Chinese Colonial History in Comparative Perspective

Isabella Jackson

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We are currently riding the wave of a resurgence of interest among historians of China in the nation’s colonial history. For more than two decades from the early 1980s, Western historians shied away from the topic as the field turned to “China-centred history,” spearheaded (though not initiated) by Paul Cohen. This was a necessary corrective to a tendency to see modern Chinese history solely through the lens of its interactions with the West: the “Western impact–Chinese response” model denigrated by Cohen, though his presentation of the argument of his former teacher, John King Fairbank, on “China’s response to the West” was a somewhat crude caricature.1 Cohen’s criticism of the field came of course in the context of broader convulsions in imperial history and area studies, with the emergence of subaltern studies similarly challenging the traditional narrative of South Asian history (the imperialism-nationalism dialectic). Rather than advocating a reassessment of the role of imperialism in Chinese history, however, Cohen demanded that the foreign influence be relegated from the forefront of its interpretation to the background, going far further in this regard than the subaltern school. This period produced a fine body of local and micro-studies and encouraged scholars to examine social, economic and cultural aspects of China’s modern history. But William Kirby’s bold statement in 1997 that “nothing mattered more” than China’s foreign relations in the Republican era of 1911–49 is entirely justified by the ways in which China’s politicians, intellectuals and revolutionaries of the time viewed the problems faced by the young republic.2 The significance of China’s foreign relations is equally true of the late Qing, the last dynasty, which was finally toppled with comparative ease in 1911
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Colonialism
  • China
  • history


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