This introductory chapter introduces a “crisis of counting” during the early years of the People's Republic of China (PRC). In its simplest form, the crisis in the PRC was understood as a problem of building a centralized statistical system. At the heart of the varied solutions attempted by Chinese statisticians was a contentious debate about the very nature of social reality and the place and efficacy of mathematical statistics—in particular, probability theory—in ascertaining that reality. This debate played out against a backdrop populated by three divergent methodological approaches to statistics and statistical work. After all, abstract ideas about the nature of the world, whether defined by chance or certainty, have real world consequences. Chinese deliberations over such questions and their engagement with the Ethnographic, Exhaustive, and Stochastic approaches during the 1950s exemplify some of those consequences. The chapter unpacks these choices and traces how statistics in its various forms—as a (social) science, as a profession, and as an activity—came to be formulated and practiced, shedding light on fundamental questions germane to the histories of the People's Republic, statistics and data, and mid-century science.
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