Student Spotlight

1st Annual Connie Chin Memorial Prize for Writing in East Asian Studies Awarded

Shirley (Xuehan)  Zhao

Shirley Zhao (MA '21, East Asian Studies) was awarded the 1st annual Connie Chin Memorial Writing in East Asian Studies, for her paper "The Great Manchurian Plague: An Event of Nation-Making and the Experiences Failed to be Captured."

"Ms. Zhao has produced a remarkable study of the great plague epidemic in Manchuria at the very end of the Qing dynasty," notes Matthew Sommer, Bowman Family Professor of History. “Her interest in this topic was sparked by the current COVID-19 pandemic, during which she has been quarantined on campus, and in particular by seeing its differential impact around the world, its political effects in different countries and how it has laid bare the socio-economic inequities within specific societies. Using multiple newspapers and other primary sources from the era, her thesis explores how the pandemic became a vehicle for developing and disseminating new technologies, for international cooperation that integrated China into the wider medical world, and for mobilizing nationalist sentiment at a time when China faced so many crises.”   

In Zhao's own words: "I found that soon after the Manchurian Plague’s outbreak in October 1910, a nationalist discourse dominated both regional and national print media in China, where the Chinese elite and intellectuals treated the plague as a national crisis. Guarding the nation’s health was defending the state’s sovereignty, and overcoming the crisis embodied a national transformation. My history knowledge told me that such nationalist narrative of the plague fit in the nation-making trend in modern China, but piecing together the news reports from the localities, I learnt that the elite discourse failed to capture the experiences of the inarticulate masses. The vast majority of the people was struggling for survival at the society’s bottom, and their fear and anxiety deviated from the nationalist sentiments. At the end of the 1910-11 plague, the nation’s victory was celebrated and remembered whilst some lives were forever lost.”

“As I was re-engaging and rediscovering about the Great Manchurian Plague, I was surprised by how little our world seemed to have changed over the past century. If a medical crisis in 1910 could be so seamlessly woven into the changing political culture with selected evidence, then the politicization of responses to the coronavirus and the nationalization of responsibilities in 2020 should not be surprising,” Zhao comments. “When the severity of the virus is depicted as a Democratic hoax, and when Foreign Ministries are busy casting blame on each other, attention has been distracted from addressing real human sufferings and forging collaborative efforts to battle the disease. Pathetically, scientific research to find treatment and cure has been turned into an international competition, and when states spare no effort in advocating and implementing strict quarantine, nothing is said about the unfortunate side effects that range from the lack of treatment of chronic and mental diseases, to the unchecked proliferation of domestic violence.”

Zhao concludes, “History does repeat itself—the more I study it, the more firmly I tend to believe so. Individual experiences are so easily consumed by grand political and geopolitical narratives. This was true when the Chinese nation was just being formed and only becomes truer as we move deeper into an era of competing nation-states. But diseases do not infect countries, parties, or regimes. Diseases infect people. I sit back and ask: what does it mean for a country to be proud and strong if its people are actively suffering and dying?”

Sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and the Center for East Asian Studies, the Connie Chin Memorial Writing in East Asian Studies recognizes and rewards outstanding examples of writing in an essay, term paper, or thesis produced during the current academic year, in any area of East Asian Studies, broadly defined. It is dedicated to beloved colleague Connie Chin (1946-2020), who enjoyed a 44-year career at Stanford beginning in 1976, moving several times between the Center of East Asian Studies and Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, where she spent her last 13 years as Department Manager.