Medievality and the Chinese sense of History

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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.

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... Some deny its utility outright. 2 Many other scholars, though, assume that China had a medieval period. Yet amongst them, no consensus exists over when it started, how long it lasted, or what were its characteristics. ...
Dreams of a return to a golden age in remote antiquity were common tropes in imperial Chinese philosophy, literature and art. But such yearnings could also relate to the more recent past of a diffuse ‘Middle Period’ situated flexibly between the time of the legendary sage kings and the respective present. This article illustrates how evocations of this unwieldy era were re-signified through its association with Europe’s ‘Middle Ages’. Far from producing a unified image, the uneasy coupling opened up a space in between the normative poles of ‘antiquity’ and ‘modernity’ that served as a platform to negotiate competing visions of China’s past, present and future. Alternately romanticised or demonised, the Chinese medieval could be enlisted as a site of cultural nostalgia, social utopia or a tool of political propaganda. By reviewing a selection of these diverse uses, I aim to understand the limited but persistent appeal of medievalism in modern China. At the same time, I will explore what this example can teach us about the ways in which ‘colligatory concepts’ such as the Middle Ages and the obsessions that may be attached to them travel across cultural and linguistic boundaries.
This paper examines the particulars of ‘early modern’ as well as ‘European’ political history in terms of chronological and spatial divides. Most political historians of early modern Europe and its component states are far removed from classic teleological approaches based on national state formation and modernization. On the whole, however, a pragmatic national orientation of research based on the proximity of sources and the language capabilities of researchers remains strong, even if it is combined with transnational conceptual gestures. Moreover, the demands of specialized historical research lead to concentration on relatively brief periods: only rarely do we find research reaching from the sixteenth into the eighteenth century. In consequence, while well-worn conventional divides in time as well as in space have few staunch advocates, they tenaciously remain in place. The political history of European states, full of untested reputations, needs a comparative perspective. This will work only if it is based on symmetrical comparison and analysis of primary sources: comparison founded on secondary literature threatens to reinforce national clichés. European history, finally, finds its place only in contrast with other variants of global history. A global comparative perspective presents daunting challenges for researchers, but it is an inevitable and necessary component of the reassessment of European history, modernization, and period labels.
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In response to the recent historiographical interests in testing the cross-cultural tenability of the epochal concept of "early modernity," this essay ponders the usefulness of the notion in Chinese intellectual history, focusing on the historical dynamics of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China. It does so by exploring three interrelated issues derived from the intellectual experiences of "early modern" Europe: the nature of knowledge, the sense of the past, and the claim of the ultimate grounds for ethico-moral values. The article concludes that late imperial Chinese thought displayed a historical trajectory quite different from that of Europe. It is thus problematic to dislodge the notion of early modernity from its European moorings and demonstrate its Chinese variety.
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