Short Portrait: Thomas Heberer

Thomas Heberer
Thomas Heberer

Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer was born in Offenbach/Main in 1947. He studied Social Anthropology (major), Philosophy, Political Science, and Chinese Studies in Frankfurt, Goettingen, Mainz and Heidelberg. In 1972 he followed his mentor Prof. Dr. Manfred Hinz, a legal scholar and ethnologist, to Bremen where Hinz had been appointed Professor of Law. In 1977 Heberer completed his PhD at the University of Bremen with summa cum laude. The same year he went to China to work as a translator and reader for the Foreign Language Press in Peking. There, his desire further increased to learn about the workings of this closed country and its people, and to do so via personal observation. After 4 ½ years (at the end of 1981) he returned to Germany. During his stay in China he was witness of the enormous transition process from the Mao era to the reform period, an era which has significantly coined his understanding of China’s development.

From 1983-1985 Heberer was working as a research fellow with the Overseas’s Museum in Bremen where he catalogued the Chinese collection and established the museum’s permanent China exhibition. From 1986 to 1988 he was research fellow at the Institute of Geography of the University of Bremen and conducted a research project on the private economic sector in China funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The outcome of this research laid the foundation for his habilitation (post-doctoral degree) thesis on the role of the individual (“informal”) economic sector for urban and social development. In 1989 he received the venia legendi for Political Science at the University of Bremen.

1988-91 he acted as Professor by proxy at the Institute of Political Science at the University Duisburg (Chair of East Asian Politics). 1991 Heberer was appointed professor of Chinese Economic Studies at the University for Applied Sciences in Bremen. 1992 he became Chair of East Asian Politics at the University of Trier. Since 1998 he has been Chair at the Institute of East Asian Studies of the University Duisburg-Essen. He has also been visiting scholar at various universities and research institutes in the US, China, South Korea and Taiwan.

Heberer’s oeuvre is heavily influenced by field research, a product of his anthropologoical studies. Field research, he argues, is the most crucial tool to understand societies from within, he argues. He conducted his first field research on Chinese nationalities’ policies and development among the ethnic group of the Yi (Nuosu) in the Liangshan Mountains in southwestern Sichuan province in 1981. Following this project which was sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG), he published a book on his field experiences entitled Nationalities’ policies and development policies in China’s minority areas (Bremen 1984). From 1986-87 he performed a ten months field research in five Chinese cities, interviewing more than 1,500 small businessmen (“individual economy”) by means of door-to-door surveys.

A further field research on rural urbanization and social change was conducted for six months from 1993-1995 in eight townships in seven provinces of China (funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, jointly with the geographer Wolfgang Taubmann). In 1995 he accomplished a three year project on the political and social role of private entrepreneurs in China and Vietnam (funded by the DFG). From 1999-2002 he performed field research in ten counties of the Liangshan Autonomous Prefecture on Yi entrepreneurship and its impact on institutional, social and cultural change among the Liangshan Yi (sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation). From 2003-2005 his research project examined urban neighborhood communities in China, focusing on issues of social participation, co-production and legitimacy (funded by the DFG), and from 2007-2010 on local cadres as strategic groups in the transformation process of China’s rural areas (DFG). Between 2007 and 2010 he conducted field research on environmental governance in China (funded by the Haniel Foundation). Currently he is concerned with a project on policy experiments and policy innovations of local strategic groups within the “competence network ‘Governing in China’” sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Research (2010-14).

For many years, Heberer has been working on the Yi, one of the largest ethnic minorities in China, focusing on the Nuosu-Yi in the Liangshan Mountains. He attended the First International Conference on Yi Studies in Seattle in 1992 (organized by the Social Anthropologist Prof. Stevan Harrell at the University of Washington) and organized the subsequent one in 1998 in Trier. He was member of the Advisory Committee of the Third (2000 in Shilin Yi Autonomous County), Fourth (2005 in Meigu County) and Fifth (2010 in Xichang, capital of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture) international Yi conferences. He is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the journal “Da Xinan Yuekan” (Great Southwestern Monthly”) which is concerned with ethnic groups in Southwest China. He has published numerous books and journal articles in English and Chinese on issues such as ethnic identity and ethnicity of the Yi.

Heberer has authored or co-authored 34 books and edited or co-edited 15 volumes in German, English and Chinese languages. His articles have been published in international journals and edited volumes in altogether ten languages. Among the most influential and more recent monographs (in English) are: Private Entrepreneurs in China and Vietnam. Social and Political Functioning of Strategic Groups. China Studies published for the Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Oxford, Leiden (Brill) 2003; Rural China, Economic and Social Change in the Late Twentieth Century, Armonk/London (Sharpe) 2006 (co-authored with Fan Jie and W.Taubmann); Doing Business in Rural China: Liangshan’s New Ethnic Entrepreneurs, Seattle/London (University of Washington Press) 2007, and The Politics of Community Building in Urban China, London, New York (Routledge) 2011 (co-authored with Christian Göbel).

Heberer is also member of the editorial committee of a number of renowned international academic journals such as The China Quarterly, the European Journal of East Asian Studies, the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs and the Journal of China in Comparative Perspective.


(text by courtesy of T. Heberer)

further informationfurther information