Scholarship and education

Controversy over a history text

Signature page of the Treaty of Nanking.
A recent college textbook, Essentials of Modern Chinese History (中国近现代史纲要), is misinforming students about the history of colonialists in China, says one scholar.

In a posting on the Academic Criticism Web, Shanghai Normal University professor Zhou Yumin outlined four historical facts that Essentials gets wrong, along with a number of other instances of imprecise language.

Here's a list of the four major concerns - first an excerpt from Essentials and then Zhou's specific complaints:

  1. Age of Global Navigation: "In the 15th Century, western adventurers ocean-crossing, globe-spanning voyages and accompanying conquests opened the curtain on modern colonial expansion."
        Zhou says: This really ought to be the late-15th and early 16th Centuries.
  2. England's motives for trafficking opium: "England's industrial products met with stubborn resistance from China's natural economy and closed government English colonialists used trafficking in opium as a strategy to reverse the balance of trade."
        Zhou says: "This is a lie formulated by western bourgeois historians, not the truth of history....the fundamental motive for the large-scale trafficking in opium that western colonialists undertook in China was to use drug trafficking to reap large profits. I have always believed that unbridled opium trafficking was in objective terms the cause of the reversal of the balance of trade between China and England; to say that this result was the reason for the opium trade is a fallacy of transposing cause and effect."
  3. Joint control over tariffs: "Control over tariffs is one of the major sovereign economic rights of a country. However, the Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that the tax rate assessed on goods imported by English merchants would be a Sino-British 'fair and regular tariffs' (秉公议定则例); that is, it set the bad precedent of tariff-by-agreement, causing China to lose sovereignty over its customs."
        Zhou says: "Many modern history textbooks on the mainland take the 'fair and regular tariffs' stipulation in the Treaty of Nanjing as evidence for's obvious that 秉公议定 is an insufficiently appropriate translation for 'fair and regular' when England took part in setting customs tariffs in 1843, this was not because of any unequal treaty rights granted it under the Treaty of Nanjing - this was the actual precedent for 'treaty-by-agreement'."
  4. International trade figures 1870-1894: The textbook uses customs figures during this period to show the size of the trade imbalance. Zhou argues that Chinese customs statistics calculated goods according to market value, which means that imports include tariffs, shipping, storage, and labor, while the value of goods for export was figured before tariffs and harbor fees. Hence the total value of imports appears inflated compared to exports; the customs office introduced corrections to its figures in 1889.

The publisher, Higher Education Press, disputed Zhou's claims. From The Beijing News:

Essentials editor Fan Jun said in an interview that the textbook is for a non-major required course and hence is different than a normal history text. It must express a Marxist outlook on history. "Dissent from a few scholars is just their own opinion. Essentials touch on each and every point."

Fan Jun said that three full years were spend editing the book. The manuscript was reviewed at least thirty times, and all citations were carefully recorded. Essentials uses as its main thread a revolutionary paradigm, and it utilizes mainstream evidence and concepts while being extremely stringent in its choices of materials and viewpoints.

Then there's the reaction of an unnamed student:

This reporter also interviewed college students who are currently using Essentials. A student at one school said that lots of instructors from the school's Marxism Department taught their classes, and they used that very book. He said, "My feeling is that there are some things in that book that can't stand up to close inspection. There are lots of problems."

Zhou's article has further details and a full list of his other complaints. Any historians or Chinese history buffs care to enlighten us on whether he's got a valid argument?

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There are currently 9 Comments for Controversy over a history text.

Comments on Controversy over a history text

If you reference the most widely-used college textbook in the US about Modern Chinese civilization-- Johnathan Spence, "The Search for a Modern China"-- you will find only 2-3 vague references to colonization, with no substantive details. That's just a jab at the low quality of western scholarship on a hugely important subject and a tremendously biased discourse.

In terms of Zhou's comments, first point is up for grabs, second point is on his side in terms of the economics, there are very few historical documents that can verify a conspiracy that the Brits actually tried to "addict" the Mandarins. Though, I mean, it was some of the largest scale drug-dealing at that time in history. (A point made by Malcolm X)

Third point, Treaty-by-agreement, was absolutely on and if you look at the translation bump he's talking about, you will see it plain as day. Its really shabby scholarship in many ways.

Fourth point, never looked that closely at the numbers-- can't say.

That's what i got--


Kimura -not sure I understand your complaint about Spence: That book is a survey of the last 400 years of Chinese history, so obviously Western colonialism in China is not the main focus of the book. But I have never read any very significant information about western colonialism in a Chinese language history text that is ommitted from Spence's work. Can you enlighten me here? Also, in part Spence's text is a reaction against a tradition of history writing (in China and the West) in which absolutely everything that happened after 1840 was imagined to have resulted from the opium war.

I hesitate a bit to weigh in here, because I think the issue is a lot more complicated than can be done justice in a short comment. If anyone is interested in the historiography of 'western colonialism in China,' a good place to start is Paul Cohen's Discovery History in China. In short, the pendulum swings wildly from the Fairbank impact/response/imperialism brought modernity to China to the more China-centered approach of the 1970s which argued that imperialism was one of MANY problems facing the Qing (think: Taiping not Opium War as the central event) to the BCA group who argued that both of the former schools were simply apologists for the destruction of colonization.

