December 2022

"A Nation of Immigrants"* is a biweekly talk show featuring the lives of U.S. immigrants, knowledge, diversity and inclusion.  This program was created by Kingsfield Law Office in collaboration with ThinkTech Hawaii.  Every other week, "A Nation of Immigrants" will be broadcast live on multiple local channels in Hawaii and streamed on www./ and major internet platforms.  The host of "A Nation of Immigrants" is Chang WANG, partner of Kingsfield Law Office.  



Transcript of Video below:

Chang WANG (CW): Aloha, good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman.  You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese.  But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American."  Welcome back to “A Nation of Immigrants,” a biweekly talk show featuring the lives of immigrants, knowledge, cultural diversity, and inclusion.  

In 1958, then U.S. Senator JFK published “A Nation of Immigrants.”  He proposed liberalizing the immigration law based on his argument that the United States is a nation whose population is predominantly made up of non-native people, immigrants, and refugees. 

Following are excerpts of the recent interview with Qiang FANG, professor of East Asian History at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  FANG received his Ph.D. in history at the State University of New York, Buffalo.  He’s the current president of the Association of Chinese Professors in Social Sciences (ACPSS).

History repeats itself

CW: You are an expert in Chinese history and specialize in legal history in China.  I remember you told me you came to the United States in the year 2000, the same year I came to this country.  Could you share with us your immigration adventure?

FANG: Thank you for the invitation again, for this chance to talk on the programme.

I came to the United States in 2000 as a doctoral student.  Coming to study in the United States has been a long dream for me.  I think most students in the 1980s cherished the dream to come to the United States -- the most powerful country, and it still is.  The biggest reason I went to the University of Buffalo (UB) is I got a full scholarship for five years from them.  Their application fees were also the lowest.  They were very impressed with my experience as a worker, a businessman, and also a journalist.  I applied to UB to study American history because my master’s degree in China is in American Diplomatic History.  And I'm a specialist on Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of America, and his foreign policy towards China and Mexico in World War I.  My destination advisor, Professor Roger Des Forges, is a specialist on Chinese Ming and Qing periods.  He encouraged me to change my major to Chinese history.  Then I thought about Chinese legal history.  That's why I shift my major.  I love that major and new direction.  I published an article on Chinese law in 2002, just two years after I arrived [in the US].  Later, I published several books around that topic.  After I graduated in 2006, I worked temporarily at a university in southern Missouri.  I came to UMD in 2008. 

CW: We're very lucky to have you at the University of Minnesota.  Your research is so interesting.  There are not many scholars or researchers in the west specializing in Chinese legal history -- I can probably name less than 10 -- it's a highly specialized area.  Do you think it’s a very well-established discipline, or is it still developing?

FANG: I think you're right.  There were a few American scholars specializing in Chinese legal history, and that's why I was stepping into this field.  The legal history of China remains a very popular field in the United States and also in China.  The reason I like this is probably because of a research grant I got.  As a doctorate in history major, the scholarship was not very high compared to engineering or biochemistry students.  I didn't have any money in the summer, but my advisor and I applied for a joint program - like a grant - from the law school at the University of Buffalo.  Because the grant came from the law school, it was the beginning of my research on Chinese law.  I decided to write my dissertation on the Chinese petition system (in Chinese it is called “shang fang”).  That's my first book, “Chinese Complaint Systems: Natural Resistance,” published in 2013.  I spent almost 10 years on that book.  

CW: It's fascinating.  The petition system is very hard to explain to a western audience.  It’s part of the current administrative system and has unique characteristics, and has a long historical background.  Anyway, my favorite historians, Professors John King Fairbank and Jerome Cohen at NYU, China Studies experts in the United States, have the impression that Chinese legal history has been penal and administrative in nature, and developed very little civil and commercial law.  Would you agree?

FANG: I think that's the argument first made by a historian at Cambridge University, I forgot his name.  In his book, “Science and Civilization in China,” I think that's the book ... Joseph Needham, yeah.  He argued that Chinese law is kind of a penal law, just includes punishment.  His argument has been criticized by some other legal historians.  They argue that Chinese law in the dynasties also contained civil law, not just penal law.  They give some examples and well-sourced arguments on that.  I was influenced pretty much by those arguments, but my field is a little bit different from theirs.  Mostly my research, for example, like the Chinese petition system and also Chinese law and power, that's intertwined with their arguments … Chinese legal history is fascinating and not as simple as some historians like Joseph Needham have argued.

CW: Let's change gear a little bit.  I understand you are leading a new research program - Chinese in Minnesota.  Please tell us why you want to do a research project on Chinese in Minnesota?

FANG: This project came to my attention in probably 2017 when I was the editor of Historical Record of Chinese Americans, an online collection.  After editing articles on Chinese Americans, I want to write a book on Chinese Minnesotans.  I read a book published in the early 1990s on Chinese Minnesotans.  But compared to today, that book is outdated.  Because it covered only Chinese students from the early 1900s to the late 1980s.  And most of those Chinese came to America before 1990 came from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and some other Chinese-speaking regions, like Indonesia in Southeast Asia.  After 1978, China opened its door to the west again.  Since then, more and more Chinese from mainland China, like us, came here first to study, and then stayed and settled our families and raise our children and worked here, and made Minnesota our home.  So how about those Chinese?  I think there are probably more than 45,000 Chinese Minnesotans, and maybe the majority of them are people like us.  Who's going to write their history, about their stories of study, work, settling down, and raising families in Minnesota?  That's why I proposed that book project on Chinese Minnesota.  I'm still applying for a grant from Minnesota Historical Society, but the project is still under review.  After the grant is approved, I will start.

