Getting to know… Fei Yan


A series introducing the Visiting Scholars & Fellows in residence at HYI this year

Photo by Lou Jones

Fei Yan (Associate Professor of Sociology, Tsinghua University; HYI-Radcliffe Institute Joint Fellowship recipient, 2023-24)
“The Politics of Collective Decision-Making and Contentious Mass Factionalism in China, 1966–1968”

What got you interested in your research topic?

My current research focuses on the dynamics of mass factionalism and collective violence during the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1968. The most puzzling question regarding the explosion of this intense rebellious rivalry centers around the mechanisms and processes of collective actors’ political choices. This puzzle has also been conceived as the central question of almost every theory about intergroup conflicts within political movements: How do oppositional groups form within a particular historical context? What forces bring ordinary people to band together, fight together, and die together?

My initial ideas and data collection for this project date back to 2008. Now, nearly 15 years later, I find myself still deeply immersed in this study. Along this academic path, I have had the privilege of being mentored by two outstanding advisors: Andy Walder from Stanford University and Michael Biggs from the University of Oxford. Andy excels in Chinese Cultural Revolution, while Michael is adept at statistical analysis. Both advisors have their unique strengths, but they share a strong foundation in theoretical framework of social movements. Their academic backgrounds, mentored respectively by Ezra Vogel and Theda Skocpol, have cultivated their interests in political sociology and historical sociology, which has greatly influenced my own academic perspective and research interests. As a result, I have become thoroughly immersed in the interdisciplinary field where history, politics, and society intersect. This journey of academic exploration has led me to delve into the fields of political sociology and historical sociology, as well as several related subfields.

Outside of work, where can we find you?

We have developed a deep fondness for Boston, particularly during its summer and fall seasons. One of my cherished activities is exploring Walden Pond, a place that exudes a tranquil atmosphere, providing us with a profound sense of serenity. Walden Pond offers a distinctive experience in both summer and fall, with each season bestowing its own unique views and emotions. As Henry David Thoreau stated in his work Walden Pond, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The value of peace is immeasurable. I am eagerly anticipating the opportunity to explore Walden Pond again during the winter, especially when the landscape is blanketed in snow.

What would you want to do most as a career if you were not in academia?

I have always aspired to be a writer. I believe my early ambitions were centered around the idea of writing novels. Literature has always held a special place in my heart, and during my childhood, I avidly read numerous novels. I began crafting fiction from a young age, creating little stories as soon as I could write. Even at this stage in my life, I still hold onto this dream. In a way, being a sociologist is akin to being a storyteller—we narrate the stories created by various individuals from diverse walks of life.

Read Prof. Yan’s bio on our website.

Related Stories

Getting to know… Weimo Liu
Getting to know… Wei Ran
Getting to know… Ji Young JUNG