Fields and Periodization (yes, again)

Jeff Vanke, now blogging at The Historical Society’s THS Blog, was looking for some guidance on how to properly divide up the history of the world into fields of study. He laid out a very ambitious world-wide agenda, including Japan and China fields, and asked for feedback. His original China fields were:

  • to 907 (through Tang)
  • 907-1644 (Song, Yuan, Ming)
  • 1644-1911 (Qing)
  • 1911-

My comment (on the China stuff; you can read the whole thing or just the Japan stuff at Frog:J) was

On China, I’m not as familiar with the historiography, but my impression is that there is a lot more scholarship crossing the Ming-Qing boundary than there used to be, and that the Tang isn’t really separable from the Warring States/Five Dynasties/Northern Wei period. I’d probably break between Tang and Song, or possibly after Song. That latter might work, because then you can take the Yuan-Ming-Qing as a unit, which actually works pretty well. (If you’re thinking that the Qing is the Early Modern in China, because it’s chronologically contiguous with the Early Modern in Europe, you have to give that up. this discussion is as good a starting place as any….)

Jeff noticed that I’d collapsed his system into three fields, among other issues:

For China, if I include Song in the ancient / classical field, do I stop in 1129 when the Jin push the Song across the Yangtze, or do I take the classical China field to 1215, when the Mongols take Yanjing?

That leaves me with only three Chinese fields, which seems paltry. If I put Song in a field before Yuan, is there enough from China’s prehistory to the Song to break that into two fields, and if so, where should I draw the temporal line?

I regrouped — apparently I can’t count — and tried again

For a four-part China sequence, I think I’d do a really Early field (up to the fall of the Han), an “Open Empire” field (Three Kingdoms to Mongol; see Valerie Hansen’s excellent textbook), an Early Modern (Ming-Qing) and a 20th century field.

Alternately, since I’m pushing the third field back to the Ming, you could start the fourth field with the Opium Wars — I have more or less the same historiographical qualms about that that I do about the 1853 break in Japan, but there are a lot of courses and texts which do just that, still. (I can’t recommend highly enough Paul Cohen’s Discovering History in China for a good argument against the Opium War break point, among other historiographical insights; many of the theories he engages were very active in the Japanese historiography as well.)

Jeff wisely ignored my last bit of thinking out loud but seems to think that my four-field sequence makes some sense. If you think I’m barking up the wrong tree or if you want to see how the rest of the world gets subdivided, join the discussion.


  1. I think your way is pretty good. I would probably push 1900 back to 1800 (to take in the Opium war without making it a breakpoint) I would also be really tempted to split off the Pre-Qin period or to split that one at Wang Mang.

  2. Would you tack the Han (or Latter Han) onto the second field, or just make it a separate field entirely?

    I like the idea of a post-1800 field better than a post-Qing field, yeah, but it seems like it might be a lot of historiography compared to some of the others.

  3. The debate over periodization is always fun — partly, of course, because there are no “right” answers, only answers that are more useful or less useful. Which means that we any answer depends on what it is being used for.

    If the question is “when does the break come?” then periodization depends on whether you’re on a quarter system or a semester system.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.