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Beyond the cookie-cutter application of Western concepts to China

By Gong Yongmei | 2014-02-26
Chinese Social Sciences Today


Young Philip Alden Kuhn on a class

In 2013, Philip Alden Kuhn, sinologist and the Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Emeritus, at Harvard University, celebrated his 80th birthday. Since the 1960s, Philip Kuhn’s research has focused on the political and institutional history of early modern and modern China. Later, in the 1990s, he became interested in the history of Chinese immigrants in other countries. During the course of his half-century academic career, Kuhn’s works on China and Chinese history have gained wide recognition for their unique perspective, penetrating insight and pioneering ideas.

In the early years of his career, Philip Kuhn followed in the steps of his mentors John King Fairbank and Benjamin Schwartz, distinguished figures in the first generation of U.S. sinologists, to become a representative of the second generation. Where his predecessors viewed Chinese modern history as being a story of decline and stagnation, however, Kuhn’s perspective stressed the internal creation of new forms of social and political systems. In his view, modern Chinese society is a continuous accumulation of new elements. It is perpetually emerging from the backdrop of its native traditions, progressing toward modernization. This is a key feature of Kuhn’s understanding of history—continuity. He objects to the application of rigid temporal and causal frameworks like the idea of dynastic cycles or “impact-response” theory to modern Chinese history; instead, he stresses Chinese history and culture’s continuity, tenacity and ability to recreate itself, particularly how modern Chinese society has created new systems from old traditions.

Philip Kuhn’s career can be divided loosely into four distinct but overlapping phases based on his interests. Beginning from his research on his doctoral dissertation in the mid 1960s, he took a keen interest in local militarization in the Qing Dynasty between 1796 and 1864, the fading of the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping Rebellion, and local self-government in the late Qing Dynasty and Republican period. Kuhn analyzed Chinese society’s turbulent social and historical environment, the decline of the Qing court’s authority and the expansion of gentry power. From the mid 1980s to 1990, Kuhn focused on interpreting palace records from the Qing Dynasty. He published Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, which examined accusations of sorcery that swept the eastern coastal provinces of China in 1768, during the reign of Qianlong, and analyzed deeper troubles afflicting traditional Chinese society and its bureaucratic and monarchical framework. Beginning in the 1990s, Kuhn’s interests turned toward the origins of the modern Chinese state, a topic which the historian pursued by investigating the evolution of political thought from Wei Yuan (a figure in the late Qing Dynasty) to Mao Zedong and discussing changes in China’s institutional framework during the modern period. Since the mid 1990s, Kuhn has also done significant research on the history of Chinese immigrants overseas, a topic that he is quick to distinguish from the history of domestic migrants within China. His research has demonstrated a close link between migration patterns and modern commercialization and urbanization, overall portraying the large-scale immigration overseas as a consequence of modern development.

A meticulous researcher, Philip Kuhn strives for the utmost rigor, always clarifying nebulous terms and concepts. A key feature of his scholarship is his careful attention to differences between Chinese and Western contexts; he has always opposed the indiscriminate application of Western academic concepts to the Chinese context. From his initial preparation of his doctoral dissertation in 1964 till its publication in 1970, he researched the Chinese militia during the Taiping Rebellion; twenty years later, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 came out; another twelve years after that, he published Origins of the Modern Chinese State. Kuhn’s career has clearly shown that slow and steady wins the race, reflecting his attention to detail.

Another distinctive feature of Philip Kuhn’s scholarship is the importance of interpreting history from a theoretical paradigm in his work, a characteristic typical of American Chinese studies. In general, advanced theory and interpretative models are two remarkable advantages of American Chinese studies, and these are reflected in the analytical tools Kuhn draws on and the disciplines he borrows from in his research on Chinese immigrants: historical ecology, anthropology, sociology and religious studies.



Gong Yongmei is from the Center for China Studies Abroad at East China Normal University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 546, Jan.8, 2014

                                            Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                             Revised by Charles Horne


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