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“History in Three Keys” by Paul Cohen Report (Assessment)


What are the author’s stated goals? What are the events and issues explored? What is the explicit or implicit thesis pursued?

Paul Cohen sought to explore how history is written with the aim of influencing the republic of learning to adopt his philosophy. This is achieved by exploring what he terms as the “Boxers Uprising” in China. To support his thesis, he illustrates to the reader how the events affected those involved and how history has been written to have an impact on others who were not directly involved in the incidents. How history is written depends on the position of the historian. Cohen stated, “When good historians write history, their primary objective is to construct based on the evidence available, as accurate and truthful an understanding of the past as possible. That is, Mythologizers in a sense do the reverse” (Cohen 213).

He explores a wide range of issues and events. He comprehensively addresses the Boxer Uprising in China. However, the author is not fundamentally interested in what transpired but is exploring the ways that history is written. In this regard, the way history is written is his primary concern and makes it an issue in the book. To address the issue, he reflects on the events and incidents in the past to illustrate his point. He pursues the thesis that history can only be written in three diverse and unique forms. He states that there are three types of historical awareness. These include history as an incident. He asserts that proficient historians write this type of account. The second is history as experienced. In this, he asserts that individuals who witnessed or were alive during the incident write this type of account. The individuals may have been involved in the incident. The third is history as a fable. Cohen claimed that this involves the manipulation of the past to meet modern needs.

What method does the author employ, narrative, analytical, quantitative, interdisciplinary, etc.?

Cohen uses reflective narration in narrating the history of the Boxers. The author does not use the Boxers as if they were captured in a still-life position or entirety. He dramatizes the Boxers and places them in historical context. He employs the interdisciplinary approach as he explores history through interpretive insights. He focuses on psychology, anthropology, political science, and sociology. The author even ventures into theater, movie and literature (Cohen 214).

What are the sources used? (Governmental, interviews, field study, journalistic, statistical, other.) Does the author rely heavily on a particular source? (Look at the footnotes not simply the bibliography!)

In order to develop the narration in his book about the Boxers Uprising, Cohen intensively borrows from secondary sources. These include books, journal articles, and published media. Cohen did not personally experience the event. He had to rely on other sources that created the mental image of the event. The author relies heavily on government sources. This is founded on the fact that government documents are archived and passed on from one administration to another.

How is work structured? What are the central themes? Is the argument presented coherently and cogently?

Cohen has been a renowned historian and author globally. In this particular work, he demonstrates his effort to remain sympathetic to all the diverse perspectives of the Boxer Uprising he recognizes. He structures the book into three parts. The first is the ‘event’ as developed by the historian. This part is the shortest and presents a descriptive account of the Boxer movement as it unfurled from fiscal 1898 to 1900. This part is largely based on secondary works. It presents the reader with the account as developed by historians.

The second part is ‘experienced.’ It is dedicated to the scope allowed by the sources to present the reader with the incident as ‘experienced’ by those involved, including both Chinese and foreigners. This part is divided into several chapters. These chapters range from the historical situation of the incident, the religious practices including spirit control, the supernatural and feminine pollution. It also gives an account of the encountering of death and the role played by hearsay in the faction. The driving force on this part is to demonstrate that those involved in the incident, including the Boxers and Christians, existed in a location of spiritual consciousness. Their world differed radically from the prospective worlds of the historians and fable-makers who construed it anachronistically. The language they use in social art while politics were often foreign compared to that used by the subjects of the narration.

The third part explores the mythologizing of the incident. This started happening before the conclusion of the incident and persisted to date. The author’s emphasis is primarily on the shifting depictions of the Boxers according to the unfurling courses of the 20th-century Chinese revolution. These courses are from the New Culture Movement, which views in the Boxers irrational racial intolerance and response to modernity, separatists who recognized the Boxers with their reason and Communists who viewed the Boxers as representing a vital occurrence of the accepted resistance against colonialism and feudalism. This part ends with transformations observed in the 1980s when Chinese raconteurs turned once more to additional complex investigation of the faction. However, the mythologizing of the Boxers has not terminated.

The chronology of events, as well as how history has been depicted is elaborate in the book. Cohen coherently accounts for how changes in writing history have influenced modern society in a systematically thought out argument. He convincingly explores the different perceptions of the incident by different players at different times. He states that any matter that provokes supplementary remark has to do with the proportional legitimacy of the incident, experience, and fable as a means of understanding the past. Cohen’s approaches to the issue hold a concrete type of authority within its sphere. He convincingly argues about historians’ modernization at the ending of the book to defend the input from the comprehension of the ‘narrator’s outsideness’ to the incident and history.

What is the philosophical grounding of the work? What does the author present as the situational forces that shape the historical events the author describes? What are the underlying structural forces that channel the flow of historical events?

The work by Cohen is founded on the argument that historians are responsible for altering historical events. Cohen presents three situational forces that mold the historical events, particularly about the Boxers Uprising. The author repeatedly reminds the reader about the restricted and incomplete circumstances though which agents acted in history. He also underscores the contribution of the historians in reconstructing history through the arrangement and interpretation of the events.

