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Imagining a State and Society Transformed: Fingerprinting and Governance in Early Twentieth-Century China

Sat, September 2, 11:00am to 12:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Gardner B


This paper examines the early history of fingerprint identification as Chinese governing praxis through the case of the Fingerprint Society, a professional association established in 1920s Beijing under the Ministry of Interior's police academy. By analyzing a range of archival and published materials, this paper explores the ways in which members of this association imagined the new state and society that were expected to emerge following the successful implementation of fingerprint-based governance in China.

For members of this association, fingerprinting was not simply a technique for identifying individuals; rather, it represented the foundation for a new set of relationships between individuals and the state, officials and professionals, and even between China and foreign countries. Fingerprinting promised a more effective state apparatus, new mechanisms of trust and accountability in Chinese society, and new protections for the rights of citizens. It was also hoped that implementing fingerprint identification would play a part in convincing Western countries and Japan to give up their extraterritorial legal privileges, thus advancing China's struggle for full sovereignty.

While these ideal visions of fingerprint-based governance were not realized during the 1920s, members of the Fingerprint Society did anticipate lasting themes of state-building, sovereignty, and citizenship that would emerge in relation to fingerprint identification over subsequent decades. By exploring this previously unexamined chapter in the history of fingerprinting, this paper thus sheds light on the imagination and practice of fingerprint-based governance and the ways in which the authority of such expertise was conceptualized and asserted in the twentieth century.


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