prepared for the interview by studying Johnson’s CV and reading a selective representation of his publications, including Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (co-edited with Andrew Nathan and Evelyn Rawski, University of California Press, 1985), “The City-God Cults of T’ang and Sung China” (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 1985), Ritual and Scripture in Chinese Popular Religion (Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1995), and Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China (Harvard East Asian Monographs Series, 2009).
6.25 hrs
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Series Statement:
The past sixty years have been an important period in the development of Chinese studies in the U.S and Canada. Those years have seen increased funding from Title VI and other sources, the evolution of new fields and areas of specialization, and the systematization and professionalization of scholarly training. They have also seen momentous changes in China’s status in the world and in the relationship between China and the U.S.—changes that, in turn, have had major consequences for the scope, status, and impact of the field of Chinese studies.Although these have been highly consequential years for Chinese studies, the details of these developments are often preserved only in the participants’ memories, and there has been no systematic effort to record those memories. The Chinese Studies Scholars Oral History Project is a collaboration among Chinese/East Asian studies librarians and scholars in the U.S. and Canada, the UCLA Richard C. Rudolph East Asian Library, and the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. Through in-depth, multi-session oral histories, it documents the development of the field of Chinese studies, the academic careers of its prominent practitioners, and the social, political, and economic context of which it was a part. Some interviews in the series are not available online at this time, among those the interviews with the following: Evelyn Rawski, Thomas Rawski.
Born in Webster, South Dakota-Move to Austin, Minnesota at three years old-Parents and brother-Public education from elementary school to high school-Reading experience at Carnegie public library-Memory of Sino-Japanese War and Korean War-Admission to Harvard University and scholarship-Changes major from chemistry to modern European history-Life in Kirkland House and friendship with Dick Johnson-Taking courses on classics of Chinese and Japanese literature and “rice paddies”–Receives Harvard Knox Travel Grant and studies Chinese at University of Hong Kong- Comes to University of California, Berkeley as a graduate student-Receives a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship and studies Chinese at the Stanford Center in Taipei with David Keightley from 1965 to 1967.
Returning to Berkeley-Anti-war movement at Berkeley- Chinese studies in the 1960s and Tang history field-Chinese history and Chinese literature studies at Berkeley (Frederic Wakeman, Joseph Levenson, Franz Schurmann, David Keightley, Peter Boodberg, Edward Schafer, Woodbridge Bingham, etc.)-Medieval Chinese history was not yet an established field-Chooses to study Tang history -Ph.D. advisor Wolfram Eberhard-Studying the Japanese language-Becomes a member of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS)-Impressed by Marc Bloch’s work-Dissertation topic-Berkeley’s East Asian Library and Center for Chinese Studies Library-Publication of the dissertation.
Becomes an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University-Other East Asian Studies faculty members at Columbia (Gari Ledyard, Paul Varley, Burton Watson, Edward Seidensticker, William Theodore de Bary, C.T. Hsia, etc.)-Teaching oriental humanities seminars with Barbara Miller-Connections with Patricia Ebrey-Robert Hartwell’s seminar for graduate students- Senior fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities of Columbia (1979-1981)-Revising dissertation-Wu Zixu paper and research interest on popular culture-Collaborating with Andy Nathan and Evelyn Rawski on an ACLS conference in 1981.
Joins UC Berkeley history department in 1983-Prepares “The City-God Cults of T’ang and Sung China” for Wolfram Eberhard’s eightieth-birthday festschrift-Protest to keep the East Asian Library’s card catalogs-First visit to China and an unsuccessful talk at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Opera in 1984-Friendship with Professor Wu Xiaoling (吴晓铃)- Co-edits book Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (1985) with Andrew Nathan and Evelyn Rawski- “The City-God Cults of T’ang and Sung China” article and research methodology-The Chinese Popular Cultural Project grant-Reflection on collaboration with Evelyn Rawski and Andrew Nathan-UC Berkeley visiting scholar Bo Songnian (薄松年) and the exhibition of his folk art collections-Friendship with Prof. Wang Chiu-kuei (王秋桂).
Receives the Chinese name Jiang Shibin (姜士彬)-Reasons for choosing Shanxi as a research focus-Several scholars in the field (James Watson, Prasenjit Duara, Myron Cohen)-Service on the ACLS-SSRC Grants Committee-Relationship between the history department and the oriental languages department-Changes in medieval China studies-Johnson’s legacy and the Ph.D. students he has trained- Contribution Johnson is most proud of (chapter in Popular Culture in Late Imperial China)- Chair of the program committee for the building of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library-Retirement-Challenges to today’s Chinese studies.