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Broadening the Horizons of Chinese History: Discourses, Syntheses, and Comparisons

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BY RAY HUANG

NEW YORK: M. E. SHARPE, 1999

PAPERBACK: 274 PAGES, ISBN: 0-7656-0348-9

Reviewed by DAVID L. KENLEY, PHD

 

In Broadening the Horizons of Chinese History, Ray Huang investigates events in China from a long-term perspective. The work is actually a compilation of several previously-presented essays. In many ways, the text reads more like an intimate lecture than a jargon-filled monograph. Inserting several interesting details about his own life. Huang writes as if he is seeking to persuade and enlighten a younger generation of scholars.

As stated several times throughout the book, Huang’s central thesis is that modern, rational, dynamic societies require “mathemati­cal manageability.” In other words, everything from governmental taxation to free market commodity exchanges must be conducted in mathematically-delined terms. At the same time, the state must cre­ate laws and structures necessary for these transactions to occur. Yet, as Huang points out, until the twentieth century this did not happen in China. China was, to put it bluntly, unmodern and mathematically unmanageable.

During the last century, however, China has made great strides toward achieving mathematical manageability. By so doing, the Chi­nese state has “merged” into the same historical pattern as the West. Though this transition remains imperfect, and though at times it has been painful, the Chinese have accomplished mathematical manage­ability more quickly than most Western societies.

By emphasizing mathematical manageability as the yardstick for modernity, Huang hopes to avoid the Eurocentric timelines that Western historians have imposed on the non-Western world. Never­theless, the result seems to be much the same—China’s history is merging with the West (rather than the other way around, or not merging at all). Furthermore, Huang has given too little credit to other historians, such as Mark Elvin, who have also argued that Eurocentric historical eras must be reexamined in the case of China.

Huang’s work will be immensely beneficial to not only China historians, but to world historians as well. While probably inappro­priate for high school students, secondary school teachers and under­graduate professors will find Huane’s work quite helpful. As one of the senior historians in the China field, Huang’s structuralist approach remains engaging and interesting.