The other force that the author denotes is the mythologizing of historical incidents. He observes this as a source of pressure that makes historians to raid the past for means in tackling the challenges of the present. He observes that the actual events may not have been recorded as they happened. He sees the hands of historians in shaping the events that took place during the Boxers Uprising. Each of the historians had an individual view of what they wanted to fit in their chronology of events. The mythologizing of the events that occurred even before the events were the concluded means while the historians had their perspective regarding what was happening. In this regard, Cohen sees those mythologizing the events as having shaped the history of the event.

Cohen also sees the hand of historians who experienced the event as having shaped the events. The event involved the Chinese, Christians, and foreigners. Each of these groups had their version of the events. For the Boxers historians, the events that took place were justified as Chinese were seeking to liberate themselves from the chains of colonialism. From a Chinese historian’s perspective, the Christians were the primary cause of the event. Both the Chinese and Christians were spiritually conscious.

The reconstruction of history is another source of pressure the author views as having shaped the event. Inherently, modern historians depend on texts to write their history of the Boxers Uprising event. The historians have to depend on a variety of sources to develop an authentic history of the event. The constructivist historians must investigate the texts to deduce the truth regarding the event. Unfortunately, historians who had been influenced by the same pressures wrote the texts. This means that the resultant history may be biased. The historical consciousness hence means that being distinguished from diverse comprehension of the past is not easy for modern historians. On the other hand, Cohen does not refute that it is possible to write history as it was during its occurrence. The only challenge he sees is the ability of the historian to analyze different histories to develop a legitimate history of the event, considering that it has already been influenced by a wide array of factors.

How do you rate the author’s presentation and arguments? How do the

values or biases of the author intrude on the work? What are your own opinions? Has the author influenced or changed your views? Is the author a persuasive or engaging writer? What questions does the work raise for future research?

Cohen, as a historian and a writer, has done incredible work in exploring how history is written. There is a flow of ideas, which is particularly facilitated by his approach of dividing how history is written into three classes. The reader can follow the illustrations. The next input appears to be a simple depiction of the ancient times that the historian understands. Concerning this input, Cohen intends to make the ancient times retrievable, given that it truly existed. The third key is where Cohen is declarative, and his presence can be felt. He becomes passionate, as he appears affronted within the Boxer upheaval framework.

Cohen takes the position that mythologized history writing is a potential form of warfare. This implies that he has already formed his own opinion for disliking mythologizing history. His biases emerge in the last part of the book in which he passionately expresses his rejection of the approach. In arguing against mythologizing of history, he states that the approach is a potential recipe for warfare. He holds the perception that mythology does not give the true picture of an event. According to him, it is shrouded in rumor, gossip, and innuendo. In this view, he does not subjectively explore mythology fully, as he is opposed to it from the start.

I am persuaded to agree with Cohen’s approach to how historians should approach issues when writing. Inherently, narrators hardly examine ancient times. Past events only leave the historian with the opportunity to observe the past in a textualized way. For a historian, the past is often another person’s history. A large proportion of creative imagination in narrating true stories is the realization of the audience of the past as it is in written form. In my own opinion, I would suggest that Cohen’s key to the reconstructed past requires to be inclusive of the correlation amid the historians and the audience, the relations between the historian and the texts written in the past as well as the historian and the texts of his creation. Without these relationships, there will be no comprehending or elucidation of the past.

Cohen has influenced my view about writing history, though to a little extent. I agree with his view on how history is written. However, this influence has led to my examination of every writing by Cohen. The author’s charisma was missing in the modernized historical explanation. A question arises from Cohen work whether history should be written in extra keys as opposed to the three keys. That is, could history be written about the reconstructed past, the lived past, mythologized past, strange past and reflective past?

So what? What does this work contribute to the “Republic of Learning”?

Cohen utilizes a case study for his proposition regarding the multi-valence of histories. He calls the phenomenon ‘The Boxers’. He puts the Boxers in terms of events, experience, and myth. He makes it clear to his audience that the Boxers are not necessarily a group of pugilists but as a symbol to other things such as terrorist attacks, revolutions, and proto-revolutions. Cohen seeks conversation with the audience so that they can contribute to his arguments. He is exploring ways in which historians traverse the borders of the histories they seek to examine. He tells the republic of learning that historians can and should be multilingual persons. He suggests to the learning republic that it is possible to use history to talk with people of other languages. The republic of learning should be able to communicate across cultures and generations. In this respect, Asians can talk with the medieval while Americans can converse with Europeans. He illustrates to the Republic of learning that culture and time are not a confining factor to any historian seeking to comprehend and explicate the past.

Works Cited

Cohen, Paul. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, New York, NY: Columbia University press, 2007. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, May 9). "History in Three Keys" by Paul Cohen. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-in-three-keys-by-paul-cohen/

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""History in Three Keys" by Paul Cohen." IvyPanda, 9 May 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/history-in-three-keys-by-paul-cohen/.

1. IvyPanda. ""History in Three Keys" by Paul Cohen." May 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-in-three-keys-by-paul-cohen/.


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IvyPanda. 2020. ""History in Three Keys" by Paul Cohen." May 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/history-in-three-keys-by-paul-cohen/.

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