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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: Discovering History in China by Paul A. Cohen

Title: Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past 
Author: Paul A. Cohen 
Genre: Nonfiction- History 
Finished: September 21, 2010

In Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past, Paul A. Cohen contributes insight in to the field of Chinese historiography by investigating what American historians of the post-WWII era have written about China. According to Cohen, American historians of the post-WWII era have been guilty of writing about recent Chinese history with an ethnocentric bias, using a western-centric perspective to interpret the conditions of Chinese historical change and thereby distorting Chinese history. Cohen identifies three biased-based frameworks that he feels American historians erroneously worked inside of: the impact-response model, the traditional-modernity model, and imperialism. All three of these models distorted the West's actual role in Chinese history, in Cohen's opinion, or over-stated it as more influential than it was (x). 

Cohen arranges the book in to four parts, the first three chapters are discussions of the three frameworks, and the fourth chapter introduces Cohen’s "China-centered" model for historical interpretation. Discovering History in China is a reflective work as much as it is an assessment of historiographical trends. Cohen admits from the onset that the book was inspired by early moments of personal and professional self-evaluation, which led him to pinpoint some of the biases inherent in his own interpretation of Chinese history. This extended to deeper analyses of other American historians of China, or historians from elsewhere heavily influenced by American models. Cohen protects himself from some criticism by admitting that Discovering History in China is a largely subjective work with a very limited scope (xxxiv). By disclosing that Discovering History in China is not and does not intend to be the definitive statement on Chinese historiography, Cohen does more than protect his method. Cohen effectively opens up a dialogue about Chinese historiography that he invites other Chinese historians to engage in with him, and hopefully inspire other historians to self-assess and to follow up his analyses with further issues within the field. 

At the heart of Cohen's argument is a lesson that transcends American and Chinese borders, and can be beneficial to historians throughout the world no matter their field. The dichotomy between the role something is perceived as having played in history and the role it actually played is a flaw in thinking that all historians should be cautious of in their individual specializations. Precisely, how their internal biases can alter their perception of events and motivation. What seems to be Cohen’s contribution to Chinese historiography is really a wider contribution to historiography as a whole. 

In chapter 1 of Discovering History in China, “The Problem with ‘China’s Response to the West,’” Cohen looks at the impact-response model. Inside of this model, American historians of China viewed all significant change in China to be the result of the impact of the West. China’s role in its own history was solely in how it responded to the impact of the West. It would be excessive for Cohen to deny that the West had no impact on Chinese history at all, or that the Chinese were never motivated to action by the involvement of the West. What Cohen concludes is that much of what happened in China was either completely unrelated or only partially related to the involvement of the West. Things that fall into the grey, Cohen explains, which are either directly or indirectly shaped by Western influence, cannot be interpreted as being only a response to the West because there were a lot of internal factors to consider (15-16). Cohen uses the Taiping Rebellion and T’ung-chih restoration as case studies to his point. Some historians have interpreted both as being directly caused by the involvement of the West, but Cohen insists that in reality the rebellion was caused by internal factors, and the restoration was truly restorative, not innovative (20-22). Cohen insists that in some instances the West was an accomplice to events in China that would have happened no matter what, even if the West had never become involved (43). However, to use ahistorical reasoning to support his claim weakens the value of Cohen’s assessment. He cannot assume that Chinese history would have progressed the same, come to the same end, if the West were entirely absent. There is no need to take his interpretation to such an extreme because he has already stated that Chinese history can progress independent of Western involvement. 

Next, Cohen looks at the Boxer Rebellion and uses the fact that the majority of the rebellions began in rural places removed from Western influence as proof that it had nothing to do with the West (52). Cohen already admits that the West could indirectly influence events, but he does not recognize that resentment is something uncontainable that flows from its source, and may even build up to a more volatile condition. The rebellion was too complex to eliminate causes based on small details. In the end, it would still ultimately be the internal factors that bred and fed the rebellion, but it would recognize Cohen’s own acceptance that the West can influence. Yet Cohen is successful in what he attempts to do in chapter 1: proving that the impact-response model is indeed a problem in Chinese historical interpretation. Chinese historians need to be aware that there has been lacking consciousness in the breadth of causes for change in China, as well as in the motivations that awakened the need for, and the acceleration of, change in China. Cohen makes it necessary for Chinese historians to pause in their interpretations and ask what truly inspired the event(s) in question, and to search for underlying endogenous reasons despite more apparent exogenous influences. After all, it is often the exogenous that seem the most obvious or influential by its very nature of being new and different. Historians now have to work a little harder to discover the truth. Cohen’s “corrective” to the impact-response model outlines the zones in which events of Chinese history can be placed: events that were direct consequences of the West, things influenced but not caused by the West, and things left unchanged by the West (53-54). It is the second zone that presents difficulty because it is so broad. The problem with the impact-response model is that the historians Cohen is directing his book at had been unable to distinguish slight influence from heavy impact, and Cohen’s corrective will still be plagued by that very problem. However, Cohen is only presenting problems, not trying to fix them despite his giving a loose corrective framework for the benefit of the reader. It is up to the individual historian to be aware as they interpret and self-correct their own assumptions. 

