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Historical Reasoning – Philosophy

In his extensive analysis of the history of China (spanning the twelfth century to the mid twentieth), China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, Chinese historian Roy Bin Wong thoughtfully crafts a non-Eurocentric framework for analyzing developments in the country. This is in stark contrast with the majority of historians who still attempt to place the Industrial Revolution in a European context from which the progress (or lack of expected progress) of all other countries must be judged. In fact, Wong proposes that what occurred in China cannot be described as a revolution but was merely the continuity of pre-industrial change. Whereas most historians try to define Chinese history by a comparison of it with European history, Wong takes the opposite side and attempts to show what European historians can learn from an objective study of Chinese history. Wong’s work could accurately be described as a hermeneutic story rather than a simple narrative.

Seemingly bound by the Eurocentrism of nineteenth-century social theory, social science has assumed that the trajectories of change that occurred in Europe were the norm and that if something like the Industrial Revolution took place in Europe but not in China the proper line of inquiry was to ask what went awry in the Chinese case. Wong does not imply that there is no benefit in making comparisons between development in Europe and in China, since he seeks to show that China was not as different from Europe at certain points in history as many suppose. In fact, the historian’s work is primarily a comparative perspective that seeks to free China from wrong expectations and will allow those working on European problems to recognise the distinct character of Western development. Wong (2000) uses the phrase ‘symmetric perspectives’ to describe this process of two-way comparisons (p. 282).

The value of Wong’s book is its careful construction and elaboration of a fresh and more even-handed way of doing comparative history, one that does not focus on the historical path followed in one part of the world over those followed in other parts and thus allows asking questions that can be placed in a more precise context instead of one that has been predetermined. Although the book is definitely devoted in large part to the history of China (“This is primarily a book about Chinese history and secondarily a book about European history” Wong, 2000, p. 8), and very careful to get the details and stories regarding China correct, Wong is ultimately interested in matters that transcend Chinese history. Wong’s approach to Chinese history is very similar to that of Pomeranz (2000), inasmuch that both write that in the 18th century, at least up to 1750, China’s economy is comparable to or advanced beyond that of Europe, and in its core regions, beyond that of England (Goldstone, 2002).

One of the primary arguments put forward by Wong is that comparativist historians must avoid basing their analysis solely on the European processes of demographic transition, capitalist development and state formation but instead consider the specific processes that exist in any large civilisation as insightful in application or contrast to the experience of others. Wong (2000) makes his point very succinctly by stating, “For historical trajectories to matter there must be more than one” (p. 3). While many, if not most, comparative historians have chosen to cite the history of development in China as a case of failure, Wong argues that much of Chinese history finds that country experiencing a similar rate of development as found in Europe during the same time frame. Another outstanding point made by Wong in this regard is that basing judgments on the progress of any nation solely based on that of Europe’s history is damaging to the study of any country’s history – not just China’s.

China Transformed is also important for its ability to show the reality of multiple feasible pathways and institutional settings for economic and political development based upon whatever country is being examined historically. In effect, there is sufficient room for contingency and agency (Little, 2005) within the examination of historical experiences since there have been (and always will be) alternatives to whatever progress was made in a particular country or region. In many cases, such contingencies were exploited in such a way that led to alternative forms prospering in various settings. Thus, it is acknowledged that, while common processes can be observed to occur across different settings and in different countries, an important variable is the type of institutional setting involved. These differences are what allow what seem to be similar processes to end up in totally different outcomes depending on the country.

This is in line with the thinking of Little (2005), who stated that generalizations should never take the place of trying to find causality in individual outcomes. In other words, it is doubtful that there can be one theory that will apply to multiple societies. On the other hand, a search for variations and alternate choices would be more productive since variety and contingency is much more suited to actual historical study than repetitive patterns. Cultural and even local circumstances impacted by individuals or groups allow for multiple outcomes. Wong notes this in China by the wide divergence between regions within the country.

For example, as touched upon earlier, Wong (2000) claims that, economically, both China and Europe experienced what has been termed ‘Smithian growth’ (p. 38) through the 1700s, prior to any significant industrial improvements, since both regions were still primarily agriculturally based. According to Morgan (1997), Smithian growth refers to economies in which growth is driven by increased specialisation caused by the geographical expansion of markets. Therefore, Wong (2000) states Europe and China both enjoyed “…increased rural industries, more productive agricultures, and expanded commercial networks” (p. 278). Such growth appears to be generic and based on whether or not the economy is above or below critical density – meaning if the economy is based on local markets or larger markets, which permits more rapid economic growth. Wong therefore concludes that it was Europe that experienced a rupture in what would appear to be the norm – caused by the industrial revolution – which China did not experience at that time. Such growth in Europe was, in effect, contingent rather than necessary.

This is certainly not something that was seen only in Europe, since it can be said that history as a whole is contingent. Whatever developments occur in a culture at a particular time in history are based on the specific initial conditions that preceded them, making them unique. In addition, what happened in the case of China could be explained in light of Thelen’s (2003) concept of institutional conversion, since Confucianism was basically adapted into each new incarnation of social, economic and political order in the country. Similarly, in China Transformed, Wong emphasises the plasticity of large historical developments. Since there are any number of factors involved in the historical development of a country as large and diverse as China, it allows for nearly unlimited choices by the participants. Wong’s assertion that China’s historic development should not logically have followed that of Europe makes complete sense in the light of contingency.

