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Tom Mullaney

Tom Mullaney

Professor of Chinese History
Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of History
Faculty Fellow, Science, Technology, and Society (STS)
Faculty Associate, Modern Thought and Literature (MTL)
East Asia
History of Science
Transnational, International, and Global History
PhD, Columbia University, 2006
M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 2000
B.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1999



Biography New Research PhD Students

Thomas S. Mullaney is Professor of Chinese History at Stanford University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and Curator of the international exhibition, Radical Machines: Chinese in the Information Age.

He is the author and editor of 7 books and special issues: 


His writings have appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies, Technology & Culture, Aeon, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy, and his work has been featured in the LA Times, The Atlantic, the BBC, and in invited lectures at Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and more. He holds a PhD from Columbia University.

His most recent book, The Chinese Typewriter, winner of the 2019 John K. Fairbank Prize, examines China’s development of a modern, nonalphabetic information infrastructure encompassing telegraphy, typewriting, word processing, and computing. This project has received three major awards and fellowships, including the 2013 Usher Prize, a three-year National Science Foundation fellowship, and a Hellman Faculty Fellowship.

He directs Digital Humanities Asia (DHAsia), a program at Stanford University focused on East, South, Southeast, and Inner/Central Asia. DHAsia was recently the recipient of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar fellowship.

He is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dissertation Reviews, which publishes more than 500 reviews annually of recently defended dissertations in nearly 30 different fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

New Research
Hot Metal Empire: Script, Media, and Colonialism in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East
At the turn of the twentieth century, a breakthrough in typesetting transformed the modern media landscape. Hot metal typesetting displaced moveable type, sweeping newspaper plants throughout the United States and Europe - and soon Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. With missionary-like zeal reminiscent of the Propaganda Fide, and a hunger for lucrative new markets, the manufacturing giant Mergenthaler Linotype, and its London-based licensee Linotype and Machinery, carved up the world of script along already lines of empire, colonialism, and the rising power of the United States. Soon, letterform artists and sales representatives in Brooklyn and London found themselves trafficking in Arabic, Armenian, Burmese, Devanagari, Hebrew, Korean, Mongolian, Siamese, and over one hundred others scripts. Hot Metal Empire charts the transformation of media and script in in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
The Chinese Computer: A Global History of the Information Age (MIT Press, Forthcoming)
As the first-ever history of Chinese computing in the 20th and 21st centuries, QWERTY is Dead will explore the circuitous pathways and eccentric personalities of this unknown chapter in the history of global information technology. Drawing upon extensive oral histories, material artifacts, and archives from Asia, Europe, and the United States, the book charts out the pursuit of Chinese computing from its inception in the early Cold War period; its pathway through a network of American academic and military outfits that included MIT, the CIA, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, the RAND Corporation, and the Graphics Arts Research Foundation; to its development within a burgeoning network of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese computer scientists from the 1970s onward.
Ethnic Potential: The Constitution of Minority Identities in Post-Classification China
In China of the 1950s, ethnologists, linguists, and Communist authorities undertook a bureaucratic-cum-social scientific project known as the “Ethnic Classification.” Here it was determined which among China’s hundreds of ethnic minority communities would and would not be officially recognized by the state. Such was the subject of his first book, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (UC Press, 2011). What followed after the Classification was an equally if not more complex process which historians have yet to understand, let alone document. Having merged nearly 400 minority communities into just 55 officially recognized categories, the Chinese state would now need to determine (or invent) the “standard” form of each: a standard or “representative” dialect, clothing style, dance-form, folklore, historical narrative, and much more. What ensued was a deeply politicized process in which state authorities, social scientists, and ethnic minority elites struggled to determine the hierarchies that would govern intra-ethnic (as compared to inter-ethnic) relations for which group - a profound challenge when we consider that single “groups” encompassed upwards of dozens of distinct subgroups or “branches.” For those ethnic subgroups whose spoken language and cultural forms were designated as “representative” of the group overall, one could expect to hear it broadcast over radio and television, and encounter one’s cultural practices in print, performance, film, pedagogy, museums exhibits, and more - the primus inter pares. For those whose cultural forms were demarcated as “dialectal” or “variant,” by contrast, their potential fate stood in stark contrast: a marked absence of state investment in their identity forms, and the specter of widespread, local-level cultural extinctions. This book investigates the constitution of minority identities in the post-Classification period.

