The Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan launched a new initiative called "Rethinking the Legacies of the Nineteenth Century: China and the World in Transition" with a weekend-long workshop in Ann Arbor on April 9-10, 2004. The workshop served as the planning stage of a multi-year international project that has gained the enthusiastic support of the leading scholars in the field of Chinese studies from North America as well as from Taiwan and mainland China. Sixteen outside historians and literary scholars including Pamela Crossley, Benjamin Elman, Gail Hershatter, Andrew Jones, Dorothy Ko, James Hevia, Susan Mann, and Peter Perdue participated in the workshop and presented papers. An equal number of our own faculty and affiliated faculty associates of the Center for Chinese Studies were formal participants, and they were joined by graduate students and other University of Michigan faculty members during discussion sessions. At the close of the second day, one of the outside participants observed that the workshop was one of those rare events that marked a new turning point in the field.

    A new point of departure was what we had envisioned when we first conceived the project. Despite good intentions, it has been extremely difficult to think beyond the narratives of the clash of civilizations or to conceptualize differences or conflicts among cultures and societies in the modern world. The European Enlightenment thinkers regarded China as the center of the known civilized world in the eighteenth century. That view was eclipsed by the writings of protestant missionaries and the opinions of traders and British parliamentarians, which continue to shape the positions of contemporary historians and the lay public. The nineteenth century is seen as a long slide downward, catapulting China from a golden age (the High Qing era inaugurated by the Kangxi Emperor and dispatched by the foibles of the aging Qianlong) into backwardness and near-terminal stagnation. Scholars who wring their hands over this period cite diminishing returns to labor, "high-level equilibrium traps," long-term trade imbalances, currency depreciation, tax deficits, Malthusian population checks, a chronic "marriage crunch," weak or non-existent public sphere or civil society and, above all, the "failure" to modernize as measured by the slow rate of technological innovation and the retarded growth of industrial capitalism. International conflicts continue to be represented in a language inherited from the colonial discourse of the past: civilization versus barbarism, modernity versus tradition, rule of law versus despotism, and so on. Beyond these familiar binaries, what would our age of terror and global conflict look like once we place them in light of the earlier warfare between Europe and the non-Western world? Can the Opium Wars tell us anything about the current tension in the Middle East and elsewhere? What has been the place of China in the evolution of a world political culture that has been labeled "modern"? In short, what gets in the way of critiquing the legacies of the nineteenth century? The conveners and participants raised the above questions and many other issues at the April workshop in Ann Arbor and will address them systematically in the follow-up conferences at Tsinghua University (Beijing), the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica (Taipei), as well as the University of Michigan.

    There are good signs that innovative scholarship is under way and that a new generation of scholars in the U.S., China, and Taiwan are ready to participate in the ongoing conversations about empire, nationalism, postcolonialism, capitalism, technoscience, and modernity. By initiating a multilateral collaboration among North American, Taiwanese, and Chinese scholars this way, we aim to incorporate diverse international perspectives on Chinese history and world history and to develop new ways of interpreting cultural differences and social conflicts. The papers in the future conferences will be published simultaneously in Chinese and English language journals as well as in edited volumes in both languages.


    Lydia Liu is Helmut F. Stern Professor of Chinese Studies at U-M.