Lei Yi 雷颐, an historian of late-Qing and modern China, joined the Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), in 1985 and has remained there to this day, pursuing research into modern Chinese intellectual history.
Due to his broad areas of academic interest, Lei Yi had a frequent media presence around the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution in 2011. Among other things, he argued that the resistance to substantive socio-political reform within the Qing court caused the dominant power-holders to make a series of crucial errors, or missteps, that by default empowered and emboldened radical revolutionaries. This contributed directly to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 and the collapse of dynastic rule in China. Lei’s essays on the subject are collected in the volume A Delayed Modernisation 被延误的现代化 (Daxiang Publishing House, 2002).
In a recent lecture, presented on the one-hundred and first anniversary of the revolution under the aegis of the Hunan University of Technology in Zhuzhou 株洲湖南科技大学, Lei discussed the relevance of the late-Qing period to the understanding China’s post-1978 reform era.
The echoes of the late Qing 晚清 in contemporary politics is something that Lei Yi pursues as a public intellectual, although it is a popular topic with many other writers and thinkers when debating China’s faltering reforms. Lei, however, brings a particular verve and stylistic flair, not to mention deep scholarship, to the discussion. In his frequent contributions to liberal-leaning popular media, he finds historical precedents for hot-button issues concerning contemporary culture and citizenship. For example, in a Southern Metropolis Daily 南方都市报 op-ed dealing with the controversy over the incursion of English terms and other ‘letter words’ 字母词 into Chinese texts, he outlines the ultimately futile opposition by late-Qing statesmen such as Zhang Zhidong 张之洞 and Duanfang 端方 to neologisms imported into Chinese from Japanese.
Lei Yi is also a microblogger who takes an active role in online discussions of current affairs. He contributed a short video commentary on behalf of Chen Guangcheng 陈光诚 when the blind activist was under house arrest, and posted dismissive remarks on articles that appeared in state media denouncing Chen’s US-assisted escape.
A recent masterful book, Li Hongzhang and the Last Four Decades of the Qing Dynasty 李鸿章与晚清四十年, subtitled ‘an old bureaucrat and an empire’ 一个老官僚与一个帝国 (Shanxi People’s Publishing House, 2008), uses key palace memorials 奏折 and letters 信函 to examine the famous late-Qing foreign minister’s career in the arenas of domestic affairs, diplomacy and modernisation. It was chosen as one of the year’s best books by a panel made up of cross-straits academics and mainland book journalists.
Lei Yi is the Chinese translator of Danny Wynn Ye Kwok’s Scientism in Chinese Thought, 1900-1950 (1965); Paul A. Cohen’s Between Tradition and Modernity: Wang T’ao and reform in late Ch’ing China (1974); and, Min-chih Chou’s Hu Shih and Intellectual Choice in Modern China (1984).
- Lei Yi’s blog and microblog.
- ‘Reflections of a Revolutionary’ 一位革命者的反思, on Li Xin 李新, Tencent History, 腾讯历史 30 July 2010.
- ‘The Qing Court Manufactured Revolutionaries‘ 清政府恰事革命党的制造厂, Southern Metropolitan Daily 南方都市报, 12 May 2011.
- ‘They Manufactured Revolution in the Xinhai Year’ 辛亥革命是被逼出来的, Global Times 环球时报, 11 October 2011.