I participated in a symposium on February 1st hosted by the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute, on the topic of early modern periodization in East Asia. It was an exciting event with mostly big-name speakers (I was drafted in as a replacement!) including Kenneth Pomeranz, R. Bin Wong, John Wills Jr., Samuel Yamashita, John Duncan, and Jahyun Kim Haboush. The audience was substantial, prompting the organizers to move us to a much bigger conference room. I counted more than 60 people, implying a great deal of interest in the topic.
It seemed clear from the start that some presenters assumed that “early modern” referred to something real in the histories of Qing, Choson, and Tokugawa Japan, while others saw the term as at most a useful interpretive and comparative tool. The discussion devolved (predictably? unfortunately? amusingly?) into a debate about comparative history. Some participants suggested that using the period “early modern” compromises our ability to study East Asian histories on their own terms, forcing research and analysis into categories invented in certain parts of Western Europe. Others unpacked “early modern” in specific historical and cultural contexts. Still others argued that periodization schemes like “early modern” presented historians of East Asia with the opportunity to engage with historians of Euro-America, to highlight the scanty evidence marshaled in the narrative of the rise of Western modernity, and to move Asia to its rightful place in world history: the center. In my paper on the material heritage of Tokugawa Ieyasu, I made the argument that museums are where much popular education about the early modern takes place, essentially unacknowledged (and, unfortunately, unexamined) by historians of “early modern” East Asia.
In the final discussion of the day, as debate swirled back and forth on this issue, one fact became clear, perhaps winning the argument on the side of the “early modern” doubters better than any grand attempt at persuasion could have done: in the huge crowd of graduate students, scholars, and a few visitors from the general public, only one historian of Europe or America was present, and she was essentially required to be in attendance because of her role in founding and naming the USC-Huntington Early Modern Institute. The hackneyed phrase from the movie “Field of Dreams” comes to mind, except in reverse: even if you build it, they won’t come. In other words, even if a bunch of famous historians of East Asia hold a symposium on a term invented in European history to discuss its broad relevance; even if that event is hosted by an organization dominated by historians of Euro-America; and even if it is held at one of the biggest universities in southern California where lots of historians congregate; they (meaning historians of Euro-America, the group that the comparativists want to engage) won’t come. Of course I care about how badly East Asia is represented in the media, in public education, in much popular culture, and in the writing of many (not all, of course) prominent historians of Europe and America. But if the attendance at this symposium is any indication, adopting this comparative terminology, which often is not a particularly good fit for the diverse regions of the world, is not the answer.