“Early Modern” Periodization

I participated in a symposium on February 1st hosted by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute, on the topic of early modern periodization in East Asia. It was an exciting event with mostly big-name speakers (I was drafted in as a replacement!) including Kenneth Pomeranz, R. Bin Wong, John Wills Jr., Samuel Yamashita, John Duncan, and Jahyun Kim Haboush. The audience was substantial, prompting the organizers to move us to a much bigger conference room. I counted more than 60 people, implying a great deal of interest in the topic.

It seemed clear from the start that some presenters assumed that “early modern” referred to something real in the histories of Qing, Choson, and Tokugawa Japan, while others saw the term as at most a useful interpretive and comparative tool. The discussion devolved (predictably? unfortunately? amusingly?) into a debate about comparative history. Some participants suggested that using the period “early modern” compromises our ability to study East Asian histories on their own terms, forcing research and analysis into categories invented in certain parts of Western Europe. Others unpacked “early modern” in specific historical and cultural contexts. Still others argued that periodization schemes like “early modern” presented historians of East Asia with the opportunity to engage with historians of Euro-America, to highlight the scanty evidence marshaled in the narrative of the rise of Western modernity, and to move Asia to its rightful place in world history: the center. In my paper on the material heritage of Tokugawa Ieyasu, I made the argument that museums are where much popular education about the early modern takes place, essentially unacknowledged (and, unfortunately, unexamined) by historians of “early modern” East Asia.

In the final discussion of the day, as debate swirled back and forth on this issue, one fact became clear, perhaps winning the argument on the side of the “early modern” doubters better than any grand attempt at persuasion could have done: in the huge crowd of graduate students, scholars, and a few visitors from the general public, only one historian of Europe or America was present, and she was essentially required to be in attendance because of her role in founding and naming the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute. The hackneyed phrase from the movie “Field of Dreams” comes to mind, except in reverse: even if you build it, they won’t come. In other words, even if a bunch of famous historians of East Asia hold a symposium on a term invented in European history to discuss its broad relevance; even if that event is hosted by an organization dominated by historians of Euro-America; and even if it is held at one of the biggest universities in southern California where lots of historians congregate; they (meaning historians of Euro-America, the group that the comparativists want to engage) won’t come. Of course I care about how badly East Asia is represented in the media, in public education, in much popular culture, and in the writing of many (not all, of course) prominent historians of Europe and America. But if the attendance at this symposium is any indication, adopting this comparative terminology, which often is not a particularly good fit for the diverse regions of the world, is not the answer.


  1. I’m afraid I have to disagree on a couple of counts. First, the lack of Western historians in attendance isn’t a failure of periodization, exactly: Europeanists can’t imagine a historiography without it and they actually don’t care all that much about how other areas periodize; Americanists don’t use the term at all, because they’re special, but they might yet be brought to heel by World History.

    World History is actually what makes the Early Modern period worthwhile for me. It’s a terrible, makeshift term, for sure, but if you define it reasonably, then it makes some comparisons possible. When I use the term I actually explain to my students how it was effectively invented to cover the pre-industrial, post-medieval, neither-fish-nor-fowl centuries which lay the foundation for modernity (and I openly admit to the problematics of that term as well). I characterize it as an age of centralizing states with increasingly regularized administrations, of substantial and growing urban economies with flourishing entertainment culture, historically high rates of literacy (roughly 25% and up), proto-industrial (aka “putting out”) production of some commodities, globalization of trade. Japan, by this definition, becomes early modern right when you expect it: around the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate. But, by this standard, I explain to them, China entered the Early Modern phase in the Tang dynasty (Song at the latest), and everyplace else in the world spends the next 500-1000 years playing catch-up. It also helps to put the end of Early Modern in perspective: When Japan enters the industrial age, it’s less than a century behind Great Britain, less than a half-century behind France, right on the heels of the US, and functionally ahead of Russia and the Ottomans. When China loses the Opium War, it’s because of a half-century of dramatic industrialization in Great Britain, not because of some deep cultural vein, etc, etc.

  2. So you use the phrase carefully and with qualifications, which makes it useful. That is great! Many historians, though, use it sloppily, talking about “early modern Europe” when what they really mean is just England and perhaps France. These are, of course, the pitfalls of World History.

    I forgot to mention that one interesting paper at the symposium by Richard von Glahn from UCLA made the point that the term “kinsei” (literally “recent times”) was coined in Japan well before Europeanists started using “early modern,” and furthermore that many Japanese historians insist that “kinsei” is not the same as “early modern” (though this leads us inexorably toward the Japanese escape from Asia . . . ).

  3. Since the period demarcated by ‘kinsei’ is effectively identical to that marked by ‘early modern’, I don’t really see how far that argument’s going to go…. My problem comes when people assume that the Early Modern in China started in the Qing or Ming, because that’s the period which coincides with European early modernity, as if all societies moved at the same pace.

    Similarly, using my definition of early modern, there are places which pass from feudal/medieval agro-economies straight to industrialization without ever passing through the Early Modern state. (Russia comes to mind, in particular) Of course, I long ago gave up on the developmental stage fallacy, which assumes that all societies must work through the same process and achieve the same result, but a lot of Western historians haven’t.

  4. I’m not sure I follow. You just said that you gave up on the “developmental stage fallacy” and also that you disagree with the tendency of people to assume that China’s early modern “started in the Qing or Ming,” which I take to mean that the “when” is not important when looking for an early modern period. Therefore by your own logic the fact “kinsei” and “early modern” are basically contemporaneous is irrelevant . . . unless I misunderstood the comment.

    I’m not familiar with the literature Richard was citing (I have read only a little Japanese scholarship on periodization, and that focused on medieval Japan) but I think the key points here are that 1) “kinsei” was invented as a period in Japan BEFORE historians of Europe started talking about the early modern as a distinct stage on the road to (Western) modernity; and 2) that the champions of a distinct Japanese “kinsei” do not see the overlapping dates as indicating overlapping trends.

    I’d rather break the periods down than build them up, though of course I use them in my teaching. Two regular classes are titled “early modern Japan” and “modern Japan.” They are convenient and of course fit in well with the idea (which many students have already absorbed) that Japan is somehow oddly European in its development. You don’t find that to be slightly worrying?

  5. Sorry, I was trying to say three things at once, I think. Japan is actually a fairly unique case where the development of Early Modernity is clearly contemporaneous with the political transition from Sengoku to Tokugawa reign: it’s a coincidence that ‘kinsei’ and ‘early modern’ coincide, but only in the sense that it’s a coincidence that the transition to urbanized commercialism coincides with the transition to peace. [boy, I don’t know that I’m helping myself here….] In most other places the transition to Early Modernity doesn’t come neatly packaged with dynastic transitions (which is why, for example, Europeanists can’t usually agree when ‘medieval’ ends and ‘early modern’ begins with any precision); there’s no great virtue in the term ‘kinsei’ because it’s a traditional “here’s a new dynasty; let’s call it a historical period” artifact with Marxist baggage, to boot.

    In terms of teaching, I actually try to reverse the polarity of the argument in World History: it’s not that Japan and China are vaguely European, but that Europe finally caught up with the economic, cultural and technological positions held by China and India for centuries. I don’t really have the time to talk about developmental theories that much, though. In my Japan classes, I tried to break things up so that I cross those boundaries: I like to walk my students through the transitions, rather than give them a false sense of stability and no guidance on change. I don’t find the idea “that Japan is somehow oddly European” all that worrying because there’s a lot of ways in which it’s actually true and a useful way of illuminating both histories; it’s American exceptionalism that I find considerably harder to work with and around.

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