CW: Minnesota is getting well-known for some not-just-too-good reasons, but the people in Minnesota, particularly the first- and second-generation Chinese, either from the mainland or elsewhere, have become part of the Minnesota cultural landscape.  And please definitely include yourself in this book, because you are one of the very pioneers to teach and research Chinese history in the state of Minnesota, and that's definitely worth noting. 

Now, a quick question for you.  If time travel permits and you can travel back to one of the dynasties in Chinese history, which dynasty would you like to travel to and be settled there?  Not coming back.  You have to become a resident of that dynasty.

FANG: I think that will be a tragedy for me as far as my research tells me.  My first book covers about 2,000 years of the Chinese petition system, from as early as the Zhou Dynasty until today.  But after I finished that book, my heart tends to be very cold, and my mood tend to be very pessimistic.  Because for about 2,000 years, it seems that those petitioners in different dynasties, their stories are almost the same.  If you go back to the Han Dynasty, you can find those petitioners kneeling down to the emperor.  And if you go back to 2010 or even today, some petitioners are still kneeling down in front of official buildings.  In that regard, I think the history of those petitioners and also of the political system in China has not changed much.  If I have a choice, I would not go to any of them!

CW: I understand.  That's a super smart answer.  And I totally agree with the implications.  There were a couple of historians, Professors Jin Guantao and Liu Qingfeng, who concluded that Chinese history is an ultra-stable system.  And as you just said, for thousands of years, history repeated itself and has very little change.  So now let's take a broader view - not only Chinese history but world history as well.  I'm going to share with you three of my favorite quotes about history and I want to hear your comments on these quotations. 

The first one is from Benedetto Croce, an Italian historian.  He said, “All history is contemporary history.”  The second one is from George Orwell, the British novelist, “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.”  Those two quotes are about narrative and postmodernism - history is narrative and can be changed or rewritten.  But the last and my favorite quote is contemporary, and very pessimistic, unfortunately.  It said “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”  So, I am eager to hear your comments on these general generalizations of history.

FANG: I think those comments are genius.  People who have not known too much about history were not to make those comments.  I like all the comments and I totally agree with them.  And like “Who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” that's true.  I think Emperor Tang Taizong, the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, once made a metaphor that history is a mirror.  There are three mirrors and history is one of them.  Because studying history allows a person to understand and know better about the fall and rise of a dynasty.  His metaphor is very popular in China, but those dynasties still have not changed.

CW: Exactly.

FANG: The reason I think conscientious historians, maybe I'm one of them and I hope I'm one of them, understand the problem of history, but we have no power.  Because rulers who have power probably don't have much interest in history, or those politicians or rulers do have interests in history - like Mao Zedong, for example, who liked reading history such as Sima Guang’s “A Comprehensive Mirror in Assisting Governance” many times, but tend to forget history and disregard those lessons in history when they are facing the real and practical decisions or problems.  That’s why history will repeat itself. 

CW: History repeats itself, and we learn from history that we do not learn from


We don't want to end our interview on a pessimistic note, and I'd like to get to the lighter topic.  When was your last time in China?  How long you have been away from there?

FANG: The last time I went back was in 2019 with my family.  We visited the tomb of my late father, who died in 2018.  Since then, because of the pandemic, we have not been able to go back.  But once China is open to other countries again, I probably will go back to see my mother at least.

CW: So you haven’t seen your mom for a few years? 

FANG: Yeah.  For three or almost four years.

CW: I'm so sorry.  Just think about it, there are millions of Chinese living outside the mainland.  And because of the pandemic policy in the past few years, most people have never had a chance to see their loved ones, their family, and their friends.  And some of them even didn't have a chance to see them for the last time and their family member passed away.  It's just such a tragedy. 

We normally conclude our interview with two general questions.  Question one is, if you're giving some advice to a younger you in your early 20s, what would you say?  If you are able to meet a 21-year-old FANG, what would you say to yourself? 

FANG: That's really a nice question.  I think the best advice I could give to them is to study harder and stick to one discipline as much as they can.  They don't need to be like me, as I have changed my major five times. 

CW: I learned from you because you are interdisciplinary.  And probably the reason you have certain accomplishments as a scholar is that you change your discipline a couple of times.

FANG: I know.  But that’s only me who can witness and also experience.  That's why when I was in graduate school in China, another fellow student told me, “Wow, you have had very rich experience, I would like to be like you.”  But I told him, “If we just change to each other, then probably you would never want to live in my life.” 

CW: I agree.  It’s not a copybook.  It's one person’s career path.  Life stories cannot be duplicated in any way, and everybody is unique. 

Final question: any books, particularly history books or history movies you are enjoying and you would recommend to our audience?

FANG: For the history book, I think the best book I would like to read again and again and also, I'd like to recommend is still Sima Guang’s “Zizhi Tongjian” (Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance).  It’s comprehensive and is a mirror in assisting governance.  That's a book I have read several times and still love it.  When I have time, I want to read it again.  The biggest merit or credit of that book is the pragmatism of that book.  It has a connection to the past and to the present.  If you want to use history as a mirror, to give a lesson to the present people, I think I'm still impressed and also am still influenced by that book even now.  And in all my research, I don't want to write a history book simply on a period in the past, what I want is to write a book to look into the future. 

CW: Definitely.  A most outstanding recommendation.  It's heavy lifting though.  It's a very thick book.  I would recommend Professor Jonathan Spence, his Chinese history books are much more entertaining, but obviously, they are not as serious as Sima Guang’s “Zizhi Tongjian.”  But I appreciate your recommendation. 

You can watch the entire interview and others, including China Insight publisher Greg Hugh “Be in Harmony, yet be Different”), in the series here.  


*“A Nation of Immigrants” hosted by Chang Wang was one of the winners of 2022 ThinkTech Family Awards and was awarded the “Show of the Year.”


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