Empire, Nation, and Beyond: Chinese History in Late Imperial and Modern Times-A Festschrift in Honor of Frederic Wakeman

By Rowe, William T. | The China Journal, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Empire, Nation, and Beyond: Chinese History in Late Imperial and Modern Times-A Festschrift in Honor of Frederic Wakeman


Rowe, William T., The China Journal


Empire, Nation, and Beyond: Chinese History in Late Imperial and Modern Times-A Festschrift in Honor of Frederic Wakeman, edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Wen-hsin Yeh and Madeleine Zelin. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 2006. [viii] + 323 pp. US$25.00 (paperback).

Fred Wakeman decisively changed the direction of American historiography on late imperial and modern China. One of the first important modern Chinese historians in the US not to have studied at Harvard under John King Fairbank, he established the earliest and most important competing center for training graduate students in this field, at the University of California, Berkeley. Whereas the underlying problematic of Harvard historiography since the 1950s had been "China's response to the West", and its emphases squarely on political, diplomatic and institutional history, Wakeman was among the pioneer applicants to China of the techniques and concerns of "social history", in the manner of Annales, an approach which had already come to dominate historical scholarship on Europe and North America. An untold number of students of my own generation, trained in the 1970s at institutions well beyond Berkeley, were launched on our scholarly careers by Wakeman's ringing call, in the final sentence of the preface to his 1967 Strangers at the Gate, "Let us engage in local history".

For more than four decades at Berkeley, Wakeman turned out a substantial cadre of historians, effectively placing them in key positions at such institutions as Columbia, Northwestern, Notre Dame, University of California, San Diego, University of California, Irvine and eventually even Harvard itself. Some thirteen of these students, along with Wakeman's longtime Berkeley colleague Wen-hsin Yeh, have contributed articles to this festschrift in his honor. In contrast to Harvard, there really was no "Berkeley school" of historiography: just as Wakeman's own work ranged from the late Ming to the Communist era and transcended the usual genre divides of historical writing, so too the work of his students, united only by diligent research and sinological expertise, ranged over a great diversity of styles and subject areas.

Such an impressive span of concerns, however, only compounds the usual problems inherent in compiling a festschrift. Called upon to produce an occasional essay at relatively short notice, some invited participants will inevitably need to recycle material they have previously published elsewhere, or write something in haste based on less research than their usual work, or pull something out of the bottom drawer of their desk which they long ago completed but had not been able to figure out what to do with. Sometimes, it is true, this can turn up a true gem of historical scholarship which otherwise may never have come to light, but it is normally a hit-or-miss project. That is the case with the present book.

Although every article included here at least bears looking at, in my view the most interesting are the contributions by Robert Eng, Linda Grove and the three editors themselves. Eng, drawing heavily on work which he published previously in Chinese, shows how a quasi-public holding company, the "Minglun tang" of Dongguan county, Guangdong, over the 19th and 20th centuries undertook innovative activities in coastal land reclamation, aquaculture and sericulture, systematically ploughing the handsome profits of these into financing local academies and the education of native sons both domestically and overseas. …

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