Recent PRC Studies on Modern Chinese History
Esherick, Joseph W., China Review International
Whenever I visit or give a lecture at a Chinese university or research institute, I usually come away with a small stack of books written by the faculty. Back in the 1980s, these tended to be textbooks of uneven quality and limited originality, but in recent years I have often received books on subjects far from my own area of expertise but still of sufficient interest to occupy long hours on airplanes during the journey home. Young and mid-level historians, often mentored by senior scholars with solid pre-Cultural Revolution technical training, and conversant with global trends in historical scholarship through the growing number of translated works, are producing rigorous scholarship of real originality and importance. Equally striking is the rapid spread of international conventions of footnoting and source citation, so that it is far easier to discern their methodology and assess the evidence for their historical claims. Most Western historians of late imperial and modern Chinese history are long accustomed to consulting the specialized scholarship from China (and Taiwan) in their own fields. Now, it seems to me, the time has come to sample Chinese scholarship more broadly.
At my home institution, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), I regularly teach a course introducing graduate students to recent Anglophone scholarship on modern Chinese history. Last fall, with a heightened awareness of the large body of important scholarship from China, I was troubled by this exclusive focus on English-language works and decided to devote the entire course to recent scholarship from China. With our Chinese colleagues now broadly aware of major trends in Western historiography of China, it seemed to me fitting that we should introduce our own students to recent research by Chinese historians. Surely it is desirable that American China scholars of the next generation have a general understanding of the methods, debates, and concerns of their Chinese peers.
The reviews in this special section of China Review International were all written by doctoral students in UCSD's graduate course Historical Scholarship on Modern Chinese History. Each student was responsible for one book, but their reviews were aided by notes exchanged among all students and from myself. I have also reviewed each contribution for accuracy and appropriate coverage. Each of these reviews is, in this sense, a product of the sort of collective learning experience that we stress at UCSD, though each of the authors presents a distinctive voice and is ultimately responsible for the contents of the review.
We make no claim that the nine volumes reviewed here represent the most important books on modern Chinese history. There are many other fine studies that we considered, several of which have been or (we hope) will in the future be reviewed in the pages of CRI or other journals. (1) The books reviewed here begin with an overview of the predicament of Chinese historical studies by the Xiamen University scholar Chen Zhiping. Next comes a series of topical studies, Yu Xinzhong's broad overview of the Ming-Qing family (part of a five-volume series on the history of the Chinese family), Cai Jiayi's sweeping history of socioeconomic changes in Xinjiang during the Qing period, and Liu Haiyan's urban history of Tianjin's modern transformation. Mao Haijian's revisionist history of the Opium War appears to be a fairly conventional "event history," but it reverses the verdict on many of the heroes and villains of this era and sheds important new light on some of the weaknesses of Qing governance in this critical period. …