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Melanie Manion: A Left Turn to a Career of Scholarship on China

Part of the Building the Faculty, 2016 Series
Melanie Manion's research has traced more than 30 years of political and social change in China. Photo by Elisse Carroll Photography
Melanie Manion's research has traced more than 30 years of political and social change in China. Photo by Elisse Carroll Photography

Thanks to a college professor painting a bleak picture for future researchers of China, Melanie Manion is now an internationally known scholar. On China.

 “The simple answer is it was a mistake,” she says. “I was studying France and Europe as an undergraduate at Universite d’Ottawa. I envisioned my future as a scholar of French history.”

It was the 1970s. Her professor predicted China would become the place for fascinating research in years to come. The country was experiencing major changes, including the end of its communist “cultural revolution” and, in September 1976, the death of communist leader Mao Zedong.

But he didn’t encourage Manion to change course and study China. Quite the opposite.

“He said China is tough to study, poor, plus it’s difficult to be there and a closed country,” she recalls.

That was all Manion needed to hear. 

“I then went to China on a two-year fellowship because he made it sound like a challenge,” she says, laughing.

Manion has been fascinated by the country ever since.

“Nobody prepared me for studying China, especially as an undergraduate,” she says. “Studying China requires every kind of skill I have.”

Manion studied philosophy and political economy at Peking University and Far Eastern studies at McGill University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She earned her doctorate in political science from the University of Michigan.

This fall, the native of Canada came to the Duke campus as the Vor Broker Family Professor of Political Science.

Manion’s research focuses on contemporary authoritarianism, with empirical work on bureaucracy, corruption, information and representation in China.

She has received awards from organizations including the National Science Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Social Science Research Council and American Council of Learned Societies. She’s also written or co-written several books. Her most recent is “Information for Autocrats” (Cambridge University Press, 2015), which examines representation in Chinese local congresses.

“It’s a very exciting place for me, obviously,” she says of China. “I love my research and teaching at the graduate and undergraduate level.”

Teaching students from China can be particularly interesting because of the sensitive nature of politics there, she says. Manion says she stays away from ideological preconceptions. She focuses on what we know and encourages her students to think deeply about their course work.

“I want them to grasp how things work,” says Manion, whose fluency in speaking Mandarin Chinese gives her added credentials with Chinese students in the United States and with her research subjects in China, she says.

Her connection to Duke actually began long before Manion came to the university. While at Peking University she became friends with classmate Tianjian Shi, who also became a highly respected researcher of China.

Shi, or “TJ” to friends, arrived at Duke in 1993 and taught in the Political Science Department. He also held posts at Tsinghua University in China and was best known for his work on political participation and elections in China.

Shi died on Christmas Day, 2010, at age 59.

For Manion, now working where her close friend once taught runs deep. “In some ways,” she says, “being at Duke feels so perfect to me because of its connection to TJ.”