Kenneth Pomeranz earns Dan David Prize for scholarship on East Asia

Prestigious award honors one of the world’s leading scholars of modern China

Kenneth Pomeranz, one of the world’s leading scholars of modern China, has been awarded the prestigious Dan David Prize for his studies of macro history, focusing on East Asia.

Each year, the Dan David Foundation awards three $1 million prizes for innovative achievements in interdisciplinary research exploring the past, present and future. Pomeranz shares one of this year’s prizes with Prof. Sanjay Subrahmanyam of UCLA, who specializes in the early-modern period in India and whose work Pomeranz has long admired.

“The news was a wonderful surprise,” said Pomeranz, University Professor of Modern Chinese History and in the College. “It’s still too soon to know how it will help my work moving forward, but I can already imagine many possibilities. Meanwhile, it is a wonderful honor; the list of earlier winners is full of people who have made extraordinary contributions to understanding our world.”

Pomeranz studies the influences of state, society and economy in late Imperial and 20th-century China. He also examines the origins of world economy and the impact of cultural and geographic differences on economic development in Europe and East Asia.

Pomeranz’s landmark book The Great Divergence (2000), a comparative history of China and Europe circa 1800, redefined how scholars explain the rise of industrial Europe compared to that of Asia. It was awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History, an honor also bestowed on his 1993 book, The Making of a Hinterland. Pomeranz remains the only two-time winner in the 50-year history of the Fairbank Prize, one of the most important honors for a scholar of Asian studies.

“Ken is a global historian of the first water,” said Paul Cheney, Professor of European History and the College at the University of Chicago. “He not only makes comparisons between distant regions of the globe, he sustains them over several centuries. This is what makes The Great Divergence such a tour de force.”

In 2012, Pomeranz joined the UChicago faculty as a University Professor, becoming only the 18th person ever to hold that title, which reflects internationally recognized eminence in one’s field.

Pomeranz’s research has been influenced by the pioneering work of UChicago scholar William McNeill, who taught history at UChicago from 1947 through 1987 and authored The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community.

“He was one of the first professors of academic history to take a chance on this sort of work, looking beyond the histories of individual nations or regions,” Pomeranz said.

Enriching distant worlds

Receiving the Dan David Prize as a macro historian is an important acknowledgement of the value of taking such a broad view of historical period or events, Pomeranz said. He noted that the study of macro history is not always recognized as a defined area of research because it spans such vast periods and places.

“This affirmation is meaningful, and I am honored to be recognized in this way,” he said.

Cheney noted that Pomeranz has a gift for comparing economic structures and processes over long stretches of time and space.

“When he writes and teaches on such an immense scale, it never feels forced or overly abstract,” Cheney said. “Through carefully posed questions, intriguing analytical puzzles, and telling facts he illuminates and enriches our understanding of the distant worlds that he puts into conversation with one another.”

Pomeranz said the award will potentially allow him to explore new research directions and field work, hire assistants, and support translations that will contribute to the study and teaching of East Asian and global history. Recipients also donate 10 percent of the prize to doctoral and postdoctoral scholarships for research in their field to foster a new generation of scholars.

The Dan David Prize is endowed by the Dan David Foundation, which is headquartered at Tel Aviv University. Past UChicago winners have included Nobel laureate James Heckman (2016) and Visiting Professor Lorraine Daston (2018).

—This story first appeared on the Division of the Social Sciences website.