Paul A. Cohen’s Discovering History in China mainly reflects American historiography of “recent Chinese history” (in general, the nineteenth and twentieth century) since the postwar, points out its primary problems, and indicates a new trend, namely the China-oriented approach, in American historical writing in the end. In this book, Cohen handles three different, yet interlaced, approaches, to wit impact-response one, tradition-modernity one, and imperialism one, which had dominated American historical writing before the publication of this very book. As for the reason, or motive, why Cohen intends to write such as book, one involves several intellectual problems forming during his career. Between the publication of his first book (China and Christianity, 1963) and the second one (Between Tradition and Modernity, 1974), the outside environment experienced significant change (mainly the Vietnam War) which influenced the author greatly. For the first time, the author began to reflect his former thinking of China, gradually he doubted traditional approaches, and a new idea germinated. On the other hand, the relative scarcity of self-critical historiographical writing on the filed of recent Chinese history made the author feel discontented. Despite the fact that in late 1960s, a more critical perspective had grown, from the author’s eyes, it was too imperfect to be satisfied. These concern and uneasiness impelled the author to initiate this book.
In the first chapter, the target Cohen intends to assail is “impact-response” approach. This very conceptual framework bases on two basic assumptions, the first one is that “the confrontation with the West was the most significant influence on events in China”, the other one assumes that the role played by the West is active, while china took “a much more passive or reactive” one in this period. The main problem with this approach is that it’s too general, its intellectual realm is not clearly defined and delimited. Furthermore, the concept of West is not a definite notion, even the Westerns themselves couldn’t understand it very well. Two reasons may contribute to this phenomenon, the first one is that the West itself experienced tremendous change during the modern times, the other is that the West is a relative concept, and it’s not a unite and unidimensional idea. Therefore, the “total west”, or west as a monolith, never exist, let alone its impact on China. In reality, the West China encountered was only “a part of a whole”, and even this part changed over time. Moreover, the West confronted by China was not pure, the West mentioned by Chinese was, more often than not, the one created in Chinese minds, just as Cohen has described, it’s some kind of “hybridization”. The other trouble is that historians tend to discuss Chinese-response too abstractly. To illustrate his argument, Cohen reinterprets three sorts of Chinese historical events in recent times, rebellion, reform, and reaction. Under his narrative and analysis, these activities, rather than been regarded as responses to western impact by previous historians, mainly responded to Chinese own problems which had accumulated since eighteenth century or earlier.
In the end, the author provides a method to correct this approach, to contemplate and analyze China in three zones. The outermost zone, which was directly influenced by west; intermediate zone, which was activated or given direction, but was not actually brought into being, by the West; innermost zone, which stands for culture and society without been disturbed by the West. These zones were fluid, yet, and there were interactions between them, which forces us to speculate on this period of Chinese history from a dynamic perspective.
In the second chapter, Cohen tackles the “tradition-modernity” approach. This paradigm, from Cohen’s perspective, receives a great deal of influence from nineteenth century’s thoughts about China. The fundamental assumption shared by the historians of this paradigm, such as Joseph R. Levenson and Mary Wright, is consistent with nineteenth-century western view of China, regarding it as a “static, unchanging society, a society in a state of perpetual repose.” It was the modern West that activated static China, and its final fate would be a Western-styled modern society. In this sense, all kinds of transformation in modern China were influenced by the West, without West, it’s impossible for China to make any fundamental change during this period. Cohen, however, is not satisfied with this sort of interpretation of Chinese history, and unearths several severe problems involving in this very approach. One trouble is that there is no middle zone between “modern” and “tradition”, every historical event must be tilted by one or the other. In reality, yet, just as Schwartz claimed that some areas of human experience are not readily identifiable as either “traditional” or “modern”. Another lethal problem is the one described by J. H. Hexter, the “assumption of the conservation of historical energy”. From the “tradition-modernity” perspective, once the “modernity” wins a battle in certain area, then, the “tradition” must retreat from this very area proportionally, vice verse. It’s entirely possible, however, that both could make progress in certain period, since the “cake” they intend to divide might swell at the same time. A third problem with this approach is that it “employs concepts that neatly symmetrical to describe and explain realities that are fundamentally asymmetrical”. In the end, to get rid of the burden and difficulty imposed by modernization theory, Cohen recommends superseding it with another one, which is less Western-centered.
