English

2012 New History
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Some Recent Trends in the Historical Study of China and the “Non-Western” World

Stephen Averill

History Department, Michigan State University

Recently new trends labeled “the interpretative turn” or “the new cultural history” have stressed the inadequacy of established categories of analysis and the malleable quality of words, “facts” and the texts constructed from them. Instead of investigating structural relationships among institutions, groups, and ideas, they examine systems of thought and action through which people interact and power is manifested. Rejecting pursuit of “true” descriptions of reality, they stress the changeable and culturally constructed nature of historical texts.

Other developments have affected the kinds of favored research topics and subjects of debate among historians. The end of the Cold War has encouraged rejection of Marxist analysis and a reorientation toward studies of social movements and “civil society.” An upsurge in nationalism and ethnic conflicts has renewed interest in studying their origins and nature. A growing sense of “globalism” has led to reexamination of earlier notions about the characteristics of world systems and their historical production and maintenance. And expansion of interest in gender issues has led to a profusion of studies on these topics and influenced analysis of other subjects.

  This combination of world events and evolving viewpoints has significantly affected the general study of historical relations between Western and non-Western cultures, and also American studies of China. Among the results of these developments has been a rethinking of established conceptions of worldwide historical cultural interactions, greater impetus toward interdisciplinary cross-fertilization in academic research, and a stronger recognition of the changeability and interpretability of even the most seemingly “natural” and durable human institutions, cultural concepts, and forms of representation.

  In the general study of relations among Western and non-Western cultures, one fruitful area of activity has been the critique, modification, and extension of the concept of “Orientalism.” Work in this vein on topics such as colonial discourse, travel, and the dynamics of initial trans-cultural contacts stresses that Western expansion involved mutual interaction rather than simply the one-way imposition of Western control, the vulnerabilities of colonial rule and the selectivity with which Western concepts were absorbed by the colonized, and the entanglement of gender issues in all aspects of colonialism. Such studies have also prompted new work on subordinated (“subaltern”) groups within colonies, and on the forms of resistance they used. Among the aims of all of these academic trends have been to develop analytical viewpoints that avoid Eurocentric, Orientalist assumptions, while also making better sense of the changing patterns of interaction among the world’s peoples. Efforts along these lines have manifested themselves in notable upsurges of interest in studying—and arguing over—issues of nationalism, postcolonialism, and globalism.

  The nature of China’s interactions with imperialism suggests that these new trends are also relevant to it, and has prompted recent scholarly interest in reevaluating the “state of the field” and many of its paradigms and concepts. This has led to reassessments of the conception and significance of venerable topics such as nationalism, modernization, and revolution; reevaluation of the long-term salience of traditionally accepted historical “divides” such as 1949 and 1911; expansion and redirection of studies of social and cultural history to more effectively include issues such as subalternity, gender, and sexuality; and more consideration of the complexities involved in applying Western analytical concepts in a Chinese cultural context.

 

Key words: historiography, cultural studies, cultural history, Orientalism, colonialism, postcolonialism