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West should8k8 jili bear in mind China's uniqueness

孙楠很牛但油 | 8k8 jili | Updated: 2024-06-22 18:41:29

Students from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania in the United States visit the Forbidden City in Beijing on May 17. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, China Daily asked prominent international figures to reflect on their relationship with the country and to talk of the direction in which they see it going.

Although the relations between China and the US are receiving significant attention worldwide, when Kenneth Pomeranz genuinely became interested in China more than 40 years ago, he was actually entering a niche area relatively unexplored compared with the prevailing trends.

With genuine interest, Pomeranz, a history professor at the University of Chicago, has made himself an expert on China. He remains the only two-time winner in the 50-year history of the John K. Fairbank Book Prize — one of the most important honors for a scholar of Asian studies. He also served as president of the American Historical Association in 2013-14.

Pomeranz said the West, while researching China, should bear in mind its uniqueness and let go of stereotypes and prejudices.

The current world has many issues that require cooperation between China and the United States. Adopting an open attitude toward each other, recognizing their differences and engaging in more cultural and academic exchanges are beneficial for both sides, he said.

Pomeranz developed his interest in China as a student at Cornell University in the US state of New York, where he received a bachelor's degree in history in 1980. A course on China prompted his interest in studying comparisons between the societies.

Despite the predominant focus on European history among his peers in the US, China, considered a "niche interest" at the time, was just starting to attract the attention of US researchers since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1979.

He said part of the appeal of China to him was that it was a wide-open field, and the idea of exploring outside the West and trying to think about a huge part of the world that was very different was really important to him.

The less developed scholarly literature on China provided an opportunity for broader thinking. Additionally, China's unique position as both distinct from and resembling the West allowed for fruitful comparative analysis, he said.

"It offered the opportunity to have something that was outside the West but still resembled the West in certain ways. That made it possible for it to be a comparative or partner."

Pomeranz then became a graduate student at Yale University, where he studied under Jonathan Spence, a world-renowned expert on Chinese history. He started to learn Chinese in the summer of 1981 and did three years of Chinese at Yale, a year and a half of classical Chinese and was then able to read a lot of published material.

"There weren't that many people in the United States who were on the ground ahead of me," Pomeranz said. "There were some, of course, but it wasn't like in European history where there was just enormous establishment already in place."

In 1985, Pomeranz embarked on his initial journey to the Chinese mainland primarily for his dissertation research, which focused on a regional examination of the North China Plain, predominantly in the western part of Shandong province, where he spent an entire autumn, with weeks in the countryside. His trip also covered a few days in Shanghai and nearly a month in Beijing, a city he thought was already "globalized" at that time.

"Part of what was interesting then in an early time in Chinese-Western relations was how eager most of the Chinese I met would talk about the outside world," he said.

"There was a sense of openness and change. It was still early in China's reform and opening-up era. Nobody knew exactly where things were going, but there was a general sense of great possibilities."

Looking back, Pomeranz found it striking how open ordinary people were during that period. They were eager to share and listen to stories, reflecting a mutual desire to learn from each other. Despite visible poverty, there was a prevailing sense of optimism and potential, which was truly exciting, he said.

After subsequent visits, he witnessed significant changes in China over the past few decades, particularly in the economic well-being and physical health of its population. This prosperity is coupled with increased connectivity and awareness, both globally and locally, with a notable rise in material wealth and improved environmental quality by some measures.

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