China and the Historians

A fresh look at China's last dynasty is leading sinologists to a more complex--and less deterministic--reading of modern China.

Issue: Spring 2001

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the study of modern China was informed by a "master narrative" whose climax was the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. All roads seemed to lead to Beijing's famous Tiananmen Square and Chairman Mao's proclamation of China's new order. Of course, the historian cannot but tell the story this way, for he surely knows that this is how China's political struggles during the first half of the twentieth century resolved themselves. In this respect, the student of modern China is not much different from his fellows who are interested in other parts of the world; no matter any historian's claim that he seeks to understand the past on its own terms, his work is always conducted in full knowledge of how things actually turned out. He becomes a determinist de facto, reading consequences back into causes, even as he struggles against it.

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