In Discovering History in China (1984), Paul Cohen criticised the penchant of American scholars for exaggerating Western imperialism’s ‘impact’ on China’s modern history. Standard narratives, attaching ‘fundamental explanatory importance to the special nature of Chinese society and culture’ (p. 189), portrayed a civilisation blasted out of its ‘traditional’ orbit by foreign cannon, commerce and culture, since the Opium War of 1840. More recent scholarship, by contrast, tended to identify internal factors – demographic, economic and political – as crucial to explaining China’s modern transformation. But Cohen noted the ‘irony of ironies’ that, as ‘outsiders’ were ‘moving toward an inside perspective’, Chinese ‘insiders’ continued to insist on ‘the crucial importance of outside factors’ (p. 195): As long as the experience of the Western intrusion remains fresh and resentment against it alive and warm, it will be difficult for Chinese to accept a scaled-down appraisal of imperialism’s role in the last century and a half of their history, and they may well view American efforts in this direction as ultimately self-serving.
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