Historian’s Research Sheds Light on the Evolution of Fingerprinting in Modern China

Assistant Professor Daniel Asen is a historian of modern China whose research explores the intersection of law, science and medicine.

His recently published book, Death in Beijing: Murder and Forensic Science in Republican China (Cambridge University Press, 2016), examines the history of homicide investigation and forensic science in early 20th-century Beijing.

He is currently doing research on a new book that will cover the history of fingerprinting in modern China, focusing on the ways in which it has developed as both a tool of criminal investigation and an object of scientific research in the fields of anthropology, human genetics and dermatoglyphics.

For this research, he has just received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant totaling $90K over three years, a somewhat unusual award for a historian.

We sat down with Asen to discuss the grant, his latest project, and the impact he hopes his work will have on modern forensics in the U.S. and abroad.


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Congratulations on this award. How rare is it for historians to get an NSF grant?

Relatively rare. The grant is through NSF’s Science, Technology and Society Program. Usually science and technology-studies folks get these, or those in the social sciences. Historians do get them, but not nearly as much.

With your new project, you hope to broaden the scope of existing scholarship on the history of fingerprinting, yes?

That’s right. There’s not very much on the history of fingerprinting in China or Asia actually. Most scholarship focuses on the British Empire.

Why is that?

People in different societies have been aware of the value of fingerprints for centuries. For example, they were used as signatures on Chinese contracts for a long time. But the main innovation was using fingerprints for identification. What made that possible was the creation of classification systems so that new fingerprints could be compared with those already on file, and that really started in India under British rule, in late 19th century into first decade of 20th century, to register people and ID subjects. The practice rapidly spread back to England in early 20th century and was used in the U.S. around the same time.

So, how did modern fingerprinting then spread to China?

China was never entirely colonized, but there were enclaves that foreign countries had jurisdiction over and would police. The British implemented fingerprinting in Shanghai and other areas in the first decade of the 20th century.

And you have suggested that China was influenced also by Japanese and American practices.

Yes. Japan expanded its empire during this time in Korea and southeast asia, and occupied large parts of China from 1937 to the end of WWII. This expansion fueled Japanese physical anthropologists and ethnographers’ research of colonized populations, including China’s.

Now this is all set against the backdrop of the racialized science and eugenics of the early 20th century: physical anthropologists in the U.S. and other countries measuring skulls and skeletons to identify physical characteristics of different racially defined groups, and so forth. Some also tried to find racial differences in fingerprint patterns, and Japanese researchers produced a number of studies on Chinese fingerprint patterns. This data was often published in English and became part of the global dermatoglyphics research at the time. [Dermatoglyphics is the scientific study of fingerprints.] American dermatoglyphics researchers also relied on this colonial-era data and contributed to the field, and after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, Chinese researchers used it.

So, there’s this shift from the early 20th century of western and Japanese colonialism to the post-colonial period, when the Chinese government firmly established fingerprinting throughout the country and began to standardize methods.

So, your new book will look at how China was influenced simultaneously by British, American and Japanese practices?

Yes. It will investigate the process through which Euro-American and Japanese fingerprint identification techniques were introduced to China and subsequently adopted for a range of local and national state-building efforts and scientific research activities over the course of the 20th century.

A big part of your project is making this history more available to forensic science experts and researchers. Why is that?

We often assume that making fingerprint identification is straightforward and full-proof, but there’s been a growing realization that there hasn’t been much research on how reliable it actually is: For example, what are the error rates of certain ID  procedures? On what theories is fingerprinting ID based? And are they validated by experiments and research? These questions had been asked before, but a 2009 study by the National Research Council confirmed these problems.

So, I’m hoping that by making this history more accessible, it can help forensic scientists and researchers as they work to strengthen the integrity of the evidence on which the U.S. and other justice systems rely.

Thank you for sitting down with us.

My pleasure.