Decolonizing the Historiography of China

  Guest lecture by James A. Millward, Georgetown University.

Picture of James A. Millward

James A. Millward
Photo: Georgetown University

Over three decades ago, in his book Discovering History in China, Paul Cohen urged the field to break out of preconceived notions about and approaches to the Chinese past (impact-response; tradition-modernity; imperialism).  His intervention powerfully shaped Chinese historical studies, as subsequent generations of scholars re-thought Fairbankian paradigms to do the “China-centered history” Cohen called for. 
Unaddressed by Cohen are the ways “China-centered history” has left Sino-centric history unchallenged. Key elements of the Fairbankian bundle of concepts, in particular the “tribute system” and “sinicization” are still very much with us, although scrutinized for the Qing period by scholars doing so-called “New Qing History.”

A critique against "China-centered history"

In this talk, Millward proposes taking the critique even further, candidly examining the ways current historiography of China in Western languages as well as Chinese enshrines and reinforces a modern Han-centric narrative and even an apologia for PRC colonialism in Xinjiang and Tibet and aggression towards Taiwan. We need to reexamine how common textbook-style narratives falsely suggest millennial political continuity of a unitary “Chinese” state, erase non-Sinic peoples and states from the history of the East Asian mainland, or become complicit in the 21st century PRC project of eliminating diversity by simply redefining all peoples in the PRC as having been “Chinese” (Zhonghua) minorities for all time. Besides the “tribute system,” “Confucian peace,” “Sinicization,” “5000 years of history,” and standard euphemisms such as “unify” for “conquer,” we must reconsider even the use of “dynasty” as a principle ordering Chinese history.  

About the presenter 

James A. Millward is Professor of Inter-societal History at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, teaching Chinese, Central Asian and world history. His specialties include Qing empire; the silk road; Eurasian lutes and music in history; and historical and contemporary Xinjiang. He follows and comments on current issues regarding Xinjiang, the Uyghurs and other Xinjiang indigenous peoples, and PRC ethnicity policy. His publications include Eurasian Crossroads: a History of Xinjiang (2021; 2007), The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (2013), New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde (2004), and Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity and Empire in Qing Central Asia (1998). 

Tags: China, History, Chinese Society, Chinese politics
Published May 13, 2022 1:48 PM - Last modified Sep. 13, 2022 9:25 AM