Growing up in Germany, it wasn’t just unusual that Elisabeth Köll wanted to study Chinese.
It was so rare for students at Bonn University to focus on it, there was even a term for it — an “orchid subject.”
Nevertheless, Köll was fascinated by China, and her decision to spend two years as an undergraduate in a government exchange program at Fudan University in Shanghai deepened her interest in Chinese history — and launched her global career.
Her passion led her from Shanghai to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and now to her current work as a renowned scholar of Chinese business and economic history.
“From a historian’s perspective, it’s fascinating,” she said. “I mean, who gets a chance to watch a country with a socialist economic system leave Maoism behind, tackle economic reform, embrace globalization and now become a trendsetter in certain ways? There is a whole host of intriguing issues and questions that go along with that.”
Köll, an associate professor who came to Notre Dame’s Department of History from Harvard Business School in 2015, recently published her second book on Chinese economic history and is beginning research for her third.
“Railroads and the Transformation of China,” published in January, is the first comprehensive history of the Chinese railroad system from 1900 to the 1980s and uses railroads as a lens to examine the development of modern China.
“This is one of very few institutional structures that have survived and continued from the empire to the republic, through the war and the socialist period,” Köll said. “The rail system offers an amazing perspective for understanding Chinese history. It is surprising how all-permeating railroads are in the economic, social and political lives of the Chinese people.”
Her first book, “From Cotton Mill to Business Empire: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China,” analyzed the historical and institutional roots of contemporary Chinese corporate structures and business practices. And for her next project, she is examining the pawn shop as an institution and a sophisticated system of informal banking and finance in China.
“I would describe myself as a historian of institutions,” Köll said. “In examining manufacturing, infrastructure and finance, I want to create a research portfolio that covers the pillars of the Chinese economy. As an economic and business historian, I think that’s interesting and an appropriate approach to research.”
While many people are only aware of China’s most recent history in the age of globalization, it is important to understand the roots of its complex economy, Köll said.
“I want to show that there was already a very sophisticated, active and effective way of operating the economy, long before the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s,” she said. “I also want to create a much more intricate picture of China’s interaction with the West and to what extent Western practices got absorbed into Chinese ways of doing business and thinking about the financial and general economic system.”
Köll is teaching a course this semester on financial markets in global history, from the Renaissance to Bitcoin — work that both draws from and informs her current research.
Also a faculty fellow at the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, she appreciates the opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration at Notre Dame and the way the College of Arts and Letters brings the humanities and social sciences closer together.
“We’re building momentum in terms of offering more courses that speak to these intersections of history, economy and society,” Köll said. “And that’s an exciting development to be a part of.”
Köll credits the mentors she’s had in both her personal and professional life for her success. Her mother, she said, was a decisive influence who encouraged her to pursue an interesting, challenging academic career.
“She was an antiquarian bookseller, so we always had a lot of cool things to read at home,” Köll said. “But my mother’s generation — these were women who had survived World War II as teenagers and then started their careers in the tough post-war years — didn’t have it easy, and I think a lot of them were thinking, ‘If I were in the position you are now, I would do this or that. Make the most of it!’”
She now has similar advice for the undergraduate and graduate students she mentors.
“I think for any student, in particular graduate students, the question is, ‘Are you having fun with it?’” she said. “I’m still excited by what I do, and I can’t wait to really get my hands on a new project. If you have that fire, that energy, that enthusiasm — that will carry you. The beauty of an academic career is that you can explore new fields. You continue to learn and do new things all the time.”
While her research has recently become more challenging in some ways due to the current tighter political climate in China and the more difficult access to archives, Köll remains focused on the work she is doing and why it matters.
“As a researcher, you are building on the work of colleagues — and of generations of scholars — and it is gratifying to have that community and to contribute to it,” she said.
“One of my undergraduate professors said that in the end, all our studying and teaching and researching happens so that we can all understand each other a little better. The older I get, the more I appreciate that. Keeping that agenda going is important to me.”