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  • The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China by Rebecca E. Karl
  • Stephen A. Smith
The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China by Rebecca E. Karl. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. Pp. xii + 216. $99.95 cloth, $25.95 paper.

Rebecca Karl is a rarity in the China field, a scholar who has carved out a distinctive niche by working at the interface of the history of concepts and conceptually informed historical research. In her new book, she offers a series of original and provocative essays that explore a number of historical and philosophical concepts that were the focus of scholarly interest in the 1930s and became recycled in the 1990s—albeit in more superficial form—serving during the latter decade to "produce the historiographically repetitive magic of concepts that, in the practice of social scientific inquiry, erases challenges to its own normative assumptions through its smooth renarration of history in 'objective' terms" (p. 6). To those scholars who are tired of forms of global history that fail to rise above ritual invocations of "networks," "flows," and "transfers" and that dismiss any attempt to seek directionality in historical development as "teleology," Karl's book comes as a breath of fresh air. In a set of five interrelated essays, Karl offers a rigorous historicization of concepts and their attendant historiography. Each page exudes rigorous thinking and demands the same of the reader.

The principal essays derive from her effort to think with the writings of a fascinating figure, Wang Yanan 王亞南 (1901–1969), an economist, philosopher, and cotranslator of works by David Ricardo, Adam [End Page 350] Smith, and Karl Marx (Capital), who was active during the 1930s through the early 1960s. Wang was an independent Marxist whose prime aim was to combat what he considered to be the tendency inherent in imported Western economic theory to detach concepts from their social context and their historical evolution. In particular, he criticized foreign theory for severing China's experience from the impact of imperialism in its economic, political, and intellectual forms. Wang considered that the ahistorical use of foreign concepts amounted to an ideological conjuring trick that he calls the "magic of concepts" (gainian de moshu 概念的魔術). The persistent thread running through his oeuvre is to reconnect economics and philosophy as material practices, recognizing that while their epistemological organization of the world is different, one cannot be separated from the other and that both must be located in their particular historical moment.

Chapter 1, "The Economic, China, World History: A Critique of Pure Ideology," explores recent debates about the nature of the eighteenth- and twentieth-century economy, concentrating on the debate around the "great divergence," initiated by Kenneth Pomeranz and taken up by R. Bin Wong, Philip Huang, and others.1 The essay is primarily concerned to show how "the economic" became a dominant mode of writing world history during the 1930s—a mode of writing that was resumed from 2000 in the Great Divergence debate. Karl argues that the concepts used to write China's relationship to world history—the market and the global, in particular—were once contested during the 1930s but became purely normative by the 1990s. Chapter 2, entitled "The Economic and the State: The Asiatic Mode of Production," discusses how Wang Yanan construes the Asiatic mode as a way of claiming historical exceptionalism for China, leading to a mistaken positioning of the country's contemporaneous socioeconomic situation in terms of a deviation from a supposedly normal path. During the 1930s, the debate focused on the class basis of the state in this putative mode of production; whereas by the 1980s, when the concept [End Page 351] briefly staged a comeback, it was seized on as an explanation for "five thousand years" of Chinese state continuity and cultural patrimony, representing a sign of national-imperial strength rather than of deviation from a Western norm. Chapter 3, entitled "The Economic as Transhistory: Temporality, the Market, and the Austrian School," takes up Wang Yanan's critique of the Austrian school, which inaugurated the "marginal revolution" based on a subjective theory of value (the greater the number of units of a...


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