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Did the Middle Kingdom Have a Middle Period?: The Problem of “Medieval” in China’s History

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Due largely to the contributions of postmodernism, scholars have become increasingly distrustful of the terms they use to describe historical phenomena. This has led them to avoid using general categories or labels. Yet, for instructors attempting to make the diverse panorama of world history intelligible, these are exactly the rough tools needed to demonstrate that different societies have resolved similar problems with similar methods and institutions. One such term is “medieval,” which literally means the “Middle Ages,” and designates the period between antiquity and modernity. Ironically, even European medievalists have come to question the validity of the term that defines the time period.1

China specialists have long debated the applicability of this patently Western concept to Chinese history. Some deny its utility outright.2 Many other scholars, though, assume that China had a medieval period. Yet amongst them, no consensus exists over when it started, how long it lasted, or what were its characteristics. Since these issues have proved intractable, Sinologists nowadays largely ignore them, as if they were unimportant.