This is our fifteenth consecutive interview with recipients of the Franklin Buchanan Prize. This year’s cowinners are Yale University historian Peter C. Perdue and Lynn Parisi, Director of the Program for Teaching East Asia at the University of Colorado. China and the World: The Rise and Fall of the Canton Trading System is now a component of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Visualizing Cultures digital teaching project at http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/rise_fall_canton_01/. Peter Perdue created the units, and Parisi developed the accompanying teaching materials. Parisi, who previously won two Buchanan Awards, suggested that Professor Perdue’s insights on the value of the Canton system as a classroom topic and on conceptualizing useful visual learning curricula would be of interest to our readers, and I enthusiastically agreed. Perdue has a PhD from Harvard in History and East Asian Languages. He has published several books and numerous articles on Chinese history and has interests in modern Chinese and Japanese social and economic history, world history, and the history of frontiers. I hope readers enjoy the interview that follows.
Lucien: Peter, a plurality of our readers teaches some form of world history. Why, in your opinion, is learning about the rise and fall of the Canton trade system an important topic for survey world history courses?
Peter Perdue: The Canton trade system, which lasted from the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, was a period of sustained interaction between imperial China and Western European powers, in which both sides profited from economic exchange and cultural interaction. China had limited connection with Western powers like the Portuguese and Dutch before this period, but the scale of trade and number of foreign participants was much larger in the eighteenth century. The end of the Canton system during the first Opium War (1839–1842) marks the conventional beginning of China’s modern history, with the imposition of “unequal treaties” on China following its military defeat. Every world history discusses the Opium War, but in order to understand China’s position in the global economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we need to look closely at the preceding period, when the relative power positions were more balanced.