Shen Zhihua 沈志华

Photo via

Shen Zhihua is an historian greatly admired in China as a pioneer of archival research on the Cold War, the Korean War and Sino-Soviet relations. Internationally renowned for his scholarship, Shen first attracted significant media attention in 1995 when he committed some 1.4 million yuan of his own money to buy declassified historical archives from Russia. A six-year project (1996-2002) grew out of this acquisition which Shen undertook in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), involving the translation, collation and editing of the archival materials. The project led to the publication of the thirty-four-volume Selected Historical Documents of the Soviet Union 苏联历史档案选编, released in installments from 2002 to 2008. This massive anthology has shaped mainland scholarship about the Cold War ever since.

Shen’s intellectual career is reflective of the tumult and opportunity that characterised the early reform years under Deng Xiaoping. Shen achieved professorial stature without tertiary qualifications as his youthful attempts at further education were stymied. In 1976, he successfully expunged a fabricated murder rap inserted into his personal file, only to be labelled a counter-revolutionary. This made him ineligible for the university entrance examinations that were reinstated in 1977. Nonetheless, he was eventually accepted for graduate studies at CASS, owing, as he later recalled, to the good offices of  Deng Liqun, then a Vice-President of CASS and China’s propaganda chief in the early 1980s. In 1983, however, Shen was arrested on the charge of leaking state secrets and received a two-year jail sentence. Released early in May 1984, he found himself a pariah and unable to return to his studies. In the spring of 1985, he went to Shenzhen to pursue an export business opportunity and was soon enjoying a comfortable living. The resumption of his academic career began with his return to Beijing in 1988 to help a publisher friend edit manuscripts. He realised that he could follow an independent intellectual career provided he had the funds to do so. Shen returned to the south to start a gold trading business in Guangzhou and soon made a fortune. In 1993, he founded his own research institute in Beijing, laboriously named the Centre for Oriental Historical Research and Association of Chinese Historical Studies 中国史学会东方历史研究中心 (which operates today as the Association for Oriental Historical Studies 东方历史学会). Shen and his wife Li Danhui 李丹慧, who is also a noted Cold War historian, run this private research institute which has hosted numerous conferences, seminars and other forms of scholarly activity. The institute has also sponsored the publication of dozens of books and articles on China during the Cold War years. Shen is currently Director of the Center for Cold War International History Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai. He holds adjunct professorial positions at CASS, Peking University, Renmin University, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has a five-year appointment as a public policy scholar (2009-2014) at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (or The Wilson Centre).  Below we present some highlights of Shen’s scholarship:

In Mao, Stalin and the Korean War 毛泽东、斯大林与韩战 (1998), Shen provided a rich empirical study of the relations between China and the Soviet Union in the period preceding China’s intervention in the war. This was a follow-up to his 1995 book, Secrets of the Korean War 朝鲜战争揭密. Shen’s scholarship in the mid- to late 1990s was strikingly at odds with that of Party historians and he was widely praised among his peers for offering an evidence-based and critical perspective on how Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1950s. Using archival materials, he traced the decision-making process leading to China’s intervention in the Korean War. He also drew extensively on published memoirs and monographs as well as on diplomatic documents that he had gathered from both Russia and the US.

Shen’s Realpolitik analysis was to have a profound impact on subsequent mainland scholarship about the Korean War. Up until then, official accounts had presented two main reasons for China’s intervention in the war: preemptive self-defense to ensure that the war did not spill across the border; and, support for a neighbourly ally in defense of communist internationalism. In contrast, Shen advanced the view that China, as a fledgling member of the Communist bloc, needed to prove itself to the Soviet Union in order to secure protection and assistance for its planned military campaign to ‘liberate’ Taiwan. He also argued that Stalin had endorsed Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea partly because of the Sino-Soviet Treaty negotiations in 1950. The result of these negotiations was that the Soviet Union would have to vacate its military base at Lushun (Port Arthur) in 1955, leaving North Korea as its only option for an ice-free Pacific port. According to Shen, China’s involvement in the Korean War reflected its inability to negotiate with the Soviet Union as an equal. By focusing on the different interests involved in the triangular relationship between China, Korea and the Soviet Union, Shen substantially undermined the official account of China’s decision to enter the Korean War. Highlighting the hollowness of the Chinese government’s claims of a ‘teeth and lips’ relationship with North Korea, Shen also argued that North Korea’s subsequent policy of radical isolationism was a direct consequence of China’s involvement in the war. (He presents a summary of these points in a lecture on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, 朝鲜对抗心态从何而来, 凤凰网讲座, 25 February 2013).

Shen was widely acknowledged as China’s foremost Cold War historian by the late 1990s. In 2011, Stanford University Press published a collection of translated essays by Shen and Li Danhui under the title After Leaning to One Side. The essays examine China’s relationships with its allies during and after the Korean War and argue that the war shaped Chinese official policy, thereafter reinforcing the consensus of the Party leadership that ‘the only way for China to achieve an independent position among the world’s powers was to struggle continuously.’ The anthology has enabled the scholarship of this husband-and-wife team to reach a wider international readership.

Online biographies of Shen frequently include the line, ‘Personnel files broke his rice bowl in the first half of his life but became his soul food in his later years.’ Shen’s business talents, his personal wealth and his willingness to spend enormous sums of money in furthering Chinese scholarship have earned him many fans in China. He has spoken freely about how he exploited loopholes in China’s transitional economic system in the 1980s to gain a reputation as China’s biggest gold trafficker. He reminisced in a 2008 interview about how, as a frequent flyer in the 1980s, he brazenly carried bags of gold bars between north and south, explaining that while gold was a heavily regulated commodity in China at the time, it was easily obtained through ‘connections’ (see this Southern People Weekly interview).

The Chinese media make frequent reference to Shen’s ‘legendary’ purchase of declassified Soviet archives in the 1990s. He has spoken of how he successfully bypassed a Russian bureaucracy that levied high fees and tough restrictions on foreign access to archival materials by recruiting a team of Russian scholars to photocopy, collate and ship several suitcases worth of documents to his home in Daxin, Beijing.

In 2013, Shen attracted media notice again. First, there was much publicity in January surrounding the eight book-length works he published in 2012, Shen Zhihua’s Five Books on the Cold War 沈志华冷战五书, a five-volume anthology of his writings, A Forced Choice: The Cold War and the Fate of the Sino-Soviet Alliance 无奈的选择:冷战与中苏同盟的命运, a two-volume anthology, and At the Crossroads: China from 1956 to 1957 处在十字路口的选择:1956-1957年的中国.  Then in an interview in March with the Chinese journal Time-Weekly 时代周报, Shen reflected on the situation of historical scholarship in China, noting that mainland scholars were at a distinct disadvantage by comparison with their foreign counterparts. He referred to Ezra Vogel’s magisterial 928-page work, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Harvard University Press, 2011), praising it as scholarship that Chinese people simply could not achieve for the time being. He added, ‘Actually, if Chinese people could really research this topic, they would surely reach depths that he couldn’t.’  The remark, and Shen’s interview, was soon widely relayed on the Chinese Internet.

Additional links

  • Profile in Southern Metropolis Daily 南方都市报, 沈志华:想写的太多,差的是时间, 5 May 2013.
  • Kramer, Mark, ‘Review of Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, “The Whirlwind of China: Zhou Enlai’s Shuttle Diplomacy in 1957 and Its Effects” ‘, H-Diplo, 4 November 2011. Online in PDF version.
  • Shen Zhihua, ‘Sino-Soviet Relations and the Origins of the Korean War: Stalin’s Strategic Goals in the Far East’, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2000, pp. 44–68. Online in PDF version.