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  • Changes over Time in Qing History: The Importance of Context
  • Paul Cohen

When I received my doctorate (1961), it was not uncommon for westerners to see Qing China as sui generis, something fundamentally different from the countries of the west. China was a static, unchanging civilization. It was a strange place, hard to understand. And it existed in a state of isolation, hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. China, most western students seemed to agree, would benefit greatly from becoming more like us.

American interpretations of nineteenth-century China tended, in the 1950s and 1960s, to lean heavily on the concepts “western impact” and “Chinese response.” The central question, as enunciated by John Fairbank, was “Why did China not respond to foreign encroachment earlier and more vigorously?” Because this was the key question, there was a strong tendency to characterize the non-western-related aspects of nineteenth-century China (state, society, economy, thought) in terms of their “remarkable inertia” (Fairbank).

An influential perspective that went hand in hand with the impact-response approach was modernization theory, in particular that aspect of the theory that emphasized the division of China’s long history into traditional and modern phases (modern generally referring to the period of significant contact with the modern west). This approach was based on the assumption that Confucianism and modernity were fundamentally incompatible and that the traditional order had to be torn down before a new modern order could be established. Around 1970, however, this pattern of thinking began to be challenged by an emerging body of scholarly opinion that, in defining the relationship between “modern” [End Page 10] and “traditional,” questioned the implication that they were dichotomous, mutually antithetical conditions. We now began to see China as having undergone mammoth changes prior to the western onslaught (Kuhn), and as the old picture of an unchanging or cyclically changing China was discarded, we started to take a much closer look at developments within China.

This more China-centered approach had several identifying features: its starting point was China, not the west; it attempted to cope with the complexity of the Chinese world by breaking it down into smaller spatial units (see Skinner’s concept of macroregions); it took seriously phenomena that were taking place in the lower strata of Chinese society (making possible the study of popular history and culture); and it was highly receptive to the techniques and strategies of disciplines other than history (e.g., anthropology).

The China-centered approach began to take hold around 1970. It resulted, among other things, in a very different understanding of Chinese history in the nineteenth century. The consensus of earlier American scholarship had been that the great divide between the modern period of Chinese history and the traditional period was the Opium War. A growing consensus after around 1970 shifted to the view that the true watershed event of nineteenth-century Chinese history was the Taiping Rebellion (see Kuhn and Rowe).

Although there are countless issues in the late Qing for the probing of which a China-centered approach remains appropriate and desirable, there are many other issues where this is plainly not the case. Illustrations would be scholarship that poses questions of a broadly comparative nature (such as the work of Wong and Pomeranz), or that examines the behavior and thinking of non-Han ethnic groups within the Chinese realm (e.g., Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans) or the migration of Chinese to other parts of the world. Such work — and there are many other possible examples – raises questions about the boundaries of “Chinese history” in the late imperial era and, indeed, in some instances the very meaning of the word “China.” Similar questions have also been raised, explicitly or implicitly, in studies of the environment, medicine and health, gender, women, publishing, and a host of other topics, which have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. [End Page 11]

A principal new context in which Qing China has come to be seen in the past few decades has been that of Eurasia as a whole (see Lieberman, Perdue). The facts relating to the Qing haven’t changed, Kent Guy reminds us. “What has changed is the context, political and...


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