Toward the end of the 1960s, with the increasingly escalating of the Vietnam War, young American historians began to rethink the abovementioned two approaches which had dominated historiography over the past two decades. This new trend, Cohen denominates as “imperialism” approach, asserted that imperial invasion was the bane of modern Chinese backwardness, poverty, and chaos. Compared with the foregoing two chapters, the third one is much more controversial and debatable. Just as A. Feuerwerker has pointed out, the length of this chapter is not proportionate to the figures or thoughts Cohen intends to handle. Compare to J. K. Fairbank and Levenson, James Peck (Feuerwerker describes him as one “who knew little about China and was concerned mainly with America’s failings in Vietnam”) and Frances Moulder (“lacking any intimate knowledge of either China or Japan” depicted by Feuerwerker) are far less significant and influential in Chinese history area.
With respect to the internal problems of this very approach, the primary one is that it pays too much attention to exogenous factor. The advocates of this approach, such as James Peck and Frances Moulder, strongly backed the argument that the West was the most important, and sometimes the solo, element which hindered the development of China in modern times. It also implies that China itself alone couldn’t make tremendous change, only under the invasion of the West, could such change took place in China. Moreover, this approach fails to separate imperial influence from other Chinese self factors, and combine them together under the name of imperial invasion. Another problem is that the appropriateness of adopting the entire China economy as the only unit of analysis. Cohen suggests subdividing the whole China into different regions, and then analyzing exogenous influence on different regions respectively. The final problem involves the concept of imperialism. Chinese colonial framework, as Cohen has summarized, is “partial, multiple, and layered” , therefore the discussion of imperial influence on modern Chinese society must be more precisely than before.
The three approaches-the “impact-response” one, “tradition-modernity” one, and “imperialism” one-are three different variants in the same tone, they all establish on the “Western-centeredness”, just as Cohen has concluded, it “robs China of its autonomy and makes of it, in the end, an intellectual possession of the West.” Contrast to these Western-oriented approaches, ultimately, Cohen points out a new trend in American historical writing since the 1970s, which he designates as “China-oriented” approach. In the final chapter, he mainly discusses its four characteristics. The first one is that it “begins with Chinese problems set in a Chinese context”, which means these problems must be experienced by Chinese themselves and the criteria for judging the consequence of these very problems must be Chinese, rather than Western. Another identifying feature is that this approach attempts to comprehend China by dividing it into “smaller, more manageable spatial units”. Since China is so vast and complicated, different regions have respective languages, customs, traditions, and other material conditions, the generalization which is popular among the foregoing approaches should be replaced with differentiation, a more precise picture of Chinese history should be depicted by American historians. Furthermore, this sort of differentiation is applicable to separating Chinese hierarchy into various levels as well. Not only should we differentiate between the gentry and the peasant, but among the peasant, it should be divided into much more detailed strata. The final facet of the China-oriented approach is the combination of history with other disciplines, especially social sciences. By introducing the techniques and strategies of other disciplines, one could expand the field of history study and interpret history more precisely and closely.
Cohen’s Discovering History in China, just as Lloyd E. Eastman has asserted, “Every historian of China should read this book” , in this reflective work, he lays bare “the hidden assumptions that have informed and skewed much American research on nineteenth and twentieth century”. As a Chinese, I wonder that when could our historians write a book like this to reflect our historiography on modern Chinese history during the past century, to demonstrate the assumptions taken by previous historians (one may be the model of peasant war). I believe this would be a painstaking work, yet, it would be tremendous meaningful, since the first step to get rid of bad habits is to know its existence.