Another History: Essays on China from a European Perspective. – Review

Another History: Essays on China from a European Perspective. – Review – book reviews

Robert B. Marks

Another History: Essays on China from a European Perspective. By Mark Elvin. (Sydney, Australia: Wild Peony, 1996. Pp. iv, 389. $30.00.)

Mark Elvin is an important historian whose work has transformed the way historians view China’s imperial history. This reviewer remembers well and personally the impact of Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past (1971); it was like a great gust of fresh air blowing through stale conceptions of China, shaking everything up and providing fresh perspectives on a critical question concerning one of the great civilizations in world history. His work asks the central questions: how and why did the Chinese manage to create an empire that successfully resisted the forces of fragmentation to which other empires succumbed? Elvin’s answers to these questions focused on social, economic, and institutional factors in a great synthesis of 2000 years of China’s imperial history. For historians of China, The Pattern of the Chinese Past thus has been considered one of the seminal works of the last 30 years.

Elvin’s Another History is of a different sort. It is a collection of essays, penned since 1969. They are connected by a common thread the questions that inspired them arose from the author’s understanding of European history. Elvin hopes that this collection can contribute to the study of comparisons between China and Europe. Certainly many of the comparative issues that are considered here are big and important ones. After the Han and Roman empires, why did China remain an empire, while Europe did not? Why did industrial capitalism develop in Europe, but not in China, despite Chinas impressive economic and technological advances in the late medieval period (ca. 1000-1300 CE)? Why did democracy not find fertile soil in China? Did China experience an “Axial Age”? What kinds of expectations of women did Chinas patriarchial society formulate?

Besides providing perspectives from Chinese history based upon such questions, the essays also demonstrate Elvin’s broad range as a historian, varying from topics on economic, social, and technological history (in the four essays in part one on economics), to institutional history (in part two on politics), to intellectual history and the history of ideas (in part three). Most historians, not simply those of China, specialize in a particular kind of history, or on a particular historical period. This is not the case with Elvin. His interests are wide; his expertise is impressive, and his scholarship is sound. For example, regardless of the topic that he is investigating–whether it be the technology of cotton textile production, the Boxer Uprising of 1898-1900, Chinese conceptions of the self, or of female virtue–Elvin provides extensive translations from original sources. These translations not only support his arguments, but they provide readers with a feel for the ways in which Chinese thought about the matters under discussion. Elvin’s translations are excellent.

A volume made up of essays written over the past 30 years raises the question of dependability; has more recent scholarship rendered them obsolete? Elvin believes that his essays have stood the test of time. For the most part, this reviewer concurs, especially regarding the essays on economics and those on ideas. His essays on the Shanghai City Council and the Boxer Rebellion, while interesting and still sound, have been superceded by other work. Nonetheless, the essays in this volume are valuable not just because they remain important contributions to our understanding of Chinese history, but also because they reveal the mind of a great historian grappling with big historical issues.

Robert B. Marks

Whittier College

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group