PhD Advisees (current & former)

Primary Advisees: Gina Anne Tam | Andrew Elmore | Koji Hirata | Ben Allen (Modern Thought and Literature) | Riley Brett-Roche | Michelle Mengsu Chang

Secondary Advisees:  Wesley Chaney (Bates College) | Annelise Heinz (University of Texas, Dallas) | Jennifer Hsieh (Anthropology) | Stephan Risi (History) | Tomo Sugimoto (Anthropology) | Yanshuo Zhang (East Asian Languages and Cultures) | Yvon Wang (University of Toronto)

Gina Anne Tam (Assistant Professor, Trinity University)

Gina Anne Tam's dissertation seeks to understand how the social and cultural meaning of dialect (fangyan) changed in China over the course of the twentieth century. Beginning with missionary phoneticization projects in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century and ends with the "save the dialect" movement of the post-Mao period, this project will highlight the ways in which innovation in academic research, state-building projects, and cultural upheaval shaped the ways in which the Chinese understood and interacted with their own spoken languages. This narrative will also, through the changing relationship of regional speech and the increasingly hegemonic national language, illuminate the changing relationship between local and national identity over the course of the modern period. Gina has been the recipient of the Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship (2013-2014) and the Blakemore Foundation Fellowship for Advanced Asian Language Studies, among other prestigious awards.

Andrew Elmore

Andrew Elmore's dissertation research traces the fragmented history of modern Chinese masculinity from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. In particular, it examines a spectrum of masculinities over time, in different locales, to shed light on the heterogeneity of the masculine as a category. Drawing on archival sources from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as textbooks, muscle magazines, propaganda posters, and literature, his work examines how individuals and institutions attempted to put changing forms of masculinity at the center of modern Chinese history.

Koji Hirata (co-advised with Jun Uchida)

Koji Hirata’s dissertation, tentatively titled “Steel Metropolis: Planned Economy, Urban Space, and Political Culture in Northeast China, 1909-1997,” examines the origins, operations, and legacies of Soviet-style planned economy in China. Focusing on northeast China, and drawing upon archival sources in Chinese, Japanese, and Russian, the project examines the transformation of one of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises and its hometown from the Japanese colonial rule through the Post-Mao economic reform. By doing so, this dissertation reconsiders three issues: the development of Chinese planned economy, the formation of a new urban space designed for the purpose of economic growth, and the mobilization of the Chinese people to economic ends.

Ben Allen (co-advised with Andrea Lunsford)

Ben Allen, a recent PhD in Stanford’s interdisciplinary Modern Thought and Literature program, completed his dissertation, titled “Between Text and Machine,” on the relationship between computer programming languages and natural language. Drawing on a diverse set of materials, ranging from meeting minutes related to the development of the earliest programming lan guages to contemporary “code art” and science fiction, Ben aims to show how and why we came to understand computers as things to be programmed in formal languages derived from English, and how this connection between programming and English shapes our understanding of what digital media are and can be. This dissertation sheds light on questions about how scholars in the humanities can fruitfully “read” code, and indicates ways that digital media artists and contemporary programming language designers can productively trouble this connection between (a particular) natural language and computation itself.

Michelle Mengsu Chang (co-advised with Edith Sheffer)

Michelle Chang is a second-year PhD student in the field of Transnational, International and Global History. Her research interest revolves around urban history in 20th-century China, the Soviet Union, and Germany. In particular, she is interested in examining the intersection between mass ideology and urban landscape and culture, and also in regarding the 20th century within the focused space of cities such as Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing. Before coming to Stanford, Michelle received her BA from UC Berkeley and her MA from Yale University, where her master's thesis examined how Nanjing's unique urban character in the 1930s played a crucial role in determining how the Nanjing Massacre would be commemorated in public history in the post-war era.

Riley Brett-Roche

Riley Brett-Roche's undergraduate and graduate work prior to Stanford centered around Sino-Indian and Sino-Tibetan relations in the modern and late imperial periods. Based on Chinese and Tibetan sources, her masters thesis evaluated failed Qing attempts to reform the Tibetan administration during the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong reigns. During her time studying Tibetan in Nepal, she explored the monastic library and began to critically consider the creation, organization, and development of archives. Her current research considers the history of the paper archive’s conservation, organization, and accessibility in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Selected Publications & Projects

Tom Mullaney
Chinese writing is character based, the one major world script that is neither alphabetic nor syllabic. Through the years, the Chinese written...
Tom Mullaney
James Leibold, Stephane Gros, Eric Vanden Bussche
Constituting over ninety percent of China's population, Han is not only the largest ethnonational group in that country but also one of the largest...
Tom Mullaney
Founded in 2010, Dissertation Reviews features overviews of recently defended, unpublished doctoral dissertations in a wide variety of disciplines...