Kenneth Pomeranz, leading expert on China, appointed University Professor of History

Kenneth Pomeranz, one of the nation’s leading scholars of modern China, will join the University of Chicago faculty starting July 1 as University Professor of History.

University Professors are selected because of their internationally recognized eminence in their fields as well as for their potential for high impact across the University. Pomeranz is the 18th person ever to hold a University Professorship, and the sixth active faculty member with that title.

Pomeranz, currently Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, will help strengthen UChicago’s highly regarded body of scholarship on China, and help broaden the impact of that work across disciplines, said John Mark Hansen, dean of the Division of Social Sciences.

“Although a historian by training, Kenneth Pomeranz’s research addresses key questions for all of the social sciences,” said Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science. “He is a scholar of the first rank, and his recruitment makes an outstanding faculty even stronger. 

“His influence will be felt well beyond the Department of History. He will make an impact in the rest of the Social Sciences Division, in the Humanities, the Harris School, Chicago Booth and the Law School,” Hansen said.

Pomeranz said he was attracted to the University of Chicago because of its historically strong commitment to China and East Asia, the flexibility of its intellectual organization and the interdisciplinary nature of faculty scholarship. He said the scholarship of both undergraduate and graduate students at the University also played a role.

“I’m impressed that students at the undergraduate level are attracted to the University to become seriously engaged in the material they study, and that there is a robust graduate program in all fields,” he said. “Additionally, as a China scholar, it is exciting that there are people doing serious work across disciplines, in political science and in East Asian studies, including Japan and Korea.”

The University of Chicago Center in Beijing will facilitate his research, Pomeranz said. “We now have real colleagues on the other side of the Pacific, people who do serious work and have access to archives. Having facilities like the Center in Beijing makes a huge difference for collaborative projects, both with these scholars and researchers from fields such as geology who may not have the same background in Chinese that we Chinese specialists do.”

Currently, Pomeranz is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He was recently elected president of the American Historical Association.

His appointment drew praise from other University of Chicago faculty members.

“Kenneth Pomeranz’s appointment builds on tremendous strength in our modern Chinese history program, since we already have Jim Hevia and Guy Alitto in our department,” said Department of History Chair Bruce Cumings, the Gustavus F. & Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History. “He will contribute enormously to our comparative history group, because his masterwork, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, is a comparative history of China and Europe circa 1800. This appointment also underlines our commitment to the University’s Center in Beijing, and the general strength and direction of the University’s interest in China.”

Dali Yang, faculty director of the Center in Beijing, said he looked forward to Pomeranz’s scholarly contribution. “This is exciting news. I believe the Center will enable him to expand his intellectual engagement with scholars in China and in the region,” Yang said.

The appointment comes as the University as a whole is engaged in a significant expansion of its faculty.Pomeranz is the third University Professor to join the faculty in the past year, following composer Augusta Read Thomas and literature scholar Haun Saussy.

The arrival of Pomeranz will open up new opportunities for collaboration, said James Hevia, Professor in History.

“Kenneth Pomeranz is among a handful of the world’s leading specialists on China whose path-breaking work reaches beyond the discipline to engage a variety of interdisciplinary audiences in the social sciences and beyond,” Hevia said.

The Great Divergence won the John K. Fairbank Book Prize in East Asian History from the American Historical Association, one of the most important honors for a scholar of Asian studies. Published in 2000, it examines the ecological constraints shared by the world’s most densely populated regions, emphasizing the advantages for Europe of having access to the New World as Europe modernized.

“The work fundamentally altered the nature of the discussion concerning global history, economic development, and the nature of historical change,” Hevia said.

Pomeranz’s research has focused on three primary areas: reciprocal influences of state, society and economy in late Imperial and 20th-century China; the origins of a world economy as the outcome of mutual influences among various regions; and comparative studies of labor, family organization, and economic change in Europe and East Asia.

Another part of his work looks at the long-term significance and global context of environmental change in the time of the Qing dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911, and in 20th- and 21st-century China. He has devoted particular attention to water management in China, past and present.

He is also a co-author with Steven Topik of The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, a book that looks at the growth of the world economy and its effects on ordinary people. Pomeranz is currently writing a book called Why is China So Big?, which tries to explain why this very large area and population has become a single political unit.

Pomeranz developed his interest in China as a student at Cornell University, where he received a BA in history in 1980. A course on China prompted his interest in studying comparisons between societies. He became a graduate student of China at Yale University, where he studied under pre-eminent China historian Jonathan Spence. Pomeranz joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine after receiving his PhD in 1988.