History in Three Keys Term Paper

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History In Three Keys

Cohen, Paul a. History in Three Keys. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

History is not merely a series of anecdotes. History is also a snapshot of how the past is viewed from the present. In events such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, quite often the significance of the events lie not so much in their immediate effects, although in the case of the Boxer rebellion these effects were quite considerable, but also how such seismic events are mythologized and used by later historians and historical actors. The cultural anxiety regarding Westernizing influence in China makes the Boxer rebellion a particularly apt historical situation for such an analysis of how the past is viewed by the present. Such is the thesis and theme of Paul A. Cohen's History in Three Keys. The book is more of a history as to how the rebellion has been interpreted, than it is of the immediate implications of the event itself and its aftermath.

Paul Cohen is a professor of East Asian history with an openly postmodern orientation. The title of the book refers to Cohen's understanding of the rebellion as an event that can be viewed with a series of lenses, rather than a singular historian's lens. The rebellion is an event, experience and also a myth. Significantly, Cohen does not refer to any specific detail about the rebellion in his title; he is more concerned with describing his three-keyed approach to understanding the Boxers, rather than referring to the Boxers themselves. Even the name, the Boxer rebellion, is polluted to some extent in Cohen's eyes, because the idea of the Boxers has become so subject to political influences of people with agendas beyond mere understanding.

To demonstrate this thesis, Cohen uses different types of historical evidence, as well as different forms of historical, anthropological, and sociological analysis. For example, the book's first section is a narrative history of the event itself. The reader learns that the Boxer Rebellion was one of the bloodiest local conflicts between native Chinese and persons the Chinese perceived as having an unduly Western and therefore corrupt influences upon their native culture. No mere, singular event, the rebellion took place from 1898-1900, in Northern China. It was waged between ordinary, lower class native Chinese peasants against the foreign missionaries whom they characterized, in what remains of their own literature, occupiers of the country. The event eventually stimulated eight outside nations to intervene into internal Chinese affairs, and only resulted in a peace treaty after a bloody suppression.

The rebellion occurred in a remote area of China that had been afflicted by a series of natural disasters and famines that neither the missionaries nor the weak imperial throne could satisfactorily address or remedy. The insurgencies proceeded in a series of threats, then attacks, and counter-attacks. Thus, the first section attempts to give the reader, as objectively as possible, a cool, intellectual overview of just the facts, as are known and agreed-upon by most major historians.

The second part of Cohen's book discusses the personal experience of the people before, during, and after event. How, one might ask, can a historian, even one as skilled as Cohen, experience history in a nation far away, and a time period long ago? Cohen engages in a psychological and anthropological analysis of the psychology and beliefs of persons at the forefront of the Boxer movement, no mean feat, given their psychic as well as temporal distance from his readers. Because the Boxer Rebellion was a religious conflict, Cohen gives special attention to thoughts, as well as to actions, particularly to the rituals of the leaders. The Boxers had created a complicated, personal mythology regarding foreigners, magic, gender and death. Cohen uses documents of the period, including those of the Boxers themselves, the missionaries, and the townspeople living in China at the time to examine these ideas.

To allow the rebels to speak for themselves is difficult, because the Boxers were essentially the losers in of their historical struggle, a difficulty that Cohen admits in his text. The paradox of chronicling a crushed rebellion is that sources become contaminated quite easily, yet even when original testimonies are accessible, they are invariably biased. The third, and perhaps the most unusual, convincing, and successful section is the mythology of other (non-Boxers) that continues to surround the event, not in Western history (which Cohen regards as more potentially corrupt, presumably, or lying outside of his field of expertise). In 20th century China, the Boxers were lionized by anti-Western and anti-Imperialist forces for their nationalistic influence. However, secular modernizers saw the rural Boxers as something of an embarrassment. Cohen believes that the Boxers were neither; rather he thinks they are worthy of being understood on their own cultural terms. Cohen focuses on how they were viewed by the Chinese so-called New Culture movement, May 13th demonstrators, and finally in the context of the Maoist Cultural Revolution in the third section. None of these interpretations are wholly factual, rather the Boxers, mythologizers of the past themselves, now have become myth, interpretive documents as people who can be used as modern political figures and historians pick and chose their facts selectively.

Cohen's anthropological as well as historical approach is extremely useful to understanding the causes and outcome of a populist event. The Boxers were largely made up of rural Chinese. This partially explains the later distain for this group or class of people, given that the ruling powers of China, over the course of its history, has tended to overlook rural influence, as often the cities as innately superior culturally and socially to the countryside. Because this particular region was afflicted by a series of natural disasters, such as flooding, which upset the delicate agricultural balance in this difficult-to-farm region and caused a famine, mythology arose from these land-generated conditions, rather than from the intellectual elite. The desperation of the people precipitated the rebellion, not a shift in consciousness upon the part of the Chinese intelligentsia. To understand this shift, a different form of history is needed that transcends books and embraces experience. The one thesis of previous historians that Cohen does debunk is the idea that the empress prompted the rebellion through institutional influences; rather he identifies the Boxers as specifically anti-institutional.

For historians, even historians of a different era or period, the way that Cohen defines the project of history is openly postmodern in its historiography. "I would argue (and I believe most practicing historians would join me) that the history the historian creates is in fact fundamentally different from the history people make. No matter how much of the original, experienced past historians choose or are able to build into their narratives, what they end up with will, in specific and identifiable ways, be different from that past." The history book cannot explain to the reader what the past was like, only how he or she is likely to see the past from the vantage of the present day. Even students in Cohen's own graduate classes have "idiosyncratic, oddly misshapen cognitive map of China...etched in their minds," dependent more upon singular interpretations rather than a multifaceted view of a complex experience. This multiplicity is what Cohen strives to give to the reader, rather than completeness.

At times, while reading about some of the Boxer's actions and beliefs, particularly in terms of their point-of-view of ritual purity, such a perspective can be difficult to assume. "The bandits passed the word around that, just as they were setting fire to the church in question, some woman from across the way had come out of her home and spilled dirty water. Their magic was therefore destroyed, and the misfortune extended [beyond the church]. On the basis of this [explanation], the families whose homes had been… [END OF PREVIEW]

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