The best reads for understanding geo-politics and the rise of the nation state in China from the late Ming - 20th century

Laura Hostetler Author Of Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China
By Laura Hostetler

Who am I?

As Professor of History and Global Asian Studies and Director of the Engaged Humanities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I'm interested in intersections at the margins between cultural systems. I first became drawn to Chinese history after visiting the country in 1982 and returned to teach English there before undertaking graduate studies. My work on eighteenth-century China focuses on ethnography and cartography as tools of empire building during its period of growth and expansion. My current project, Bridging Worlds: Reflections on a Journey, chronicles a quest for personal integration when obtaining an education has too often become predicated on the ability to cut oneself off from aspects of one’s own inner knowing and lived experience.

I wrote...

Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China

By Laura Hostetler,

Book cover of Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China

What is my book about?

In Qing Colonial Enterprise, Laura Hostetler shows how Qing China (1636-1911) used cartography and ethnography to pursue its imperial ambitions. She argues that far from being on the periphery of developments in the early modern period, Qing China both participated in and helped shape the new emphasis on empirical scientific knowledge that was simultaneously transforming Europe—and its colonial empires—at the time.

Although mapping in China is almost as old as Chinese civilization itself, the Qing insistence on accurate, to-scale maps of their territory was a new response to the difficulties of administering a vast and growing empire. Likewise, direct observation became increasingly important to Qing ethnographic writings, such as the illustrated manuscripts known as "Miao albums" (from which twenty color paintings are reproduced in this book).

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution

Why did I love this book?

Recreating the experience of a variety of Chinese literary figures whose lives collectively spanned most of the 20th century, Jonathan Spence helps his reader to understand how and why individuals from across the political spectrum were drawn to the goal of recreating a strong and unified China, and were willing to sacrifice themselves—and fight against each other—in its pursuit. A cultural rather than a political history, we nonetheless begin to understand the power that politics has to shape lives and constrain the possibilities open to individuals, especially during times of significant upheaval. 

By Jonathan D. Spence,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Gate of Heavenly Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A milestone in Western studies of China." (John K. Fairbank)

In this masterful, highly original approach to modern Chinese history, Jonathan D. Spence shows us the Chinese revolution through the eyes of its most articulate participants-the writers, historians, philosophers, and insurrectionists who shaped and were shaped by the turbulent events of the twentieth century. By skillfully combining literary materials with more conventional sources of political and social history, Spence provides an unparalleled look at China and her people and offers valuable insight into the continuing conflict between the implacable power of the state and the strivings of China's artists, writers,…

Book cover of The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

Why did I love this book?

In this fascinating and highly readable account of how we have come to think of the globe, Martin and Lewis (a geographer and historian respectively) introduce their reader to the historical construction, contingencies, and inconsistencies of our basic geographical building blocks. On what basis has the world been divided up into “east,” and “west,” and how, for example, did Japan come to be considered part of the “West?” Why do we think of continents as fixed entities rather than as conceptual categories for thinking about both space and culture? How do these categories shape our continuing perception of geographic space and our own place in the world? 

By Kären Wigen, Martin W. Lewis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Myth of Continents as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this thoughtful and engaging critique, geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Karen Wigen reexamine the basic geographical divisions we take for granted, and challenge the unconscious spatial frameworks that govern the way we perceive the world. Arguing that notions of East vs. West, First World vs. Third World, and even the sevenfold continental system are simplistic and misconceived, the authors trace the history of such misconceptions. Their up-to-the-minute study reflects both on the global scale and its relation to the specific continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa--actually part of one contiguous landmass. The Myth of Continents sheds new light…

Book cover of Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768

Why did I love this book?

Set in the heyday of Qing glory—or some might say at the beginning of its decline—Philip Kuhn traces a panic that swept through rural China in which commoners feared for the safety of their children’s lives at the hands of imagined bands of “soulstealers.” Alternately tracing allegations of incidents and the imperial response, which the reader gradually comes to understand is fueled by its own brand of paranoia, the author describes the intricate workings of bureaucratic procedure and justice in Qing China in which the emperor sometimes felt foiled by his own ‘deep state.’

By Philip A. Kuhn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soulstealers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Midway through the reign of the Ch'ien-lung emperor, Hungli, in the most prosperous period of China's last imperial dynasty, mass hysteria broke out among the common people. It was feared that sorcerers were roaming the land, clipping off the ends of men's queues (the braids worn by royal decree), and chanting magical incantations over them in order to steal the souls of their owners. In a fascinating chronicle of this epidemic of fear and the official prosecution of soulstealers that ensued, Philip Kuhn provides an intimate glimpse into the world of eighteenth-century China.

Kuhn weaves his exploration of the sorcery…

Book cover of The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China

Why did I love this book?

In The Confusions of Pleasure Timothy Brook captures the consternation of a local official as he witnesses the cultural and economic changes wrought by the rise of private wealth in the late Ming, (c. 1600). Unable to raise adequate revenue or to adapt the conservative agrarian foundations of its legitimacy to changing times, the Ming eventually collapses from within, unable to protect itself from marauding bands led by a disgruntled former government post station worker and subsequent invasion by a foreign force. Yet, those who are able to adapt to changing times survive. The resonances for our own day are multiple and apt. 

By Timothy Brook,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Confusions of Pleasure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Ming dynasty was the last great Chinese dynasty before the Manchu conquest in 1644. During that time, China, not Europe, was the center of the world: the European voyages of exploration were searching not just for new lands but also for new trade routes to the Far East. In this book, Timothy Brook eloquently narrates the changing landscape of life over the three centuries of the Ming (1368-1644), when China was transformed from a closely administered agrarian realm into a place of commercial profits and intense competition for status. "The Confusions of Pleasure" marks a significant departure from the…

Thongchai: Siam Mapped Paper

By Thongchai Winichakul,

Book cover of Thongchai: Siam Mapped Paper

Why did I love this book?

Tracing the emergence of the modern nation of Thailand from the Kingdom of Siam, Thongchai Winichakul demonstrates that the rulers of the emergent nation gradually adopted the same logic of national sovereignty and geopolitics as its colonial neighbors in the region, France and Britain. The implication is that in modernizing and reconfiguring what constitutes sovereignty Asian nations are not necessarily more benign than their western counterparts in extending their rule’ victims of western colonial aggression are not exempt from exercising similar forms of coercion against their own inner others. 

By Thongchai Winichakul,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Thongchai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This unusual and intriguing study of nationhood explores the 19th-century confrontation of ideas that transformed the kingdom of Siam into the modern conception of a nation. Siam Mapped challenges much that has been written on Thai history because it demonstrates convincingly that the physical and political definition of Thailand on which other works are based is anachronistic.

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