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Discovering History in China Paperback – April 15, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0231058117 ISBN-10: 023105811X Edition: 2nd

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Product Details

  • Series: Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
  • Paperback: 243 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press; 2nd edition (April 15, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 023105811X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231058117
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,130,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Every historian of China should read this book. For what Paul A. Cohen has done here is lay bare the hidden assumptions that have informed and skewed much American research on 19th- and 20th-century China. He shows that the questions most American historians have asked about the China past, and consequently the kind of histories they have written, have been determined as much by their own cultural biases as by the historical realities of China itself.... A consciousness-raising experience.

(American Historical Review)

About the Author

Paul A. Cohen is Edith Stix Wasserman Professor of Asian Studies and History at Wellesley College and an associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University.

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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Stroup on March 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The following review is based on the 1984 edition.

In "Discovering History in China" Cohen argues that much of the scholarship in the West that had occurred on China prior to the mid-1970's, (particularly American scholarship), had been conducted with an "ethnocentric distortion". Because the West had an impact in shaping modern China, pre-World War II (W.W. II) studies on China tended to focus on matters Western countries had a direct role in, such as the Opium Wars, missionary work, the Taiping uprising, sino-foreign trade, etc.. These studies tended to be from missionaries, diplomats, and others who had no formal training as historians.

In post-W.W. II studies of China (while the subject matter had widened) emphasis "was still to an overwhelming extent on the shaping role of the Western intrusion"(p.2). Much of what was written after W.W. II, according to Cohen, viewed the Western role in shaping modern China in a positive light. It was not until the liberalism of the late 1960's that historians began to question this purely positive look at imperialism and looked instead at ways the Western involvement in China had affected the "natural forward movement of Chinese history". However, many scholars still saw the West as the main antagonist in preventing China's 'modern development'.

Chapter one deals with the amount of influence Western nations had on events shaping China in the late 1800's. Cohen believes that the amount of influence the Western imperialist countries had on events inside China during the late 1800's was negligible overall. It was only after the Tongzhi Restoration that the Western presence in China played any significant role in shaping Chinese affairs.
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Though this will be a tough read for non -specialists, Cohen is undoubtedly the most adventurous and insightful writer and historian to date who follows and pushes the Fairbank school of "China-first" or insider history. Forget history from the ground up, this is history from the prevailing culture as a force against western narrativism and its single European-culture perspective. Though historians suffer from a host of obfuscating issues to this day, at least Cohen leads the way in explaining what they are and offering insight into what can be done. Want to understand some of these problems? Read this and his "History in Three Keys".
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