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Forum on China in World History


     For some time now I have been urging my colleagues in the Department of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder to teach courses in world history. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before I had to put my money where my mouth was, so two years ago I inched toward the world field by offering a survey-style lecture course entitled "China in World History."

     That approach permitted me to suit up in the life vest of my Chinese history training for a maiden dog paddle in the boundless ocean of world history. The benefits I gained from teaching the course, however, went well beyond merely learning to stay afloat. What I realized in the process was that, in addition to learning much about the regional and global interconnections, symmetries, side effects and echoes that make the world history field such a rich and illuminating one, I was also learning to think about my own field, Chinese history, in fresh ways.

     Putting familiar subject matter in a new frame turned out to change the subject matter itself. More clearly than before, I came to understand China as an expansionary civilization, and the multiple peoples and cultures that interacted with and helped shape Chinese civilization came into sharper focus. So too did the precociousness of Chinese early modernity, the shaping effect of certain features of that early modernity on European history, and the extraordinary role that the engine of Chinese wealth played at the dawn of the global age. Always a vast and exciting field, China grew even bigger and more exciting when I thought and taught about it this way.

     The readings I assigned in that class, which seem to have been well-received by the students, included: Kenneth Chase's Firearms: A Global History to 1700; Robert Marks' The Origins of the Modern World: Fate and Fortune in the Rise of the West; Wang Gungwu's The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy; and Sasha Su-Ling Welland's A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters. I did not assign either of the two most profound works in the field (at least for the early modern period)—Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy or R. Bin Wong's China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience—owing to their density and difficulty but did my best to communicate their basic findings through my lectures. The next time I teach the class I will certainly assign Timothy Brook's delightful and effective new book, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (see my review in this issue).

     I hope the articles and book reviews in this special forum on China will be of use to teachers as they prepare courses of their own on China in world history or on world history from some other perspective. The selections here are varied and rich. In "China's Southwestern Silk Road in World History" James A. Anderson sheds light on patterns of trade and cultural encounter between China and the states of South Asia via the little known Southwestern Silk Road, which in addition to the far better-known Central Eurasian and Maritime Silk Roads knitted the Eurasian world together before the modern age. In the next article readers can stay with the Silk Road theme but jump to the contemporary world. In "Central Asia: The New Silk Road's Gordian Knot?" Alice-Catherine Carls chronicles the bewildering changes occurring in Central Eurasia today as the area again becomes central to the world economy owing to its rich oil and natural gas holdings. The remaking of the Central Eurasian landscape that Carls describes leads naturally to the next article, "Global Dimensions of Modern China's Environmental History," in which Micah Muscolino provides a valuable overview of the state of our knowledge regarding modern Chinese environmental history, a subject that is poorly understood and very timely. Finally, in "The Dark Side of Globalization: The Concentration Camps in Republican China in Global Perspective" Klaus Mühlhahn argues and demonstrates that globalization has entailed the spread of many horrific technologies, including those having to do with the disciplining, punishing, and incarceration of human beings. With the economic crisis deepening and spreading it is perhaps appropriate to end on a sober note; even as it is clear that our global interconnectedness offers infinite possibilities, at this moment it is quite clearly leading to increased pain and impoverishment.

Timothy B. Weston
University of Colorado at Boulder



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