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Some Things We Used to Know about China's Past and Present (But Now, Not So Much)

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American public discourse today about the rise of China and its implications for the United States frequently draws on broad themes and parallels from Chinese history, both to explicate China's present and to project its future. These themes and parallels draw on a picture of the Chinese past that, as recently as twenty-five years ago, was embraced by many (though by no means all) professional historians and propagated by some of them as the best means to understand contemporary China. But since the 1970s, the community of historians of China has produced work that severely undermines longstanding conventional judgments of China's past. As a consequence, the historical themes and parallels that once were thought useful in illuminating interpretation of contemporary China have been stood on their head.


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