Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations

By Sewell, Bill | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations


Sewell, Bill, Canadian Journal of History


Toward a History beyond Borders: Contentious Issues in Sino-Japanese Relations, edited by Daqing Yang, Jie Liu, Hiroshi Mitani, and Andrew Gordon. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2012. xvi, 472 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

This volume addresses the major issues stalking Sino-Japanese relations by showcasing history as process: not only do events unfold with different meanings to different observers but the writing of history itself occurs amid shifting and diverging contexts. While historians are trained to be aware of this reality, the contributors to this volume are reaching out to larger audiences by showing that Chinese and Japanese views of themselves and each other in the long twentieth century have typically suited particular needs and circumstances, including the intellectual trends generally accepted at particular times in their own societies. In the case of Sino-Japanese relations making this point is hardly banal--because it is fundamental it represents perhaps a hopeful starting point that may point to a way past current imbroglios.

The volume itself is the product of a changed international context. Continuing tensions since the end of the Cold War have prodded academics and government officials alike to promote public discussion of historical issues as a means of diffusing Sino-Japanese and other regional frictions. The result has been a growing list of publications (some available online) that, including this volume, have been published in Chinese and Japanese as well as English. This collection thus represents not only how a new generation of scholars explores contentious matters but also how that generation endeavours to alter how these issues are broadly perceived. Despite the imbalance, apparent among the contributors to this collection--most are Japanese or at Japanese institutions this is potentially important work. As one latecomer to the project observed, the authors were empirical and engaged in dialogue, not in exchanging polemics. This is certainly a promising sign, even if one of the editors suggests rather modestly that the volume may be "read as both a progress report and a case study of the effort to overcome as yet un-mastered issues of history in East Asia" (p. 4).

The first three contributions explore Sino-Japanese relations between the establishment of relations in 1871 and the Manchurian Incident of 1931 by dividing this era into three periods: the latter half of the nineteenth century, that extending from the first Sino-Japanese War to the Twenty-One Demands, and to the Manchurian Incident. The chapters trace the shifts in diplomatic perspectives apparent among Chinese and Japanese within each period relying chiefly on Japanese materials but sometimes Chinese or Korean, some of which are appended in English translation. (All of the volume's chapters include relevant documents in translation, some of which are not available elsewhere in English.) In pointing out how historical incidents appeared differently to historical actors, these chapters reveal some of the roots of historical misunderstanding between China and Japan. …

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