Discovering History in China


''Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past'' is a book by
Paul A. CohenPaul A. Cohen (Chinese name: , born 1934) is Edith Stix Wasserman Professor of Asian Studies and History Emeritus at Wellesley College and Associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. His research interests include 19th-2 ...
introducing the ideas behind American histories of China since 1840. It was published by
Columbia University Press Columbia University Press is a university press A university press is an academic publishing Publishing is the activity of making information, literature, music, software and other content available to the public for sale or for free. Tradit ...
in 1984 and reprinted with a new preface in 2010. Cohen presents a sympathetic critique of the dominant paradigms associated with John K. Fairbank and the historians he trained which shaped the field of
Area Studies Area studies (also regional studies) are interdisciplinary fields of research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical Geography (from Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( ...
after World War II: "China's response to the West" (or "impact-response") and "Tradition and Modernity," which were popular in the 1950s, and Imperialism, which became fashionable in the 1960s in response to American involvement in Vietnam. Cohen, himself trained by Fairbank, sees these paradigms as placing China in a passive role and not being capable of change without a Western impact.

Cohen's critique

Cohen prefaces the book by explaining “People who are not historians sometimes think of history as the facts about the past. Historians are supposed to know otherwise.... As times change, concerns shift... each generation of historians must rewrite the history written by the preceding generation.” Up through World War II, he continues, “American writing tended to stress those aspects which the West itself had been most immediately concerned," an intellectual bias which “equated modern with Western with important; for many Americans of this era, even educated ones, Westernized China and modern China were indistinguishable.” :My real quibble in this book is not with the disciplined, descriptive, application of terms like imperialism, impact, response, or even modern to specific, precisely delimited processes or phenomena that have emerged in the past century or so of Chinese history; what I object to is the use of these concepts as broad, overarching intellectual constructs purporting to tell us what was important – and by implication not important – about an entire period of historical time. Chapter 1, "The Problem with 'China's Response to the West,'" focuses on the "impact and response" framework made popular by
Teng Ssu-yuTeng may refer to: * Teng (surname) (滕), a Chinese surname * Teng (state), an ancient Chinese state * Teng (mythology), a flying dragon in Chinese mythology * Teng County, a county in Guangxi, China * Triboelectric nanogenerator, a method of p ...
and Fairbank's 1954 volume of annotated translations, ''China's Response to the West''. Chapter 2, "Moving Beyond 'Tradition and Modernity'" focuses on Joseph R. Levenson, Mary C. Wright, and Albert Feuerwerker, all trained by Fairbank. Cohen is particularly doubtful about the analysis of Joseph Levenson, in such early books as ''Liang Ch'i-chao and the Mind of Modern China'' (Harvard University Press, 1954), which assumed that Confucianism and modernity were incompatible and that the traditional order had to be torn down before a modern one could be built up. Likewise Mary Wright, in ''The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism'' concluded that for China after the Taiping Rebellion, “the obstacles to successful adaptation to the modern world were not imperialist aggression, Manchu rule, mandarin stupidity, or the accidents of history, but nothing less than the constituent elements of the Confucian system itself.” Chapter 3. "Imperialism: Reality or Myth?" does not see the concept "imperialism" as a useful tool. Chapter 4. "Toward a China-Centered History of China" calls for "China-centered history of China" and praises scholarship of the 1970s which shows how to do it. Cohen returned to the problems of historical writing in his


Harriet Zurndorfer's history of western Sinology called the work a "revealing book" and an "insider's discussion" which traces how scholars can move beyond these "Western-centric paradigms" towards a "China-centered" history based on "how the Chinese themselves experienced and wrote about it." Reviews in professional journals for the most part greeted the book. Albert Feuerwerker, writing in the ''Journal of Asian Studies'' praised Cohen but objected to "what I believe to be an undue defensiveness" in the analysis of what Cohen calls "the intellectual imperialism" of American historians, and an "excessive gravity" in treating "jejeune political tracts as 'paradigms'" in the chapter on imperialism." Dennis Duncanson was skeptical: "there is regrettably little novelty to stimulate reflection in this less than comprehensive survey," and did not agree with "finding fault with other people's 'perceptions'."

Editions and translations

* * * Sato Shin'ichi, tr., Chi no teikokushugi: Orientizumu to Chugoku zo (Intellectual Imperialism: Orientalism and the image of China) (Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1988). *Lin Tongqi, tr., Zhonghua, Beijing, 1989; expanded edition, Zhonghua, 2005 * Daoxiang Publishing, Taipei, 1991; Lianjing, Taipei, 1991 * Korean: Sansae Publishing Co., Seoul, 2003) Curriculum vitae

References and further reading

* * * * * * * * * Harriet Zurndorfer, (1988) (Review) ''T'oung Pao'' Second Series, Vol. 74, Livr. 1/3 (1988), pp. 150–15



External links

{{Portal bar, China 1984 non-fiction books Historiography of China History books about China