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History in Three Keys

March 20, 2010

Paul A. Cohen. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

The question of ‘what historians do’ has attracted increasing attention, as the function and coherence of historical narrative has undergone heightened scrutiny in recent decades. Paul Cohen’s recent contribution to this ongoing debate takes as its object of study the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, a northern Chinese popular/religious uprising against national contamination in the form of foreign missionaries, soldiers, and diplomats, as well as native Christians and enemies real or imagined. Cohen’s ultimate aim is to demonstrate that a generally-understood notion of history can be unpacked into discrete analytical components of event, experience, and myth. It is in the process of distinguishing between these realms of narrativity that the historian’s role with relation to the past – “to understand what happened – and, then, to explain it to his or her readership” (5) – becomes clearest. History in Three Keys is thus a work written from and about the point of view of its author, and explicitly grapples with both the events of the Boxer Rebellion and the framework used to understand and explain them.

In Cohen’s view form follows content, and the categories of event, experience, and myth are reproduced in three distinct sections of the work, each meant to be capable of standing alone despite the obvious overlapping of themes. In the first, event is defined as the “historically reconstructed past,” and the concise narration of the events of the Boxer Rebellion that follows is intended to illustrate the historian’s most familiar role as omniscient storyteller. The factual chronology of attacks, counter-attacks, and massacres (Boxer, non-Boxer Chinese, and foreign) is interwoven with commentary intended to establish the contingent nature of an apparently seamless sequence of human action. According to Cohen’s schema, this section is intended to encompass a historical ‘truth’ of the Boxer Rebellion “that has validity in an intellectual, rather than a psychological, sense” (6). Other historians and storytellers might note, however, that just as the event being studied occurred at a moment of drastic weakening in China’s imperial order, this argument for an intellectual perspective was written at a moment of drastic weakening in notions of what constitutes validity, intellectual or otherwise.

The subsequent ethnographic history of experiences of drought, spirit possession, magic, rumor, and death constitutes Cohen’s major contribution to the field of Boxer studies. Recorded voices of the experiencers (few of them Boxers) speak both ‘for themselves’ and, less obviously, for Cohen’s careful and persuasive efforts to guide them into a framework of comparative ethnography that illuminates Boxer particulars in relation to human universals. Again, the myriad motivations and anxieties that accompanied the explosion of religious revival into religious violence mirror Cohen’s own truth-finding anxiety, which requires the marshalling of Boxer-related sources into discrete analytic categories for the purpose of avoiding historical contamination. Whether or not the experiential/historical ‘key’ is accentuated, the presence of the historian (and the limitation of historical materials) is inescapable, giving voice to the “unbodied mouths” (208) of beheaded Boxers by amplifying the echoes that remain in foreign and other ‘official’ accounts.

The persistence of such echoes and images in subsequent Chinese history is the focus of the final section, which traces the deliberate use of Boxer history as politicized ‘myth’ throughout the New Culture movement, May Thirtieth demonstrations and debates, and the Cultural Revolution. The list of mythologizers – those who “draw on [the past] to serve the political, ideological, rhetorical, and/or emotional needs of the present” (213) – includes philosophers, authors, reform leaders, and revolutionaries (Chen Duxiu, Lu Xun, Lao She, Yan Fu, Hu Shi, and Sun Yat-sen stand among the accused). Revealingly, it includes no Western historians who, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are not so “heavily freighted with twentieth-century political and cultural commitments” (287) that their narratives cross the line from the intellectually to the (merely) politically correct. The implications of this omission are tremendous, and any contemporary reader might wonder whether Cohen’s ideal historian is not already a figure of some mythological and pre-political past.

In terms of ambition and scholarship, History in Three Keys is sweeping; one major reviewer identified its most significant achievements as being the “challenging and original” second section, the author’s “openness to historical possibilities,” and his “suggestion of the possibility of history in more than three keys” (Journal of Asian Studies, 57,2:485-6). Confirmation of such praise included both the 1997 John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History and the 1997 New England Historical Book Award.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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