H-Business Emerging Scholar Interviews, by Ashton Merk

The Business History Conference offers extensive support to emerging (or early-career) scholars, including a doctoral colloquium, a mentoring program, and, crucially, a much-loved free breakfast at the BHC. But when, exactly, do you emerge? And what happens after that?   That’s what I hope to illuminate with this series of interviews with emerging scholars on their state of mind, the state of the field, and everything in between.

Today’s interviewee is Dr. Zhaojin Zeng, Assistant Professor of History at Duke Kunshan University.



AM: How did you get interested in business history? 

ZZ: My interest in business history started in my fourth year as a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. At that time, I returned from one-year fieldwork in China and began to analyze the archives I collected about a local iron factory. After spending time going through the materials, I was fascinated by the lives of ordinary managers and workers going through many of the tumultuous events in China’s twentieth century. Also I started to realize that few books or articles have been written, especially in a bottom-up approach, on the Chinese factory’s everyday operation and their industrial elites’ interaction with the changing political regimes. So, very naturally, business history started to arise as one of the most important themes of my dissertation.


AM: What is your favorite memory of the BHC?

ZZ: My favorite memory is the 2017 meeting in Denver, which was my second BHC conference! (My first one was in Miami in 2015, which was nice too.) The 2017 meeting opened me up to a whole new network. I was accepted to the doctoral colloquium and presented at the regular program. Through these opportunities, I came to know a number of graduate students and senior scholars, who later became friends and collaborators. We later organized many wonderful events together with the BHC.

Since 2017, I have gone to the BHC meeting every year (when travel was still part of our life), and amazing things followed suit. In early April 2018, I arrived in Baltimore as a sixth-year doctoral student for the BHC meeting of the year. At the check-in desk, my cellphone rang. It was an email from the University of Pittsburgh’s History Department, with a faculty position offer in it. My first job offer ever!


AM: That’s such a great story. Since then, you’ve left Pittsburgh, and are now working in China. Tell me a bit about your current role at Duke Kunshan University.

ZZ: I am an Assistant Professor of History in the Division of Arts and Humanities and Senior Research Scientist at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at Duke Kunshan University (DKU), a new Duke-affiliated campus located west of Shanghai. At DKU, we are developing an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum with excellent students coming from all over the world. Faculty here are committed to both teaching and research excellence. A lot of us are designing interesting new courses for those interdisciplinary majors. My teaching sits at the intersection of history and social science, and I have taught courses on economic, business, and industrial history of China and the United States as well as China’s economic reform.


AM: DKU is such an interesting place - it’s sort of a combination of a small liberal arts college but with the spirit of an R1. So let’s talk about your current research. Where are you in the process of turning your dissertation research into a book and/or publications? 

ZZ: I am currently finishing up my first book. It is a factory history of modern China, where I use an in-depth case study to shed light on the interaction between regional industrial elites – an evolving group of individuals who operated factories at the ground level – and the successive political regimes over the long twentieth century. My argument is that regional industrialism is an important source of economic and social change, and regional elites’ engagement with the state and responses to state policy shaped the course and outcome of China’s economic transformation. Overall, my work will be a new microhistory of China’s industrialization.


AM: Sounds fantastic, I can’t wait to see it in print. And are you working on any other projects right now?

ZZ: Yes, my research interest has moved into the more recent period and become more globally oriented. Currently, I’m developing two new projects. One is a regional history of China’s economic reform. I look particularly at the role of local governments and their entrepreneurial initiatives in the making (and unmaking) of China’s economic miracle since the 1980s. The other is an interdisciplinary project on the history of data governance. I am leading a research team to examine business and governmental practices towards data ownership, transfer and flow, storage, and usage. 


AM: Having gone through the academic job market, especially as it’s changed in the last 2-3 years – what would you tell your past self?

ZZ: I would tell my past self that COVID was about to hit us, so travel, now! – Well, just kidding, I would work as hard as possible on every job application and interview. A tip on job market prep for other emerging scholars on the market or about to be on the market: get at least two pieces of sample works thoroughly refined. A full draft manuscript will definitely help. (But still try to be confident in yourself and your research even when you don’t have those works.)


AM: Thanks, I think that’s really prudent advice. Do you have any advice for emerging scholars who are just entering the field?

ZZ: In my experience, the BHC community is one of the most friendly, open-minded academic groups. Come join us!


AM: What do you wish you could tell advanced/mid-career/"emerged" scholars?

ZZ: When you or a colleague in your department is  about to retire, please do whatever you can to make sure your department hires another business historian. We will appreciate it very much.


AM: What are you reading these days? What work is the most interesting or exciting to you right now?

ZZ: I am reading a lot of data science related books now. Knaflic’s Storytelling with Data is one of my recent favorites. Historians are generally good at telling stories, and what we need to do in next couple of years, in my perspective, is to combine our strength with new things that will shape the world. I thus wanted to learn a bit about how data science can empower storytelling. 


AM: Any last words for our audience? Where can we find you/your work?

ZZ: My recent updates can be found at www.factoryhistory.com. It also has the newsletter function. Please subscribe – I will share many interesting stuff on academics and life.



This is part of a series of interviews with Emerging Scholars on H-Business. 

Because I’m away and not able to update these interviews in real time, some of their contents, particularly peoples’ current roles or positions, may be slightly outdated. In some cases, I may check back in for an update when I return, in August or September.

- Ashton Merck, H-Business Associate Editor