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Medievality and the Chinese Sense of History

Medievality and the Chinese Sense of History

By Timothy Brook

The Medieval History Journal, Vol.1:1 (1998)

17th century Map of China
17th century Map of China

Abstract: 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 historiography, 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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Introduction: This article is a reflection on what relationship, if any, the concept of medievality might have to China. This question is not often posed within the western historiography of China, which conventionally characterises the period of Chinese history from the second century B.C. to the turn of the twentieth century as ’imperial’. Nor is it one that Chinese historiography in this century has thought to ask, given its overwhelming commitment to placing China (of roughly the same period) within the teleological domain of the Marxist rubric of ’feudalism’.’ But as historians within China and beyond struggle to escape from the strong constraints of national/nationalist historiography and develop a more inclusive, world-based approach to patterns of change in historical social formations, the question arises both in a comparative sense (’How were parts of the world similar to or different from other parts during the European medieval period?’) and in a world-systemic sense (’How did parts of the world interact with, influence, and find themselves formed by other parts of the world during the European medieval period?’).

Click here to read this article from Timothy Brook’s website

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