Putting together a volume of my writings, spanning a publishing career now stretching to almost a half-century, 1 has been fascinating in a number of ways. For one thing, it has involved rereading things that in some cases I hadn’t laid eyes on for decades, reminding myself, sometimes happily, sometimes not, of where I was intellectually at various points in my evolution as a historian. For another, it has afforded me the opportunity to play historian to myself, identifying some themes - my teacher Benjamin Schwartz referred to them as “underlying persistent preoccupations” 2 - that have endured from the beginning of my writing life right through to the present, although taking different forms at different times, and others that have emerged at one point or another but weren’t there at the outset. In other words, the exercise has enabled me to gain a clearer picture of how my thinking has changed over time and, equally important, how it hasn’t.
Although most of my scholarly work has focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has therefore, almost inevitably, dealt in one way or another with the interactions between China and the West (or a Western-influenced Japan), an abiding concern throughout has been my determination to get inside China, to reconstruct Chinese history as far as possible as the Chinese themselves experienced it rather than in terms of what people in the West thought was important, natural, or normal. I wanted, in short, to move beyond approaches to the Chinese past that bore a heavy burden of Eurocentric or Western-centric preconceptions. An early example of this was my first book, China and Christianity, in the preface to which I explicitly distanced myself from the older approach to China missions, with its focus “on missions history, not on Chinese history. ” With the coming of age of Chinese studies in the postwar era, “the inadequacies of this old Western-centered approach” had become apparent and a new approach had been suggested - the pioneer here was another of my mentors, John Fairbank - that was “more concerned with understanding and evaluating the role played by Christian missions in Chinese history. ” 3 It was this approach that I adopted in the book.