Telling Chinese History: A Selection of Essays

Article excerpt

Telling Chinese History: A Selection of Essays, by Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., selected and edited by Lea H. Wakeman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xx + 453 pp. US$60.00/£35.00 (hardcover), US$24.95/£14.95 (paperback).

This book is a collection of articles by the distinguished historian Frederic E. Wakeman (1937-2006) on various aspects of Chinese history. As the articles selected here show, his work is characterized by its attention to theory, its deep interpretations of certain periods of Chinese history, and its emphasis on human details. Wakeman was widely learned in the history not only of China but of other countries as well, and his comparative observations added to and deepened his interpretations.

This book was compiled after Wakeman' s death by his wife Lea. It consists of five parts, representing emphases in Wakeman's work. These are 1) China in the context of world history; 2) the Ming-Qing period; 3) Shanghai in the Republic period; 4) the historiography of Chinese history; and 5) modernity and the state. The themes of the earlier parts tend to relate to earlier periods.

The chapters are from various sources, ranging from scholarly journals like Journal of Asian Studies to chapters in well-known books and to book reviews. In addition, there is an interpretative introduction to Wakeman's work in general, and to this book in particular, by S. N. Eisenstadt, himself a distinguished historian of China. Major themes taken up in the book include early relations between the West and China, ideology, bureaucracy and change. The arguments presented are not all consistent throughout the book, but that is defensible, as this is a republication of particular major articles.

Wakeman's writing style is always interesting, and I found this book at times quite difficult to put down. For example, the chapter entitled "Romantics, Stoics and Martyrs in Seventeenth-Century China" includes many personal, even intimate, details about historical figures and links their experiences to the broad sweep of the history that saw the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the Qing.

Although Wakeman certainly had interests in the big picture of Chinese history, the common themes that recur throughout this book are comparatively few. One is the power of the state linked with the issue of essential change. One chapter is entitled "Models of Historical Change: The Chinese State and Society 1839-1989" and was originally published in 1991. Wakeman discusses four models of the state, beginning with Karl Wittfogel's "oriental despotism", and analyzes the development of police power in China. His conclusion is that the state has increased its power over society, with the People's Republic having the largest extent of power, and takes this as indicative of a gathering momentum of change in China. …