Putting Things in Context: a contribution to the NQH debate by Professor Mark C. Elliott

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Putting Things in Context



For the original website see here. 

In the belief that inspiration can come from anywhere, I sometimes leaf through the copies of Vogue magazine that come to the house.  Sure enough, in this month’s issue I found a great line from Maxwell Hearn, curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, talking about the Met’s new show on design and China:  “At the Met, we can put modern art into a 5,000-year context.”  It reminded me of a similar strength at the Fairbank Center, putting modern China into the same 5,000-year (and sometimes even 10,000-year) context.  Indeed, this is something we do better than most anyone else, and is one reason why the views of Harvard’s China studies faculty are so widely sought and respected. 

Well, maybe not by everyone.

Putting modern China into historical context, it turns out, is not always welcome.  For it is in the very nature of Chinese studies that questions posed in a strictly academic spirit may end up becoming highly politicized.  So it was that recently I found myself personally denounced on the front page of the weekly newsletter of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a “neo-imperialist pseudo-historian.”

The article, by retired historian Li Zhiting of the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, bore the rather provocative title, “Scholars evaluate the ‘New Qing History’: ‘A Specimen of “New Imperialist” Historiography’” [学者评“新清史”:“新帝国主义”史学标本].  Written in the highly sensational and vitriolic language of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda, the article alleges, among other things, that among American historians of the Qing there is a concerted effort to destabilize the Chinese state through our academic research on the history of the last dynasty.  A taste of the rhetoric can be found in these brief excerpts, taken from the translation published by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong:

In recent years, a certain saying about Qing history has emerged among academic historians called “new Qing history.” The American scholars who support “new Qing history” view the history of China from an imperialist standpoint, with imperialist points of view and imperialist eyes, regarding “traditional” China as an “empire,” regarding the Qing dynasty as “Qing dynasty imperialism.” Their theory and discourse are shot through with imperialist arrogance. [. . .]

In order to show the true face of “the historical study of new imperialism,” we must break down the fabrications of “new Qing history.”  The so-called “academic breakthrough” of “new Qing history” does not reflect reality. At its base it is a false and counterfeit good! Absent any academic breakthrough, it has lost the basis for survival. The whole range of views they express are clichés and stereotypes, little more than dusted off versions in a scholarly tone of the Western imperialism and Japanese imperialism of the 19th century!  [. . .] 

“New Qing History” is academically absurd, and politically does damage to the unity of China. It is necessary to stir all scholars with a sense of righteousness to fiercely oppose it. We entirely reject “New Qing History.” Moreover, we expose its mask of pseudo-academic scholarship, eliminating the deleterious effect it has had on scholarship in China!

Of course, it is no secret that many Chinese scholars fundamentally disagree with some of the ideas associated with the “New Qing History,” ideas that include approaching the Qing period from the point of view of its minority rulers, questioning the power of the Sinicization model as an explanation of Manchu success, incorporating the use of non-Chinese-language sources into research, and integrating the Qing empire into narratives of early modern world history.  But the tone of this attack leaves little doubt that the intent of the author – who belongs to the large team of scholars who have been charged with writing a new State Council-sponsored history of the Qing dynasty – is to make a political, not an intellectual, case against this way of seeing the past.

One cannot but wonder, Why such strong feelings?  What is so threatening about American scholarship on 18th-century China?  Given that most of it is in English, anyway, and unavailable to the wider public, how does it “do damage” to China’s political unity?

The short answer to these questions would seem to be that the new perspectives offered by the New Qing History do not square well with the accepted, orthodox history of an “always-already” unified China, unchanging in space and time, that is served up in state-approved textbooks and in much public media.  Though geared to a broadly nationalistic set of priorities, this does not make it good history, as many historians in China are quick to point out.  But it does give it the air of authority.  Thus to suggest, as the New Qing History does, that a) China-based states did not all look the same, and that it is a mistake to view the Qing as a warmed-over version of the Ming; b) that the decisions made by the Qing imperial center may have reflected the concerns of the Manchus as a non-Han minority ruling elite with strong connections to the Inner Asian political world; and c) that materials written in languages other than Chinese may have useful things to tell us about the past, is to challenge that authority.

If, as another critical essay published by CASS just last week pointed out, all the New Qing History has done is to have revived an earlier, alternative discursive structure for thinking about Chinese history, then that is no small thing.  Clearly, it has some powerful people in the Chinese academy worried.  For they know as well as anyone else that context is everything, whether it’s reflecting on the making of empire in the 18th century or the construction of a new intellectual hegemony in the 21st.