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Elya Zhang Headshot

Elya J. Zhang

  • Assistant Professor of History

PhD, University of California, San Diego

418 Rush Rhees Library
(585) 275-9358

Office Hours: W 10:20am - 12:20pm, and by appointment



Global History

Research Overview

Maps, foreign loans, and East Asian history are my specialty.  In my research and teaching, I explore the financial and spatial history of capitalism in China.  

My book manuscript, entitled Dollar Loans, Fabled Market, and the Modern Chinese Debtor State, 1890s-1979, is currently under academic press review.  It is the very first systematic effort to examine modern China’s external debts, with a focus on American loans and their effects on Chinese politics in the 20th century.  Based on the quantitative findings on 733 Chinese loans with creditors from seventeen countries, I found that the U.S. was modern China’s largest creditor nation (lending nearly $1.1 billion) with the most disappointing results (over $700 million not repaid).  I investigate the history and the structural factors behind the fizzling of American loans and reveal how they directly undermined America’s pursuit of the fabled and vast Chinese market. 

My next book project, provisionally titled “Spider Manchu in a Telegram Age: Duanfang and the Ending Years of Qing China,” will be a network study of China’s transition from empire to nation through the life of the empire’s most well-connected Manchu statesman.  This dissertation-based project was awarded an An Wang postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard’s Fairbank Center in 2009 but had to be suspended abruptly due to the closing of the Duanfang Archives in Beijing’s First Historical Archives until 2017.

Awards & Grants
  • [2016-18] Student Course Development Projects Grant,  Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, University of Rochester.
  • [2015-17] Working Group Grant, Central New York Humanities Corridor Program, “The Chinese Quest for Modernity.”
  • [2014] American Council of Learned Society, ACLS Fellowship.
  • [2012] Abraham J. Karp Teaching Award, University of Rochester.
  • [2010] Faculty Research Grant, Fordham University.
  • [2009] An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship, Fairbank Center, Harvard University.

Digital Experiments

I. Visualizing Traditional China

Students picked up Adobe Creative Suite to create a personal “living history” of distant lands.


II. Debating Japan: A Class Project

Students confronted  current dilemmas on camera and shared their arguments and evidence online in a vivid intellectual confrontation. 


III. The “Mapping History” Series
This six-semester-long series of courses aims to stimulate students to “spatialize” history using ArcGIS applications and thus challenge them to see and draw and create what they might otherwise simply read. 

A: Rich China, Poor China (Fall 2016)

B: Twelve Chinese Macroregions (Spring 2017)

C: The Yellow and Yangtze Rivers (Fall 2017)

D: The World that Trade Created: Fifteen Global Commodities (Spring 2018)

E: Empire on Railways: Great Britain, the U.S., and China (Fall 2018)

F: The Silk Road, Old and new (scheduled for Spring 2019)


Graduate Fields

I offer the following fields for the PhD qualifying examination. For explanations of fields, see the "Program Formulation" page in the Graduate Handbook.

Teaching Field: East Asian History; International History; Economic History

Research Field: Modern China; History of Capitalism

I will not be accepting students for admission in Fall 2020.

Courses Offered (subject to change)

  • HIS 140:  Traditional East Asia
  • HIS 142:  Traditional China
  • HIS 145:  Modern Japan
  • HIS 236A:  Digital History: Twelve Chinese Macro Regions
  • HIS 236B:  Digital History: The Yellow and Yangtze Rivers
  • HIS 246A:  Digital History: The World That Trade Create
  • HIS 246B:  Empire on Railways: Britain, the U.S., and China
  • HIS 246C:  The Silk Road, Old and New
  • HIS 293:  China and the U.S. since 1900
  • HIS 342:  Rich China, Poor China

Selected Publications

  • Dollar Loans, Fabled Market, and the Modern Chinese Debtor State, 1890s-1979 (under review).
  • "A 'Face' Intervention for Premodern History Courses," accepted at Perspective on History, forthcoming Fall 2019 
  • [Book Review] Elisabeth Köll, Railroads and the Transformation of China,Business History Review, Volume 93, Issue 2 (Summer 2019), 411-413. doi:10.1017/S0007680519000758
  • [Book Review] David Pietz, The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China, Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 74, Issue 4 (November 2016), pp.1125-1127.
  • “It Never Rains in America?” Review Essay on Sheldon Garon, Beyond Our Means: Why America Spends While the World Saves, Reviews in American History 42:4 (December 2014), pp.756-764.
  • "Reform is A Bonus: The Networking of Upper-Level Officials in the Last Decade of the Qing Dynasty." In Sherman Cochran and Paul G. Pickowicz eds., China on the Margins (Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 102-149.
  • "To Be Somebody: Li Qinglin, Run-of-the-Mill Cultural Revolution Showstopper." In Joseph W. Esherick and Andrew G. Walder, eds., The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford University Press, 2006), pp.211-239.