Cohen's book was written in the 1980s. Since then, another key trend (and one I'm involved with as well) has been to look at Qing colonialism. Lest we forget, the Qing was also an expansionist, colonial power. In this way, conflicts like the Opium War etc. are viewed less from an active/modern West impacting a passive/closed/static China, but rather as part of a longer term process of global colonialism during the 18th and 19th centuries. This in no way lessens the impact of western imperialism in China. It was a destructive and often violent process. But the Qing Empire was not some quivering mass of jelly waiting to be modernized, it had an agenda of its own as well.

Chinese scholarship too is obviously also going through a bit of sea-change right now. No longer bound by the theoretical reductionism of Marxist history, there's a lot of great new revisionist scholarship being done in China over the last decade or so. As such, I think there are going to be more and more debates such as this over historical interpretation and that can only be good for the study of history in China.

As for Zhou's specific points: I agree with him that nobody in England woke up one morning and suggested selling drugs to the Chinese to "balance trade." It was all about greed. The customs service is trickier because despite it being under foreign management, it was the most consistent and least corrupt revenue producing agency in the Qing government. That said, fixed tariffs made it more difficult to protect domestic industry against foreign competition at a critical moment. As for some of the other points in the article (The effectiveness of Taiping land policies, worker statistics during the May 4th Period, etc.) there is a lot of picking of nits.

Finally as for Jonathan Spence, I've taught the Modern China book before. I think he does a decent job with western colonialism. If memory serves, there are numerous references to imperialism, the opium trade, etc. as well as the linkages between some of China's most catastrophic 'domestic' events (like the Taiping, Boxers) with the disruptions caused by the foreign powers.

Thanks Joel for this great post. Sorry for the long reply.

Historical accuracy of a college text in the PRC? Zhou Yumin + thimble + ocean = ?

I don't know how this whole discussion doesn't spontaneously combust in an ironic burst of flames...

Thanks, Kimura, Odadrek, and Jeremiah - I was hoping to elicit some long replies. I'm intrigued by what you say about the customs service.

Incidentally, The Search for Modern China sold quite well early last year when a whole set of Spence's books (less the Mao biography) were published or re-issued. The mainland edition of that history stops at 1912, however. From the standpoint of an observer who has not studied history in any great depth, it looks like the establishment is willing to entertain divergent viewpoints on events prior to the Republican era (to a certain degree - see the Yu Quanyu Freezing Point affair), but things get a bit trickier once modern revolutionary history gets involved.

Customs service was some of the best cross province revenue Collection the imperial government and central government had left. A certain Chinese Doctor by the name of Sun Yatsen when ruling Guangzhou in the 1920s (which was in itself rife with corruption) tried to capture the tariff collections and the British concession had to use gunboats to smuggle the silver past his blockade. He never got his hands on that money.

As for opium. There are a variety of Chinese recollections in the country side of the 1920s that show most of the opium trade to be in the hands of Chinese – nationalist soldiers, warlords and so on.

I also believe a series of factors contributed to China's collapse or rather its 100 years of foreign humiliation story. Taiping is certainly one, corruption is a large second, warlords, anyone?

I also buy into most of the criticisms against the history text. The only problem I have is with the continous propagation of this "150 years humiliation by foreigners" thing as it ignores a lot what was wrong with China and Chinese at the time and a lot of contributions which were made by (albeit) a handful of foreigners to the Chinese greater good....but it is not a suitable topic for blogs rather for scientific journals.

I'm very much coming from Jeremiah's perspective. The Qing was certainly imperialist/expansionist, as Xinjiang history certainly proves. In the mid-18th century Qianlong implemented the eradication of the Zunghars, which Peter Perdue has likened to genocide. Qing colonialism and British colonialism have a fascinating point of overlap: Joseph Fletcher noted that the 1832 agreement with the Central Asian state of Khokand, allowing them to collect tariffs in Qing territory and other extraterritorial powers, was a model for the treaty of Nanjing, and that many of the same Qing officials who negotiated the 1832 agreement were involved in that of Nanjing. As James Millward says, to the Qing, "The British were red-faced aqsaqals with boats".

I also agree with Zhou that the British were motivated by greed, not macroeconomics. However, several scholars have pointed out what Niall is referring to: while the the British imported patna opium from India, Chinese domestic opium production increased. By the end of the Qing the majority of opium consumed was produced domestically. Interpret/lay blame as you wish.

one nit that i have to pick with passage #2 (and with nearly every other textbook on the trade imbalance) is the very assumption that chinese markets were somehow closed to foreign goods just because the brits couldn't get people in guangzhou to buy their woolens.

it strikes me as of a peice with the old missionary complaint that a conspiracy of xenophobic gentry were blocking the natural transmission of christianity to the chinese masses, in that both presuppose the innate superiority and desireability of western goods and religion, and treat the chinese failure to consume and convert en masse as some problem to be explained.

whereas the "failure" of the brits to set up a civil service exam testing on the four books, or trade their forks and knives for chopsticks, would not need any explanation.

History is something can be rewriten, something every one should remember firmly. Call for more historians and and people who know history well to stand out to help the "opposite" people to know the truth, since I think history itself never hurts everyone.

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