We need a new approach to teaching modern Chinese history: we have lazily repeated false narratives for too long.

I.

Over the past 60 years, a handful of scholarly doorstops–massive, one-volume survey texts — have profoundly shaped how we think about China. John King Fairbank (1907–1991), considered the father of modern Chinese historical studies in the West in the post-war period, produced East Asia: The Great Tradition in 1958 with his Harvard colleagues Edwin Reischauer and Albert Craig. This textbook (which also covered the histories of Japan, Korea and Vietnam) organized the history of the East Asian mainland as a continuous series of Chinese “dynasties” (rather than distinct empires or kingdoms) and promulgated the idea that foreign affairs in traditional East Asia was conducted through the Sinocentric “tribute system.” As red guards during the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on that great tradition, the new edition of the textbook came out under the expanded title East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (1973–1989), thereby helping entrench a dialectical approach to tradition and modernity into the study of China’s recent past. Fairbank maintained his general paradigm while incorporating more recent research in his China: A New History (1992), issued in new editions until 2006 — Merle Goldman adding post-Mao era material after Fairbank’s death.[1] While specialists in Chinese history have mostly moved on, for baby-boomers and many millennials who took a China survey class in university — a group including many of today’s senior policy-makers, journalists and political scientists — Fairbank’s imprint runs deep.

II.

There are, however, mistakes and omissions here. These are not so much failings of this book per se, but ultimately arise from how the field a whole approaches Chinese history, especially as reflected in trade books aimed at general readership.

III.

Another issue is Mühlhahn’s relative neglect of the Qing as an imperial and the PRC as post-imperial state. I myself have worked mainly on the Qing period, which makes me predictably if perhaps unfairly picky about Mühlhahn’s coverage of that Manchu-centered empire. Nevertheless, I critique Mühlhahn’s treatment of the Qing empire and its legacy here, precisely because he is not alone in his interpretation, but reflexively repeats conventions in the field going back to Fairbank and nationalistic Chinese narratives before him.

IV.

Instead, Mühlhahn rehashes the myth of Confucian peace. “In the eighteenth century,” he writes, “large regions of East Asia, with China at its center, experienced a long epoch of peace and prosperity, on the foundations of a tributary-trade order, at a time when Europe was more or less continuously engulfed by war and turmoil” (p. 80, see also p. 25). In the 1960s, when John King Fairbank first proposed his model of “traditional Chinese foreign relations” based on the “tributary system,” he did not have a large body of archive-sourced secondary literature on Qing empire in Inner Asia to draw on. Today, however, there is no reason to trot out the thoroughly debunked notion of a “tribute system.”[1] “Tributary” status was generally a fiction; it did not require a “tributary” status to trade with the Qing; it was not Sinocentric “China” but the culturally pluralist Manchu ruling elite that occupied the empire’s ideological center. And most important, the eighteenth century was a time of war, not of peace, in East Asia: besides the Inner Asian conquests, the Qianlong emperor (unsuccessfully) invaded Vietnam and Burma, repressed a major rebellion in Taiwan, and fought two wars to repel Nepali invasions of Tibet — and those are just a few of the “Ten Great Campaigns” the emperor boasted about.

V.

I am faulting Mühlhahn for failings that are not so much his own, but are rather paradigmatic to the China field — or at least to its public face. Specialized academic publications, especially those examining gender history or the Qing empire and ethnicity, have been revising these old perspectives for decades. Yet these revisions have seldom percolated up to works written for a broader readership, and the old tropes, such as the tribute system, still infuse journalistic accounts of China. What, then, would a more accurate historical approach to “modern China” look like?

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James A. Millward

James A. Millward

James A. Millward 米華健 is professor of history at Georgetown University and mandolinist for By & By.