Carter was one of 20 scholars chosen in 2011 for a public-intellectuals program run by the National Committee on United States-China Relations in New York. And when the committee needed an expert to show a delegation of congressional staff around China, it turned to him.
In three books, Carter, 43, tells large histories through the individual lives. This week he'll speak in Philadelphia about his role in a fourth, the new Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Nation. It features chapters by some of the most respected writers on China, including Peter Hessler, author of Oracle Bones, New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, and Leslie Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China.
Carter's piece is "Looking for Lok To," the tale of his effort to discover whatever happened to a storied Chinese monk - who turns out to be not only alive, but living in a small Buddhist temple in the Bronx.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the China scholar and a coeditor of Chinese Characters, invited Carter to contribute because his previous book, Heart of Buddha, Heart of China, did "a beautiful job of using the story of an individual life to help readers make sense of some of the sweeping political events that have transformed China."
Carter's writing on Buddhism offers an intimate lens through which to view broad changes, and having a chapter on the topic helps convey China's diversity, said Wasserstrom, chairman of the history department at the University of California, Irvine.
What draws Carter to China?
He responded during an interview at St. Joseph's: " Everything happens in China."
Consider: From roughly 1860 to 1970, the country experienced war with Britain, invasion by Japan, occupation, World War II, famine, revolution and civil war - followed by economic ignition in the 1990s and 2000s that lifted millions out of poverty.
For St. Joseph's, where Carter directs the international relations program, China is a growth area. In the last four years, the school has added five full-time faculty members to its Asian studies program. Enrollment in Mandarin classes has grown from 15 to 46 students since 2002, leading the school to establish a minor in Chinese language and culture.
In a way, Carter said, it's the students who aren't majoring in Asian studies who most intrigue him. These days, on the annual university trip to China, he sees some unfamiliar faces, youths headed into other fields who nonetheless want to understand the Middle Kingdom.
That can only be good, Carter said.
"The U.S.-China relationship," he said, "is too important to get wrong."
In the spring of 1989, China seemed to be coming apart.
Demonstrations at Tiananmen Square created a sense that the communist government was poised to fall, following regimes in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Instead, authorities sent tanks into the square, ending the protests by killing unarmed civilians.
Carter was then a junior at the University of Richmond. He knew little about China, but found himself intrigued by the events on TV. At Yale, he met and worked with Jonathan Spence, whose books on China have become standard texts.
"I came at China more as a historian," Carter said. "Every time I turned around, I found more."
That discovery of "more" led him to the chilly city of Harbin, to research what became his second book.
Harbin's isolation is embedded in its name, a Manchu word that means "Place for drying fishing nets." Today the city is known for its annual Ice Festival, which features grand illuminated castles and pagodas carved from ice.
Less recognized, but of more interest to Carter, is the city's Russian origin - it was established in 1898 as an extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
In the early 1900s, Harbin was essentially a Russian city on Chinese soil, causing tension among local Chinese, who staged violent protests over whether and how outside cultures should be incorporated into China.
That conflict, explored in Carter's book, Creating a Chinese Harbin, continues to smolder and flare in China. And in Harbin.
In 1998, Harbin officials planned to hold a centennial celebration, typical of cities the world over. But the event was canceled by Beijing authorities. To cite 1898 as a centennial date would be to admit the city was founded by Russians.
To the Communist Party, there is but one China, created by Chinese.
That doesn't help officials in modern Harbin, where industry has faltered and fled, Carter said. They're now embracing that Russian past to make money, luring tourists to see onion-dome churches, cobblestone streets, and synagogues.
"The northeast hasn't partaken in [China's] rapid development," Carter said. "They're looking for something."
Carter's next project?
A day in China. One specific day, 71 years ago. At a racetrack in Shanghai.
Right now he doesn't have much beyond a few notes, a working title, and a fascinating idea.
Carter wants to tell a story of wartime China, of a path in Sino-U.S. relations, through horse-racing - banned as a decadent Western indulgence upon the communist takeover in 1949.
Stroll the grounds and gardens of People's Square in modern Shanghai and you're walking on what was once the city's horse track, in its day perhaps the most famous track in Asia.
It drew all society through its gates, Carter said. The wealthy. The desperate. Gamblers. Government officials. Westerners, like the British who brought horse racing to China in the 1840s. And the Japanese, who invaded China at the start of World War II.
Carter plans to focus on May 7, 1941, the day of the last championship race at the track, which was closed shortly afterward by the occupying Japanese authorities. The race was won by a horse named Hindhead, owned by an Englishman and ridden by a Portuguese. No one there knew how radically life would change exactly seven months later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought America into the war.
"The sharp boundaries we think of aren't as sharp as they might appear between cultures," he said. "I want to understand at the micro level the details of those relationships."
Two events will be held to promote the new book "Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land."
The first will be at Drexel University at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, in Room 240 of the Earle Mack School of Law. Speakers will be Professor James Carter and freelance journalist Angilee Shah, a co-editor of the book.
The second will be at noon Friday at the Francis Drexel Library of St. Joseph's University. Carter, Shah, and journalist Megan Shank will speak.
Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JeffGammage.