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Asian Topics in World History Asia for Educators Columbia University
China and Europe, 1500–2000 and Beyond: What is Modern?
Redefining the Modern World
Decoupling "Modern" from "European"
Appreciating Asian Dynamics
Emperors and Reign Periods (PDF)
Timeline of Chinese Inventions (PDF)
China's Gifts to the West (PDF)
Chinese Ideas in the West (PDF)
Excerpts of Interest
What Do We Mean by Modern?
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Appreciating Asian Dynamics

Nineteenth-and twentieth-century East Asia is often viewed in terms of the responses that people made in these countries to opportunities presented by the West and to pressures put upon these countries by Western political and economic forces. So we tend to think of what is modern in these countries in terms of the traits that they either learned from Western countries or had forced upon them through their connections to the West.

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Comparing Modern China and Modern Europe
There is a serious problem with this perspective because there are traits that developed in these countries that we can think of as modern. The problem is that we tend to ignore, and indeed to not even see, the traits that existed in these countries that have a longer history. And if we notice them, we tend to think of them as anomalies or as something problematic, as an obstacle to people becoming more modern.

And what modern means then in this case increasingly resembles what took place in the West. It seems to me that this is problematic as an analytical perspective on what to expect or how things work. What is missing in particular is an appreciation of how dynamics that existed within each of these countries—within China, Japan, and Korea—influenced the ways in which change took place politically, socially, and economically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Transporting rice to famine area in China, c. 1906.
Transporting rice to famine area in China, c. 1906.
Courtesy Jean Elliott Johnson
Some Things Happened in China First
Looking at China, we expect to see certain kinds of economic changes, which in certain senses resemble those that took place in Europe and America, but in other ways were distinctly Chinese. We think of social welfare as a national problem, as a modern national problem, which emerged in the nineteenth century, but it's not until the second half of the nineteenth century that we start to see European states caring about education.

Caring about the welfare of people in cities beyond the capital itself is really a late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century development. However, in China, it's quite clear that governments have cared about the subsistence conditions—the food supply conditions of its people—for many, many centuries. And they have done so not merely on a local level, but spanning the entire country, which again, in the Chinese case, because it was an empire, is the equivalent of many European countries put together.

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Partial Parallels: Other Places, Other Times
What do we do, then, in terms of understanding the significance of those developments? We tend to discount their importance because they don't fit our expectations of what governments do until a later point in European history; therefore, we can't take seriously that these developments in China take place before comparable developments take place in Europe. And that, again, makes it difficult for us to see the importance of these in a Chinese setting because we don't have any comparable European examples until a later point in time.

Read an excerpt from the Far Eastern Economic Review on the Ming voyages of the 1400s that preceded the European voyages of exploration.