Matthew Van Duyn

PhD Candidate: History
Matt Van Duyn

About

Matthew Van Duyn is a doctoral candidate (PhC) in the history department and will be completing his dissertation writing in the spring of 2020 supported by a China Studies Dissertation Fellowship. In the fall of 2019 and winter of 2020 he will be teaching full-time as an instructor in the Department of History at Western Washington University.        

“My dissertation research uses a close examination of urban planning and, especially, the construction of residential housing projects in Shanghai in the 1950s as a lens to study the processes and meanings of urban revolution for the daily lives of workers, the group the revolution was ostensibly intended to serve. I chose Shanghai as the site of my research because of its particular colonial history. Any effort to change Shanghai was also an effort to address its past of colonialism, though of course that past could not be erased. I specifically focus on the so-called Workers’ New Villages, which were residential housing developments designed to- provide residents with easy access to services such as food markets, schools, and cultural centers, as well as transportation access to the factories where they worked. In my dissertation, I use a variety of sources I collected while living in Shanghai during the 2017-2018 academic year, when I was supported by a Fulbright Fellowship. More generally, my research is centrally concerned with the promises and problems of state-sponsored efforts at urban planning in China and around the world. I aim to analyze how these projects can hold out hope for creating new, more equitable cities and societies at the same time that they shape the lives of individuals in ways that can be hegemonic and undesirable.”

Interview with Matthew:

 1. What does your research focus on?

My research uses a close examination of urban planning and, especially, the construction of residential housing projects in Shanghai in the 1950s as a lens to study the processes and meanings of urban revolution for the daily lives of workers, the group the revolution was ostensibly intended to serve. I chose Shanghai as the site of my research because of its particular colonial history. Any effort to change Shanghai was also an effort to address its past of colonialism, though of course that past could not be erased. I specifically focus on the so-called Workers’ New Villages, which were residential housing developments designed to- provide residents with easy access to services such as food markets, schools, and cultural centers, as well as transportation access to the factories where they worked. Using a variety of sources, including both government documents and interviews with residents who lived through the revolutionary changes of the 1950s, I will examine how these projects were planned and carried out as well as how they impacted the lives of those who resided in them. I will pay great attention to moments when the design and implementation of these projects was contested and even resisted. My dissertation is centrally concerned with the promises and problems of such state-sponsored efforts at urban planning in China and around the world, suggesting that these projects can hold out hope for creating new, more equitable societies at the same time that they shape the lives of individuals in ways that can be hegemonic and undesirable.

 2.What are the personal and intellectual motivations behind your dissertation research?

My dissertation project is relatively new and is motivated by a variety of changes in both my intellectual development and my political development. After graduating from college, I taught English at an elementary school in Urumqi, Xinjiang, from 2009-2010 in the aftermath of the massive riots between Uyghurs and the majority Han that left at least 197 dead. By the time I left, I had decided to apply to PhD programs in Chinese history, thinking simplistically, that I wanted to study history in Xinjiang as a way to better understand the tensions, violence, and inequality I encountered in Urumqi.

My nascent political conscience exploded in graduate school at the University of Washington as I was exposed to critical theories and colleagues who were passionately committed to issues of social justice. My intellectual development in Seattle has been compounded by my experiences living in a city quickly gentrifying under the influence of very uneven development that has pushed the poor, often racial minorities, around and out of the city. It was in this context of rapid urban change and questioning social inequities that I began to interrogate why I should study Chinese history as a white, American man. I wanted to find a way to address sources of inequality in the world such as colonialism, while also looking forward to possible solutions. This process of self-examination led me to abandon my plans to study Xinjiang and turn my focus to Shanghai because of its particular history as a city that was colonized by western powers. The experiences of white men in China are inextricable from the history of colonialism, and adopting Shanghai as my research site will allow me to confront that history. I developed a dissertation project on public housing in Shanghai to connect my political and personal commitments to creating more equitable communities with my intellectual development as a historian. Though we can all agree that the Chinese revolution had many flaws, the efforts to build housing for thousands of working class people speak to a utopian urge that should not be ignored as we think through ways of addressing gentrification around the world

3. What would you like to do in the future?

Ideally, I would like become a professor of Chinese history who engages with questions of the relationships between socialism, colonialism, and modernity. I am also committed to addressing questions of how to increase access to safe and equitable housing through my scholarship, interaction with colleagues in China and America, and community engagement.