Learning, Online - Reflections on teaching history

Curriculum,History

April 1, 2018

Adjusting our time frames

My reading over the past year encouraged me to consider a variety of geographic vantage points on World History.  This year I’m having a similar experience with regard to time.  In addition to adjusting our spatial vantage points, history teachers need to thoughtfully consider time frames and established narratives, I learned a lot from Wensheng Wang’s White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates:Crisis and Reform in the Qing Empire (continuing an inadvertent tour of the University of Hawaii history department after enjoying Matthew Romaniello’s Elusive Empire last year). Wang’s carefully argued book taught me a lot about the Qing state and the importance of reconsidering facile imperial stories of rise and fall.

I knew very little about the Qing Empire before teaching AP World History, other than brief impressions of the serial crises that brought it to an end: Opium Wars (defeat) , Taiping Rebellion (destruction), foreign spheres of influence (humiliation), Boxer Rebellion (failure), and the hopeful Revolution of 1911. To this story AP World History added the rise of the Manchu-led dynasty to China’s greatest territorial position in the 1700s. Yet, this story of ascent is a much smaller portion of my world history courses than the narrative of nineteenth-century decline.

Wang’s book centers on the Qing Empire at its midpoint in the 1790s. He engages the scholarship on the mid-Qing state, seeking to improve the reputation of the Jiaqing emperor, especially vis-a-vis his father, the more renowned Qianlong Emperor.  My unfamiliarity with this scholarship made this reading slow at times, but it was also useful crash course on Qing state and society.  As a world history teacher there is always more to learn! The Jiaqing Emperor began his reign amidst internal and external crises for Qing China. Internally, the Qing state struggled to suppress a millenarian uprising by White Lotus sectarians; and, externally; externally, Qing authorities could not wrest control of the South China Sea and its littoral from international pirates. Endemic corruption hampered the state’s capacity to navigate the crises.

Wang carefully builds an argument that the Qing dynasty survived the twin threats and remained in power for another century because of reforms made by the Jiaqing Emperor. He concludes

“…that without these timely political adjustments, the dynasty might have collapsed long before it had the opportunity to start the self-strengthening and other late Qing reforms. Thanks to Jiaqing’s moderate reforms, his reign inaugurated a major shift in empire-building that had a profound effect on the last century of Manchu rule, as well as the innate development of China’s modern state” (254).

Instead of searching the turn of the nineteenth-century crises for roots of the Qing collapse, Wang explains why the dynasty lasted as long as it did.  Extending the time frame from the 1830s to the 1790s creates a different narrative about the Qing.  Like most stories, it’s complicated.  The Qing dynasty could have collapsed more than a hundred years before it did. Our geographic vantage point on the Qing dynasty matters as well.  The narrative of Qing collapse often begins with British triumph in the Opium Wars, sometimes glossing successful Chinese resistance to British imperialism earlier in the 1800s. By incorporating British imperial failures Wang describes its limits. He argues that British imperil power “should not be deemed a ready-made tool or predetermined formula that relied simply on military prowess” (250).  Changing the time frame complicates the story.

Antoinette Burton’s The Trouble With Empire makes a similar point about the British Empire itself.  It was complicated

“…the history of the British empire is not rise and fall but skirmish, scramble, stumble, recover; not up and down but perpetual crash and burn; not success and failure but fail, fail, fail and make the most of it–with an eye on your backyard and your hand on your Martini rifle” (219).

Burton’s excellent and important book offers a litany of troubles that shaped British imperialism.  Like the Qing dynasty a simple story of rise and fall does not stand up to scrutiny.

The lesson is clear—avoid simple stories—but not always easy to follow.  The survey nature of high school history courses often precludes including nuances.  My first responsibility as a history educator is to understand which new insights fundamentally change how I approach a subject and which are nuances that are beyond the high school survey.  I am looking forward to discussing The Trouble with Empire with AP World History teachers, because my initial response is that the it should change how I present nineteenth-century imperialism. All insights from new scholarship should imbue World History teachers with humility about our understandings of the past. I recently told my AP World History students that if they continue studying history they will find something wrong about our discussion of many topics.  This stance is faithful to the discipline, and provides a platform for encouraging students to construct historical knowledge themselves.

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