Imperial China 900-1800 Review

Imperial China 900-1800
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Imperial China 900-1800 ReviewIn an earlier generation, the one-volume textbook East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, by John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, considerably reduced from the original two-volume version, unwittingly left many students with the impression that the history of premodern East Asia, and especially China, could be categorized meaningfully as "traditional." Such a misrepresentation may have held some appeal for students of twentieth-century China who wanted to regard China of the Qing dynasty as an incarnation of unchanging essentials of traditional society, a foil against which the dynamism of revolutionary China could be viewed. That perspective could find generous reinforcement from China itself where the official historiography of the People's Republic classified the entire span of the imperial era as a feudal stage of historical evolution. Imperial China 900-1800 is an antidote to the toxin of such erroneous conceptions; it traces nine hundred years of profound changes that precede d the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why the period 900 to 1800? Mote tells us in the Preface that these dates defined his teaching field at Princeton; early portions of the book incorporate accounts he wrote years ago for use by students in his classes. Superficially, the rounded Western dates, 900 and 1800, are close to real events in Chinese history--the end of the Tang in 907 and the death of the Qianlong emperor in 1799--but the true rationale lies at a deeper level than those events. Mote argues that these nine centuries constitute a coherent period, later imperial China, characterized by the intensified interaction of Inner Asian peoples with agricultural China, the evolution of an East Asian system of interstate relations based on Chinese ritual forms, the centralization of imperial power, increased trade, population growth, and the emergence of a new class of civil bureaucrats, facilitated by the invention of printing and connected to the scholarly developments we refer to as Neo-Confucianism. All of this contributed to the maturation of Chinese high culture, what Mote calls "China's timeless achievement".
Mote is passionate about the value of Chinese high culture and insistent that knowledge of traditional life and learning are necessary to anyone who would seek to understand China's modern history. His own knowledge of Chinese high culture is both personal and scholarly. He lived and studied in China before 1950 with teachers and fellow students who shared a knowledge of the literary heritage and who embodied the old customs in their daily lives. After 1950 high culture ceased to play the guiding role it had in earlier centuries, and the destructive forces of revolutionary change estranged younger generations from a consciousness of the historical past. In Imperial China Mote seeks to condense an overview of the field he taught for half a century, infusing it with insights and judgements based on deep erudition and an extraordinary knowledge of the Chinese written record.
Imperial China is intended as a textbook. It is handsomely produced by Harvard University Press in a hefty volume of 973 pages of text. Black-and-white reproductions from Chinese paintings grace the title page and the beginnings of the five sections; nine charts and twenty-two maps appear at strategic points in the text. Even though, thanks to what must have been a substantial subsidy, the book is priced to be within reach of student budgets, it is hard to imagine that many undergraduates, even at the best schools, will be induced to buy and read a work of this size and complexity. There cannot be many schools that offer courses devoted to this segment of China's history, and the book is too big to be used as a supplementary reading in a more general survey of the history of China or East Asia. Individual chapters or sections might be placed on reserve as background reading in advanced courses, but such assignments are increasingly resisted or ignored by students. The real audience for Imperial China, I suspect, will be graduate students preparing for field examinations in Chinese history and faculty writing lectures.
Space does not allow an exploration of all the riches of this great work. The account of the Ming dynasty alone covers more than three hundred pages. It is the longest single-author history of the dynasty written in English by one of the foremost authorities on the subject and deserves a separate review by itself. Imperial China, 900-1800 is a monumental contribution to our understanding of premodern Chinese history. Students and scholars will want to have this volume on their shelves.Imperial China 900-1800 Overview

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