Chapter 2, “Moving Beyond ‘Tradition and Modernity,”” shifts the discussion to Cohen’s second problem framework: the traditional-modernity model. The tradition-modernity model was built on the premise that China was locked in an unchanging and static condition, which the West liberated it from by bringing in Western modernity. Cohen identifies the problem in this being that China was judged against purely Western standards, and so was set up from the start to appear backwards. The model also introduced a lot of subjectivity because historians measured for themselves the change that they believed to be significant using a Western definition of modernity. Sometimes this caused historians to make unfair judgments about Chinese tradition being a barrier for progress (62, 65, 80). Cohen focuses on a small number of sources which he feels best reflect his point, and particularly dissects the writings of historian Joseph Levenson, as well as others such as Mary C. Wright and Thomas A. Metzger, though less extensively than in his treatment of Levenson. Cohen looks outside of his own imposed limits in chapter 2. Cohen defines his focus as the post-WWII era, which is ambiguous on its own. However, Cohen specifically states the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, and it is also assumed by the term post-WWII that the 1950s will naturally be a factor. Cohen repeatedly reiterates those decade periods, yet some of his sources are outside of that scope such as Gilbert Rozman’s edited volume The Modernization of China, which was published in 1981, and Thomas A. Metzger’s Escape from Predicament, published in 1977. If Cohen is going to break his own established boundaries for the sake of sources, he should not be so quick to erect them in the first place. This is a minor slight, though it detracts from the overall exactness of his critique of others. It also leaves Cohen vulnerable to the critique of peers who may assert that Cohen shapes evidence to his needs despite the soundness of his analysis. 

To his benefit, Cohen’s careful reasoning again saves him from the trap of optimism; he openly admits that it is impossible for any historian to be completely culturally neutral, and he again does not frame a solution for this. Like in chapter 1, chapter 2 merely intends to illuminate a problem, and then allow every historian to make of it what they will, but hopefully with more attentiveness in their scholarly pursuits. Chapter 3, “Imperialism: Reality or Myth?,” discusses Cohen’s final problem framework. According to Cohen, historians approached imperialism from two different perspectives. The first saw imperialism as the “source of China’s problems,” a reverse of the traditional-modernity approach that saw Western intervention as necessary to progress. The effects of the Vietnam War heavily influenced this perspective because it was during the Vietnam War that Americans had to face the destructive realities of American intervention. The second perspective was that imperialism, taking a page from the traditional-modernity approach, brought about great political and intellectual changes to China, and not always for the bad (97, 125). Cohen feels that the imperialism approach is evidence of not only how bias was introduced into interpretation, but also how contemporary events caused historians to read backwards with the inevitable result of connecting the assumed cause and effect. Cohen does not deny that imperialism had a very real impact on China, but rather objects to the idea that imperialism was the “master key” to Chinese history. 

The challenge Cohen presents to historians is that they must pick out which situations were truly relevant to imperialism, and then to move a step further to show how the situation was relevant (147). By treading a careful line, Cohen comes off with an analysis that is carefully discussed and that adequately presents the problem while giving shape to its reality through practice. In the fourth and final chapter, “Toward a China-Centered History of China,” Cohen presents the direction he would like to see Chinese history move. His ultimate feeling toward American historians is pessimistic because he feels that it would be impossible to rid analysis entirely of ethnocentrism. Pessimistic though it is, it is most likely a correct conclusion. However, Cohen hopes that using a China-Centered approach will lessen Western-centric interpretations (153). This is the chapter in which Cohen attempts to give a model for an actual solution, which he splits into four components: begins in China with the Chinese, breaks China up into smaller regions, looks hierarchically from the bottom of society up, and brings in methods from outside disciplines (186-187). Yet there can be some problems with Cohen’s suggestions. First, to break China into exclusive smaller parts may distort the broader picture. While in many cases a small region may stand on its own, historians should be sensitive to the fact that sometimes the broader picture must be paralleled in order to give true scope to an issue, and to connect it to larger cause factors in China. Second, historians should account for the fluidity of ideas and events through social classes, and look from the bottom up, but also the top down. The two of them should work together. 

A few additional criticisms can be made toward Discovering History in China as a whole. Though the book provides historiographical lessons that can be beneficial to historians of all areas, Cohen’s attentiveness to dissecting specific works and authors of Chinese history makes the book complicated for people who are unfamiliar with the most popular and essential works in the field. Discovering History in China can be a useful tool for novice or expert, but the significance of many works Cohen discusses will be lost on the novice. Additionally, Cohen generalizes a lot based on his few sources. As a result, it is difficult to gauge just how pervasive the problems Cohen presents were. It is understandable that Cohen left out contrary examples because they would mitigate the importance of his historiographic problems, and would distort the significance of his argument. Yet not every historian was guilty of one or more of Cohen’s problem models, certainly, and in all fairness Cohen should illustrate this better. Finally, Cohen reissued the book in 2010 from its original publication in the 1980s. However and unfortunately, he did not update it with any new information. Therefore, it is impossible to know how the field has developed, whether Cohen’s problems are still at all relevant, if new problems have arisen, or if there has been progress in the field. With over 20 years spanning the original publication to the current edition, no doubt many changes have taken place. Even if only in the preface or introduction, Cohen should have discussed current trends to avoid becoming a snapshot of the past that is no longer relevant. Regardless, Cohen still has a solid place in historiography. Discovering History in China is an essential part to the whole of Chinese historiography for students and scholars who desire more precise and accurate methods in their research.