The concept of a medieval period is problematic for China. Europeans formulated it after the medieval period was over, to identify a past they felt they had transcended, whereas the Chinese did not regularly periodise the past in this way. A few writers made use of 'middle periods' to organise the past, but congruence between their and the European model is never more than coincidence. The approach taken in this article is, instead, to ask whether the Chinese, prior to the twentieth century, developed a sense of history capable of qualitatively discriminating between present and past in the way, or to the degree, that allowed Europeans to 'discover' their medieval period?
Using criteria inspired by Peter Burke's study of Renaissance historio graphy, this article notes that Chinese historians by the seventeenth century, and in some respects long before, met and even surpassed the standards that Burke sets for a self-conscious sense of the past, but without generating a medieval period. Critical skills in history improved over time, but they were not linked to the sort of transformation suggested for Renaissance Europe. That Chinese historians did not 'find' a medieval period indicates that the medieval may be little more than an ideological category in the service of the European teleology of the modern. It also signals the difficulty of establishing a specific category of medievality to which all parts of the world can be related. Rather than generalising the concept of medievality, comparative historians of the medieval period might be better advised to look outward from Europe and become conscious of synchronic trends and events elsewhere if they wish to build a more global understanding of what happened in medieval Europe and the world.