ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Wong, R. Bin. China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Main Argument: Wong argues convincingly that scholars must seek "to generate the elements of well-grounded comparative history that can identify issues in European as well as non-European history, contribute to projects in world history, and create a new basis for building social theories to replace the great nineteenth-century efforts limited in large measure to European foundations" (ix), and that one way to do this is to incorporate thoroughly into scholarship the historical perspectives, experiences and paradigms of non-Western places. Accordingly, Wong analyzes a thousand years of Chinese history on its own terms and puts it in conversation with broadly similar examples of European history in the same period. In the end it becomes clear that differences are more salient than similarities, but only after similarities have been established through comparison--focusing on differences qua differences yields the sort of meaningless statements that, as one of the people in our class discussion commented, "Europe is different from China, China is different from apples, apples are different from hand grenades, and hand grenades are different from Dwinelle Hall." Yes, and?

The limits of Europe )

Critical assessment: This is a brilliantly analyzed and argued book, and if it gets a little dry at times, Wong succeeds to a greater extent than most economic historians I've read in not ignoring the violence that haunts history--he has an entire chapter comparing the French and Chinese Revolutions with each other, for instance. Let me be frank: as our class discussions around this book made clear, there are some people who just don't believe in comparative history, or at least in doing comparative history as we can now, and this book will not please them. To his credit, however, Wong anticipates that reaction, remarking in his introduction that "Noting items not addressed or inadequately treated matters, I think, only when such absences undermine the arguments or qualify the evidence presented" (8). It should surprise no one, methinks, that I'm with Wong on both the necessity and the value of comparative history, and I think he succeeds brilliantly at the task he sets out for himself, particularly when he reads European examples according to Chinese criteria and destabilizes our received understandings. He's particularly good on the comparative European and Chinese economies and state formations--a lot of what he said led me to rethink things I knew about Europe from 1 CE forward, particularly in the medieval era.

Further reading: Prasenjit Duara, Culture, Power, and the State; Joseph Fletcher Jr., "The Heyday of the Ch'ing Order in Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Tibet"; Edward Friedman, "Reconstructing China's National Identity", Bryna Goodman, Native Place, City, and Nation; Philip Kuhn, "Local Self-Government under the Republic"; Kenneth Pomeranz, From Core to Hinterland, "Protecting Goddess, Dangerous Woman"; Mary Rankin, Elite Activism and Political Transformation in China; Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990-1990

Meta notes: Europe isn't everything. Those of us in Asian studies and similar disciplines know that; now we just have to sell everyone else on that fact.

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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