Wong (2000) makes a strong argument for the belief that economic change within any historical context is ‘modular’ (p. 280), by which he means existing as clusters of change or clusters of issues. In his detailed analysis of the development of political economy and the formation of states, four such issues most clearly show the differences between China and Europe (challenges, capacities, claims, and commitments). These issues can be logically divided into either structural (challenges and capacities) or values and ideologies (claims and commitments) that, in their own way, serve as the building blocks of history (p. 82).

Wong makes no value judgments regarding the different paths of development in Europe and China, but merely states the reality of these differences. The contrast between historical China and Europe is clear: while China existed as a unified empire, Europe was made up of numerous fragmented states. While those states were not responsible for the economic growth experienced in Europe, they certainly were much more adaptable to those changes than was a vast empire such as ruled in China. At the same time, China’s government had an advantage in regards to the ability to collect taxes and provide for the needs of its citizens.

As mentioned earlier, Wong does not avoid comparisons between Europe and China but, instead, uses comparisons that are more symmetric than typically used in historical texts on this topic. Wong’s objectivity in this area is clearly shown by his understanding of modernisation based on long-term economic and political trajectories. It is through such objectivity that the author is able to help readers understand the reasons why Europe and China modernised economically at different times and why Europe, and not China, developed democracy. In addition, Wong uses his thoughts on modernisation as the basis for analysing the history of twentieth century China.

However, his contention that capitalism is based on monopoly and force (Wong, 2000, p. 51) can be described at the very least as controversial. By following this line of reasoning, he is basing his analysis on the writings of Braudel (1982) and attempts to separate capitalism as developed in Europe from a market economy which developed in both China and Europe. It is possible that, in an attempt to distance his historical analysis from a European context, Wong (2000) allows a cultural bias against capitalism to come out in this section of his writing. This bias may also be seen when he speaks of “…the ‘liberal myth’…a vision of capitalism and democracy developing hand in hand to create a triumph at once political and economic” (p. 273).

Also, the author seems to imply that the human suffering and social disaster (30 million deaths and another 30 million births affected negatively by famine; Becker, 1996) that was created by the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s was merely a minor downturn on the road to economic success in China. This appears to be, for whatever reason, an attempt to make that disaster appear to be much less serious than it actually was. Wong’s (2000) specific wording of this assessment was; “While there were certainly policy failings and serious economic disruptions during the Great Leap Forward…analysts also noted that the economy continued to grow” (p. 273). While the vast majority of his historical assessment is extremely accurate and undoubtedly objective, it is unclear why he takes this position when referring to a more modern historical narrative.
It may at first seem that Wong’s assertions could be classified under ‘rational choice theory’ (Greene & Shapiro, 1996, p. 16), but only in the sense that the “rationality is homogeneous across the individuals being studied” in the case of his views on China and not in comparison to other cultures. Thus, they are probably more accurately described in the context of ‘interpretation theory’ (Little, 1991, p.68), since rational choice necessitates making assumptions about the various actors’ objectives that are typically structured based upon the writer’s own preconceived notions. It may be tempting to make such assumptions based upon what is historically known regarding the development of China, but it would be just as irrational to do that as it would be to continue placing the development of China in a European context. One concept that Wong certainly has established through his narrative is “There is radical diversity across cultures concerning the way in which social life is conceptualised, and these differences give rise to diverse social worlds” (Little, 1991, p. 69).

Sabel & Zeitlin (1997) also argue against the validity of establishing fixed patterns for historical development across diverse cultures, since alternative pathways are typically always possible. Historians that attempt to base their assumptions on philosophical reflection are oftentimes better equipped to question previously held notions since they desire to provide a thoroughly accurate historical explanation for events. For example, Sewell (2005) attempted to fully describe the concept of a ‘historical event’ in relation to assumptions social scientists make about the temporality of historical events (2005).

What Sewell was describing in his work of 2005 was based in part on his earlier work regarding eventful conception of temporality which assumes that events are normally “path dependent” (Sewell, 1996, p. 100), meaning historical events will affect later outcomes. Wong’s impressive work on Chinese historical development fits well into this analytical narrative since causalities in any social setting – including larger social systems – are dependent in many ways on the content and relations of cultural categories. Sewell also reiterated the fact that events have the power to transform social causality. In view of this concept, it seems illogical that any country’s development would be analysed based solely on a pattern established by another – not to mention two cultures as diverse as China and Europe.

Other authors support the analysis that is set out by Wong, in particular the rejection of a Eurocentric approach to history, such as Adams, Clemens & Orloff (2005). These authors state that it is now widely accepted that it is not good historical reasoning to isolate distinct events in an empty “experimental time”.  (p. 8). Unfortunately, that is what has been done in much of the previous historical discussions about China. This concept is based on the premise that it is useless to analyse the influence of economic position on political action, and highlights both structural determination and the utilitarian model of action. Obviously, while the economic positions of China and Europe were very similar at points in history, both culture and political reality were very different.

Little (2007) speaks of a ‘new philosophy of history’ that displays a number of qualities that sets is apart from the typical historical narratives of the past. These include the ability to consider history as synchronous as well as understanding economic and structural circumstances in their proper context. By successfully being able to separate the history of China from its standard Eurocentric treatment, Wong has accomplished many of the goals that Little expressed hope for. Indeed, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience goes well beyond mere historical rhetoric and provides a method or principle of interpretation of China’s history that places it in a category well above similar publications.

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