- China Unbound: Evolving Perspectives on the Chinese Past
As of last year, China historian Paul Cohen had authored two monographs, Between Tradition and Modernity (1974), on the nineteenth-century scholar Wang Tao, and History in Three Keys (1997), on the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900. In between, he published his seminal reflection on the American discipline of Chinese history, Discovering History in China (1984). With China Unbound, Cohen offers unrevised chapters from all three works, along with revised versions of two previously published articles, one on the use of 1949 as a turning point in modern history and another essay on efforts by Chinese intellectuals to keep "national humiliation" from being forgotten. The collection also includes the preface to the second edition of Discovering History in China (1997), and a revised version of the introduction and conclusion to History in Three Keys.
As this summary should suggest, China Unbound is an engaging and useful overview of Cohen's works. For many in the field, Cohen's scholarship has become a touchstone. Discovering History in China, perhaps his best-known work, has "become a favorite of nervous doctoral candidates on the eve of their oral exams" (China Unbound, p. 185). It is a sharp yet affectionate critique of Chinese historiography, focusing on some of the most parochial—as they appear now—tendencies of American scholars. Cohen identified and criticized dichotomies like tradition/modernity and impact/response, arguing that, along with an emphasis on imperialism, they "desensitize Western historians to China's capacity for change and . . . encourage a timeless conception of China's past" (p. 13). In contrast, Cohen championed a "China-centered" approach, one that might allow Western historians to "get inside China, to reconstruct Chinese history as far as possible as the Chinese themselves experienced it rather than in terms of what people in the West thought was important, natural, or normal" (p. 185). While some of the original targets of his criticism, like modernization theory, are no longer fashionable, this shift was facilitated by Cohen. No student of Chinese history would now argue—as Cohen believed that mid-century historians like Joseph Levenson did—that the Western impact was almost entirely responsible for significant developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century China. Indeed, the "China-centered" approach is now orthodox. This new volume allows us to reflect on the consequences of our conversion to China-centeredness, as well as to revisit some of the best of Cohen's works. [End Page 59]
Cohen's approach itself has shifted over the decades. His earliest work was centered on questions of intellectual transitions in late-Qing China. Wang Tao in a Changing World sought to explore how, by the end of the nineteenth century, "the invisible bars that two or three generations earlier had locked the minds of Chinese scholars in a closed Confucian world had first been made visible and then, after much painful effort, had been pried apart, letting in a whole new universe of ideas, information, and values" (China Unbound, p. 25). Wang Tao, the writer, reformer, and secretary to the Scottish translator James Legge, was a "'starter' in the bacteriological sense," whose writings argued the need to adopt Western technology while warning of the steep cultural consequences. He helped inspire twentieth-century revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen. Yet Wang Tao himself was never part of that revolutionary world; he was a harbinger of change, but not quite its proximate cause. It was, in fact, precisely Wang Tao's liminality that encouraged Cohen to question the usefulness of describing such historical figures as either "traditional" or "modern."
Cohen's dissatisfaction with simplistic models of historical change found expression ten years later in Discovering History in China, where the "China-centered approach" was first articulated. Subsequently, with his work on the Boxers, he answered his own call to "get inside China" by appropriating some of the methods of anthropology. In History in Three...