November 9, 2005

Historian Compares U.S., Chinese Empires

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Kenneth Pomeranz ’80, a historian, spoke last night in McGraw Hall on the topic of “Modern Empires: Chinese Experience and Western Comparisons.”

Prof. Sherman Cochran, history, University of California at Irvine, introduced Pomeranz as being both “a distinguished alumnus and distinguished historian.” After graduating from Cornell and earning his Ph.D. from Yale in 1988, Pomeranz researched a slew of topics related to modern China, its economic and ecological changes and its relation to the developing European power structure.

Pomeranz began the lecture by loosely defining the concept of empire; he said that an empire includes “leaders of one society that have control of another society.” As he referenced empires dating from the 17th century until the present, he identified a number of differences between past and current Asian and Western regimes. “[The 19th and 20th century empires] claim to civilize those they move. They justify their empire to the poor by outlining the benefits it gives to them … Western empires [except Rome] were under the notion that civilized people should rule themselves.”

According to Pomeranz, numerous imperialistic trends are repeated throughout different countries and regions.

Pomeranz identified stark differences between the Western and Eastern regions of China. He referred to Eastern China as being highly commercialized, populated with Chinese descendants of the Han descent and wealthier than the Western Chinese region; the Western region was controlled on-and-off by Beijing, populated by non-Han Chinese, less commercial, poorer and resentful of the influence of Eastern China.

There are also differences in the way the Chinese view of imperialism differed from the Western view of imperialism.

“The Chinese imperial vision was tied to specific spaces-surrounding areas,” he said. “Trade was an important way in which China dealt with the rest of the world.”

The vision by Western countries, specifically the United States and Great Britain, “have more of a global attention, without focusing on a specific place,” Pomeranz said.

He related these general principles to current foreign affairs of the United States. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has followed a method of decolonization by removing itself physically from the areas in which it formerly controlled. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both offered “concrete assistance” to client states in order to get their support.

“There has been a decreasing trend in development assistance [since the end of the Cold War],” Pomeranz said. “The United States has resorted to setting rules and guidelines that give nations the option of either abiding by them, or not. The concept is that the U.S. rules through the people’s adoption of policies, which have the potential to enrich the nations and reduce poverty.”

While there are benefits and drawbacks to these developmental tactics, Pomeranz said, adding that “they are never implemented to a degree that would be costly to the nations involved.”

“The way [Pomeranz] managed to compare two large systems of government and imperialism was extremely interesting. The large scope of the content he covered was fascinating,” said Claudine Ang grad.

Pomeranz has written a number of articles in both English and Chinese scholarly journals. He has also written a number of books including The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, The Making of a Hinterland: State, Society and Economy in Inland North China, 1853-1937 and The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present, which he wrote with Steven Topik. As the current Chairperson of the Department of History at the University of California at Irvine, Pomeranz teaches and gives a number of speeches around the country throughout the year.

The lecture was part of the LaFeber-Sibley Lecture Series and was presented as part of the East Asia Program.

Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer