What is modern history?

by Professor Rana Mitter FBA

15 Feb 2021

Soviet propaganda poster 'Клином красным бей белых' ('Drive red wedges in white troops'), Lazar Lissitzky, 1920. Photo by Universal History Archive / Getty Images

In Britain, history emerges like waves that occasionally burst over the edge of the shore and soak you, but then retreat. So we’ll have a bout of debate about the empire, or commemorate an anniversary, and then things move on.

Yet as with the sea, there’s always a huge expanse of water that we could dip into much more deeply if we wished. And the national culture of at least some countries does venture out deeper than we generally choose to go. In the US, the issue of race and the history of enslavement, a practice that still took place a century and a half ago, are closely linked and hard to escape in public life. In China, much of the country’s national identity is tied up in the idea of a century of ‘National Humiliation,’ referring to the idea that a succession of foreign countries had been invading China ever since the Opium Wars of the 1830, thereby staining the nation with a shameful past – before the Second World War, China even had a national day commemorating this state of affairs.

For historians, though, it’s not just the histories of the individual countries that matter, although that is, of course, often fascinating and important. We see modern history more as trying to understand how a whole variety of processes have come together over the past few centuries to create a present we often don’t think about as more than a few years or decades old. For a long time, in the western world, we assumed that ‘modern’ history was our history. In this version of events, in the 16th to 18th centuries, Catholics and Protestants fought each other and developed a scientific and industrial revolution along the way; in the 19th century the west then hoovered up large parts of the rest of the world and in the 20th it gave it back, fighting two global wars along the way.

Of course, that version of modern history is a caricature, although it has more than a bit of truth to it. But historians have come to realise more clearly in recent years that this was never just a story about the western world. It’s probably not a coincidence that the shift in understanding has happened at the same time that economic and military power are shifting from west to east – China and Japan are the second and third biggest economies in the world. We have also come to realise that many of the things we associate with the ‘modern’ world – for instance, sophisticated trading links across the seas – were happening in large parts of Asia long before the Europeans had colonised the region. West Africa had sophisticated and rich kingdoms, such as Kongo, that sent diplomatic missions to Brazil in the 17th century, long before Europeans controlled the region.

A View of the Wharves in Yokohama, 1861, Yoshitora. Photo by Heritage Images / Getty.jpg
A View of the Wharves in Yokohama, 2nd month, 1861. Artist Utagawa Yoshitora. Photo by Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images

In our own era, modern history has become a story about how the world came to be the way that it is now, where the views of the west are no longer the only dominant ones. Of course, the story of an industrial revolution that arose in Europe has to be one key part of the story of modernity. But the history of the 19th century, when that dynamic reached its apex, can no longer be treated simply as a proxy for the whole modern period. Today, for instance, as we see Asia rise, with China, India and Indonesia set to become huge powers alongside the existing economic might of Japan, a country which in many areas from culture to technology has epitomised modernity for decades, we can look back at the longer history of our ‘modern’ period and realise that we have to rethink its basic premises. That is what modern history does – it enables us to understand the past few centuries while understanding ourselves in the west not as external, somehow objective, unconnected readers of that history, but as products of the processes that have made the modern world.

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at St Cross College, University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015 and is our Vice-President-elect (Communications). His most recent book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism, was published in 2020.


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