Is ‘early modern’ a meaningless term?
“Early modernity” is a concept of ambiguity in historiographic scholarship and has been a topic for discussion for several decades. Søren Clausen discussed the term in regard to China in his paper, Early Modern China – A Preliminary Postmortem. For Clausen, the search for a terminology describing an “early modern China” emerged from the urge to incorporate China into a world history, whose importance he stresses in his introductory sentence: “A world that is increasingly becoming ‘one world’ needs a world history”. What he also did was to recap the influence other historians had on the discussion during the 1980s and 90s, which I will partially address later.
First, to answer a question as provocative as “Is ‘early modern’ a meaningless term?” one must investigate the reasoning of the person who inspired it. Here, this person is John A. Goldstone, who wrote a paper called The Problem of the “Early Modern” World, in which he says, “In other words, ‘early modern’ can mean almost nothing, or almost everything, and as such, is a wholly meaningless term”. The problem of an ‘early modern’ China or even world seems to be that the term ‘early modern’ did not evolve out of historiography’s need to label any period in world history or even Chinese history, but “developed out of the need to fill a space in Marxist theory of stages of history”. Thus, applying it to distinctly different historical circumstances than those of an ‘early modern’ Europe can only cause discrepancies in the meaning of the term, rendering it essentially meaningless.
 Clausen 2000, p. 1.
 Goldstone 1998, p. 261.
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- China Chinese imperial early modern Modernism history historiography cultural discussion terminology late imperial China semiotics