Current Institutional Affiliation
Assistant Professor, History, Washington University in St. Louis

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2014
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Columbia University
Inventing the Mind: Colonial Psychology and Minority Script Reforms in China, 1950s-1960s

My research explores how studies of the human mind have affected greater state policies concerning the reform of ethnic minorities' languages and scripts in the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the 1950s and 60s. When the PRC was founded in 1949, almost half of its territory was inhabited by ethnic minorities speaking different languages and writing in dozens of scripts. The PRC promised a new socialist civilization predicated on scientific progress and equality. To attain this goal, it needed to create new subjects with new minds, free of the pathologies of an earlier age. In the 1950s, supported by the Soviet experts, the PRC decided to unite dozens of writing systems used by the minorities by Romanizing all of them. Collective memories were thus deleted; it was time to write a new history. The turmoil caused by these reforms was nowhere more severe than in Xinjiang, the buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the PRC largely inhabited by Turco-Muslim minorities. Their Arabic script was first Cyrillized in 1956, then Romanized in 1964, and when the PRC's endeavors failed in the end, it was re-Arabized in 1982. I argue that the script reforms of the 1950s and 60s were intimately connected to psychological theories concerning the human mind, and that script was used by the PRC as a colonialist technology to transform minority consciousness. Chinese psychologists in the Republican era (1912-1949) were already investigating the psychology of literacy; and in the 1950s, the import of Soviet psychology and linguistics changed earlier theories and put them into practice. "Psychological Committees" and "Language and Script Committees" were established side by side throughout the minority regions, and writing systems of the minorities were all transformed. Investigating Xinjiang, my research explores the significance of psychological theories in minority script reforms, and reevaluates the line between science and colonialism in a Chinese context.