Associate Professor, History School of Arts and Sciences

Siyen Fei received her PhD degree from Stanford University in 2004. She teaches and researches Chinese history at Penn. Her work to date is primarily concerned with the political and cultural activism of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Ming dynasty China (1368-1644). Examining the action of wide-ranging historical actors—women, urbanites, and border residents—she engages and expands the new scholarly paradigm of “defiant late Ming energy” that re-visions a society formerly considered submissive to an all-powerful imperium. In particular, her research on gender, urbanization and empire breaks new grounds by exploring how this emerging state-society dynamics drove and shaped unprecedented transformations in Chinese history: A patriarchal system subverted by court-promoted control of female sexuality; an idealized rural empire facing drastic waves of urbanization; a self-proclaimed Han-native Chinese polity destabilized by cross-border migration and resultant de-sinicization. Excavating these paradoxical historical movements, her books uncover fascinating stories about the interplay of structure and agency.

Her current book project Sexuality and Empire: Female Chastity and Frontier Societies in Ming China (1368-1644), takes on a highly politicized issue in China: identity. The new research focus on empire-making builds on her recently published book Negotiating Urban Space: Nanjing and Late Ming Urbanization (Harvard, 2010) that argues urbanism in late imperial China was intricately defined by the distinct vision of each dynastic empire. This finding is of great historiographic significance to Chinese urban history: In spite of general agreement on the extraordinary scale of urban growth during this period, a heated debate over Chinese urbanization continues. In fact, just about the only thing that scholars agreed upon is what urbanization in late imperial China was not; that it did not trigger the same reaction as in Western Europe, be it Weberian urban autonomy or civil society as described by Habermas. This book argues that the source of this conceptual impasse lies in the fact that the seemingly continuous commerce-driven expansion of the urban sector in the last millennia of imperial China is in fact punctuated by a wide variety of what she calls “dynastic urbanisms.”

Courses Taught (As Schedule Allows)

  • HIST 096 Late Imperial China
  • HIST 097 China in the 20th Century
  • HIST 206 Cities in Chinese History
  • HIST 206 History of Private Life in China