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Home » The History of China's Foreign Relations » empire, nation, frontier, network

A forum to review the state of the field, raise questions, share ideas, references, and perhaps generate research collaborations. The forum is unmoderated, but was created by John Wills (USC history emeritus). Send inquires to Jack at jwills@usc.edu. Obtain login information by sending your request along with your name, affiliation (if any), and email address to uschina@usc.edu. Detailed help in using the forum is available by clicking on the help link above.
4/9/2009 1:46:40 PM

john wills
john wills
Posts: 19
Subject: empire, nation, frontier, network
The following is an attempt to help to jump-start discussion of issues in the history of Chinese foreign relations. The subject once was central to English-language scholarship on China, and obviously has not been so through several decades of “China-centered” scholarship. Recently there have been some important moves beyond the “China-centered turn”, into interest in the multi-ethnicity of the Qing and several earlier empires, the partial and interactive indigenizations of Buddhism and Christianity, China’s changing interactions with the global economy over the last 500 years, cultural pluralism and boundary-crossing, and much more. There have been several stimulating summaries of this more interactive view of Chinese history, but much remains to be done. At USC, in the spring of 2008 we hosted a small conference taking up some of these issues across the spectrum of the profession from Duke to RAND. The papers will be published this year in the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, and information will be posted in this forum. Important contributions to the discussion keep appearing; the most recent to land on my doorstep is Christopher Beckwith's sweeping and intellectually ambitious EMPIRES OF THE SILK ROAD.

There also are good practical/policy reasons why we need to think more about China’s modes of interaction with the outside world; it's clear that China will be a much more active and interactive factor in the world of the 21st century, and policy-makers and academic inter¬preters of its contemporary foreign relations need better accounts of earlier phases than are now available to them.

I have asked my graduate students, and with this text I begin to ask other collaborators and co-conspirators, to imagine a short book that would summarize the main lines of what is now understood about the history of Chinese foreign relations, and in the process of so doing lay special emphasis on some interpretive issues that may be especially useful to students of the contemporary scene. It seems to me that thinking about and trying to practice this kind of writing presents very important intellectual challenges. We do it all the time, in providing background for our more detailed investigations and analyses, but we rarely think about it or teach it explicitly to our graduate students. The challenge is to interweave theory and well-chosen (accurate, vivid, not hackneyed) detail, and make them support each other. Often the writer has a nice, coherent exposition going, only to realize that she has left out a whole set of changes and explanations that somehow have to be woven in.

What follow are a first sketch of an agenda-setting statement and, in separate files, suggestions of what a series of chapters might look like. The sketches of issues and the bibliographies appended to them are in every sense works in progress; I am embarrassed to see how much I have to do to update the bibliographies, and will be doing quite a bit in weeks to come. In months to come I will be seeking advice in more focussed ways, probably starting with Chapter 9, where I feel particularly clueless. Will there ever be a book? Single author or collection? Who knows? What's important is urging colleagues and their students to think seriously about this kind of writing and these issues.

Agenda-Setting Statement
The study of the history of Chinese foreign relations is abuzz with old saws that are getting dull but keep going around: the tribute system, culturalist resistance to learning from foreigners, Chinese identity and alienated cosmopolitanism as a zero-sum game, 100% negative evaluations of connections with the world economy, and so on. In this book we will survey what we know about the history of Chinese foreign relations, evaluate the evidentiary and intellectual weaknesses of the old saws, and attempt to move beyond them in various ways, including attention to networks of human connection as a basic aspect of the successes of imperial regimes, the ambivalences toward things foreign of modern nation-builders, and the contemporary puzzles of "Greater China".

A first run at how we will talk about interactions among empire, nation, frontier, and network would look something like this: The Chinese from Han times on built and often maintained a very large single-centered polity, an empire, partly on a basis of military power but also on a basis of their ability to foster and adjust networks among individuals, especially those between rulers and ministers and between patrons and clients of various kinds. Such a network-built empire rarely was totally controlling of the activities of its subjects, and did not elicit all-consuming devotion and identification in the way a pseudo-kin "we group" or a religion can. It could easily generate centrifugal forces or conflicts if it tried to control or tax its subjects too heavily. Thus expensive conquests often were suspect, and too much contact with foreigners might lead to de-stabilizing connections with them. But this very large empire also had proportionately long and deep frontier zones, into which it was drawn by real and perceived threats, by conflicts between emigrants from the empire and local peoples, and, more rarely than for Europe and some other great civilizations, by the lures of loot and glory. When the western powers kicked down the door of a very defensive Qing empire, China had to become a mobilizing state if it was to survive as one nation among many. The heritages and logics of the self-limiting empire had to be overcome. In the longer run, the heritages of empire and network offer many strengths to the Chinese in an interactive modern world. But there are baffling contradictions between the heritages of a nation in quest of unity and strength, an empire that acknowledges no equals, frontier zones largely within the borders of the modern nation-state, and the energetic network-building that links Chinese in the PRC, in Taiwan, and in the diaspora.
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[Edit by="john wills on Apr 13, 11:47:55 AM"][/Edit]
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4/9/2009 2:36:34 PM

john wills
john wills
Posts: 19
Subject: who needs this project/book?
I drafted the attached presentation in 2002 and 2003. It's entitled "Historical Perspectives on Chinese Foreign Relations: Who Needs Them and Why?"

Please feel free to offer your responses and own assessments of the utility of the effort.

Attachments:
whoneeds.doc
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