History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth

By Paul A. Cohen | Go to book overview
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One meaning of the word key, as used in the title of this book, is borrowed from music and refers to the tonal system of a composition. Another refers to a device or instrumentality that provides entree to something. Both meanings are vital to the approach I have adopted in these pages. Event, experience, and myth point to different ways of getting at the meaning of the past, of accessing it, and -- ultimately -- knowing it. But they also suggest different ways in which the past may be configured or shaped, each operating according to different principles and imparting a very different inflection or "tone." These tonal differences, as some readers may have detected, are even echoed to a degree in the prose of the book's several parts, the main contrast being between the chapters comprising part 2, where I try as far as possible to enter into the emotional worlds of the people I am writing about, and parts 1 and 3, where I am more disposed to maintain a certain distance from the subject matter, resulting in a less personal, somewhat more "scholarly" style of exposition.

There are a few questions that still need to be raised. One has to do with the matter of representativeness. In this book, in an effort to gain a clearer picture of what historians do, I have examined the distinctive characteristics of event, experience, and myth in reference to a single -- and in many ways highly singular -- episode out of the past, the Boxer movement and uprising at the turn of the century in China. I have assumed, of course, that buried in the particularity of the Boxers are universals that are applicable to other historical events. It is now time to scrutinize this assumption more closely.

Let me begin by disposing of an issue that may be troubling some readers. I am not interested here in all aspects of the past, only in those aspects directly engaging the consciousness not only of the historian but also of the experiencer and mythmaker. This leaves out a whole category of historical writing, which is focused on long-term, impersonal developments (fre


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History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth


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