“A Path Twice Traveled: My Journey as a Historian of China” by Paul A Cohen

Cohen

“I certainly was not born to history,” Paul Cohen tells us at the very beginning of his book; indeed he wasn’t. He didn’t want to follow his father’s men’s clothing trade, and gave up engineering after one year in university to study the humanities, and even then he did not concentrate on any one part of it. He thought about architecture, then psychiatry and finally the army. None of these, on consideration, were very satisfying, and involved long hours of what seemed to Cohen very boring work.

Then a friend showed him a syllabus for a graduate course at Harvard in East Asian Studies, and his interest in foreign cultures was piqued. It was China which hooked him in the end. Cohen had read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, but that was about it; now he wanted to find out more, and at Harvard he “came under the spell of renowned China historian John King Fairbank,” a stroke of supreme good luck for the young student. Cohen never looked back, and more than sixty years later the institute named for his old professor has published this remarkable memoir.

Paul Cohen may not have been born to history, but largely through his work a new interest in, together with a new approach to Chinese history, was born.

 

A Path Twice Traveled: My Journey as a Historian of China, Paul A. Cohen Harvard University Press, February 2019)
A Path Twice Traveled: My Journey as a Historian of China, Paul A Cohen (Harvard University Press, February 2019)

The biggest problem for historians of the past is that they have never themselves experienced the material about which they write, unless, of course, they were directly involved in recent events and chose to write about them. For all the others, though, there is often a wide disparity between what people at the time experienced and how the historian following on their heels interprets their experiences.

Because the world doesn’t remain static, historians, as Paul Cohen tells us at the end of this book, “have no choice but to tell a story that comes as close as possible to reconstructing what actually took place then but in a way that speaks meaningfully to people living now.” And the movement that a historian must make between “these two utterly different realms,” he goes on, “is perhaps the greatest difficulty we face in our work.”

When it comes to writing about disparate cultures such as China from a Western perspective, historians are presented with a further difficulty, namely from whose point of view can they write? If we write about China, how to we shift the center from our own cultural background to a more “China-centered” perspective? Westerners might understand the Taiping Rebellion as having been led by a crazy, xenophobic, religious fanatic calling himself “God’s Chinese Son”, but a Chinese historian may well see the event as an attempt on the part of the Chinese to regain cultural significance in the face of what they perceived as Western imperialist designs. And what those who lived through the event (on both sides) thought about it presents yet another point of view. Other historical events, such as the Indian Mutiny, the Mahdist War in Sudan or West Indian slave uprisings raise the same or similar questions.

 

These observations explain why Paul Cohen (born 1934), one of the most distinguished historians of China alive today, decided to entitle his book A Path Twice Traveled.

He began publishing books about China with China and Christianity: The Missionary Movement and the Growth of Chinese Antiforeignism 1860-1870 (1963) and is still very much active today after nearly sixty years of scholarship. There is no doubt of his profound impact on the way China is now viewed by a new generation of Western historians.

This book, engagingly-written and profound, not only gives us the scholarly side of the man, but could also serve as an introduction to Cohen’s work, as he discusses each of what he considers his major books and offers up interesting thoughts about the art of writing history from various perspectives. Cohen is on occasion disarmingly self-critical about what he does, giving us, for example, a chapter entitled “Limits of the China-Centered Approach”, and spends a fair amount of time discussing in sometimes amusing details the problems he had with prospective publishers who often shied away from his new approaches. His enthusiasm and love for the historian’s craft is what carries this book so far away from a dull academic memoir that a reader may be forgiven for forgetting that it’s written by a man with such vast knowledge and profoundly serious purpose.

As a reviewer, I have often lately praised academics for writing accessibly; Paul Cohen is one of the best of them. It’s important, too, for general readers to get to know more about the people who write history, and finding those that are passionately and engagingly involved in what they do and are able to express it in writing goes a long way to achieving this. Once historians have demonstrated enthusiasm, genuine love for the subject and a sincere desire to convey those feelings about history to others, readers are more likely to read what they write; all great historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Paul Cohen himself knew that.

“When I first began to study history,” Cohen tells us, “my idea of what historians ‘did’ was very different from what it later became.” He goes on to explain that he first thought of the past (as many of us do) being “in some sense a fixed body of factual material.” Historians were there to set this out and write about it. Cohen calls this initial approach “innocent”, and now understands that doing history, which is “reconstructive work”, implies that there are two other ways of looking at the past, namely through “experience and myth”, which, he concludes, “tend to be far more pervasive and influential in terms of their bearing on people’s lives.” He cites at one point the example of viewing Abraham Lincoln as “the great emancipator”, a myth which “isolates out one strand from a complex picture and emphasizes it to the exclusion of all else” as, despite the best efforts of historians (who emphasize Lincoln’s overriding desire to preserve the Union), “remains serenely intact.”

Cohen’s method is threefold— looking at “event, experience, and myth.” History isn’t just a chronological series of facts to be analyzed, but it is also intimately connected with the myths that are sometimes created around these facts and the experiences of the people who lived through the history, hence the importance of “story” in his methodology, and he presents a number of stories in the book to illustrate this point. For Cohen, then, the historian has two paths to follow, based on what the word “history means,” and for him it is “what happened then—what took place in the past,” and “how historians view the past now.” Hence A Path Twice Traveled.

 

This is not the place to lay out Cohen’s methodology in detail, and in any case he himself does it far better than any paraphrasing could. The personality of the writer as he reveals himself in his memoir is what keeps one reading reading; it was as if he were speaking directly from the page. Cohen never shies away from discussing disappointments and even failures when it is useful to do so, giving the impression of a man whose mind is constantly evolving, never stuck in academic rigor or obfuscating theory.

He uses what he has to say about China as a way of showing readers the craft of a real historian, including some, but not too much, of what he calls

 

the unspoken concerns and agendas of the historian … the approaches tried and later abandoned, that characterize our work but remain hidden from view.

 

In the end, Cohen sensibly opts for “a middle ground between the knowable past of the thoroughgoing empiricist and the unknowable past of the radical postmodernist.” He concludes that

 

historians must be polyglot, conversant in the language of the present but also, to the extent humanly possible, in the language of the past. And it is our need to move back and forth between these two utterly different realms.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.