Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 203-205
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The Sextants of Beijing:
Global Currents in Chinese History
The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History. By JOANNA WALEY-COHEN. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999 . Pp. 322 . $24 .95 (cloth); $14 .95 (paper).
Joanna Waley-Cohen's The Sextants of Beijing offers a powerful reevaluation of traditional characterizations of China as isolationist and xenophobic. In the popular imagination of the West, China remains an enigmatic entity resolutely resistant to external ideas and innovations. While the past decades have witnessed a flurry of attacks on Eurocentric and Orientalist perspectives, studies on China aimed at a more popular audience have remained surprisingly immune and persist in offering an outmoded depiction of China as an "immobile empire." It is in this light that Waley-Cohen's book clearly offers a new introduction to the "general reader wishing to learn more about China's engagement with the world in a historical perspective . . ." (p. 9 ).
The strength of The Sextants of Beijing lies in Waley-Cohen's dual conviction that China's historical experience included both extensive interaction with the outside world and that China, far from desiring isolation, actively sought out ideas, goods, and technology from non-Chinese sources. Challenging the notion of China as monolithic and unchanging, the author begins by altering the standard chronological framework, beginning not with the Opium Wars (1842 -47 )--traditionally portrayed as the first efforts of the West to open China--but with "early Chinese Cosmopolitanism" of the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties (200 B.C.E.-1200 C.E.). In this manner, the author grounds China's historical experience in the powerful and enduring religious, ethnic, and commercial ties with Central Asia, India, and the West. [End Page 203]
In the later chapters, The Sextants of Beijing repeatedly demonstrates that although the imperial court routinely employed sinocentric rhetoric, this language often masked a relatively high degree of fascination with the West and Western ideas. Waley-Cohen's narrative deftly familiarizes the Western reader with major historical events that display China's international contacts--the Buddhist pilgrimage of Xuanzang to India, the seven voyages of Zheng He to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, and China's increasing demand for "New World" silver. These events all bolster Waley-Cohen's thesis that China clearly played a dynamic role in global trends that mirrored if not predated the "European Miracle."
Yet Waley-Cohen's primary focus is not on these earlier periods but, as the title alludes, on China's curiosity, exposure, and transference of Western technical knowledge in science, technology, and astronomy. The book juxtaposes quite powerfully China's willing adoption of Western cartographic techniques, architecture, and artillery with the Chinese court's perceived indifference toward Lord George Macartney's diplomatic overtures in the late eighteenth century. The Macartney Mission is habitually portrayed as an example of China's obstinate refusal to acknowledge the inherent superiority of the West. Waley-Cohen repositions the episode to demonstrate that Macartney's gifts and propositions varied very little from those of the Jesuits who had served the Chinese court several decades earlier. More significantly, the author displays that the Chinese emperor and court were indeed sophisticated enough to see that similar to the Jesuits' thinly veiled efforts to use their expertise to encourage court acceptance of Papal jurisdiction over Chinese Christians, Macartney's gifts were premised primarily on a desire to use their cultural superiority to goad the Chinese court into accepting their propositions of diplomatic equality.
While Waley-Cohen's narrative of the Qing's encounter with the West will be a welcome addition to selections one could offer undergraduates as their first exposure to Chinese history (one not tainted by a Eurocentric bias), it is her last two chapters (covering the period from the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 through the post-Tienanmen period) which I found to be the most innovative. Returning to her theme of China's "cosmopolitan sophistication" Waley-Cohen examines the profound impact of...