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Historical Thinking: China

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Historical Thinking: China

Photograph of a large auditorium with red and yellow background.
The 1st Session of the 12th National People’s Congress of China in 2013. Xi Jinping was first elected president during this session. Source: Wikipedia at

A perennial problem is how to make survey history courses, often most likely the only history many high school and college students will ever take, meaningfully encourage students to think deeply about what they learn to better understand not only history, but contemporary cultures as well. How useful is Periodization? How can timelines be vehicles for historical thinking? How can students more deeply understand historical change? In the three articles that follow, students both learn history and as important, are introduced to historical thinking. Social science and humanists who teach different disciplines than history are also encouraged to read this “Exclusive.”

Keith Knapp in “Did the Middle Kingdom Have a Middle Period?: The Problem of ‘Medieval’ in China’s History” (Winter 2007, Vol. 12, No. 3) defends the often justifiably criticized concept of periodization through defending the application of the concept “Medieval” to Chinese history. His defense of this Latin derivative that only became a historical tool in nineteenth century Europe, is not facile but thoughtful. The author utilizes similarities and differences between “Medieval” China and “Medieval” Europe to introduce social scientists and humanists who are not historians to possible common and divergent patterns in China and the West that could apply to their understanding of the contemporary world.

AP World History teacher Angela Lee in “Periodization and Historical Patterns in Chinese History: Approaches to Historical Thinking Skills in AP World History” (Spring 2016, Vol. 21, No. 1) uses five different historical timelines of the Imperial Period in Chinese History in lucidly demonstrating to students how varying perspectives and ideologies of individuals and groups substantially impact their perspectives on history and culture. See a larger format table from Angela’s article in our online supplements.

In “China and a New Era: The Latest Twist in an Enduring Pattern?” (Winter 2018, Vol. 23, No. 3) Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Maura Elizabeth Cunningham artfully use one of the most discussed recent and ongoing development in global affairs, the Xi Jinping so-called “Era” to high light a seemingly simple generalization that many, if not most, of my students have not considered: historical eras are messy and usually don’t neatly start and stop as textbook meta-narratives might suggest. Focused attention on this generalization is almost guaranteed to stimulate all of us to view contemporary and recent national and global affairs through a new lens.

Other Teaching Resources: What Skills Should You Have When You Leave a History Course?

Since the rebirth of the EAA Digest series, all supplements for this column have featured pedagogical resources that potentially might be used in next week’s class. Given that December  and the early part of January usually offer more time for reflection, including, for many subscribers, reflections on how they might improve their teaching, the following suggested resource “What Skills Should You Have When You Leave a History Course?” is a bit different than previous recommendations, but in some ways is the most important “Other Resource” we’ve ever suggested for history instructors.

Even though to the best of our knowledge, a plurality of EAA readers continue to teach some form of history or work with history teachers in professional development, some subscribers may be confused by the name, American Historical Association (AHA) regarding the professional organization that published this resource. The AHA is the largest organization of professional historians in the world, represents more than 12,000 members, and serves historians representing every historical period and geographical area in a wide variety of professions.

Logo for the American Historical Association.
Logo for the American Historical Association.

This article was published as part of the December 2020 EAA Digest.