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Review: "History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth"

Updated on April 11, 2017
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Larry Slawson is a graduate student who specializes in the field of Russian and Ukrainian history.

History in Three Keys
History in Three Keys | Source


Throughout Paul Cohen’s book, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, the author provides a detailed analysis of the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900. Rather than simply providing a general overview of the Boxer event, however, Cohen’s main arguments tend to focus on how historians view and examine events of the historical past. Cohen makes the argument that historians have the difficult task of examining the past through a “retrospective” lens (Cohen, p. 8). This is problematic, he contends, since history often gets distorted in ways that are contrary to what actually transpired. Whereas individuals tend to favor simplified explanations of history for the sake of clarity, Cohen argues that over-simplification often ignores many of the complex issues surrounding an event (Cohen, p. 5). Specifically, Cohen argues that a historian’s view of the past often contrasts sharply with the memory and actual experience of those who participated in the event. To further complicate matters for historians, discovering the truth behind an event such as the Boxer rebellion is made even more difficult since time has the tendency to alter the memory and prior perspectives of individuals as well. This, in turn, makes it quite difficult for historians to reconstruct memoirs and recollections by individuals in a manner that reflects reality. Because history is often distorted by the victor, and because the loser often generates interpretations of the past that help legitimize their own position, Cohen argues that such renditions also create an artificial construction of the past that belies the ultimate truth. Countering these problems, in turn, is one of the most difficult things a historian can do in their research and analysis.

Is it possible for historians to construct a rendition of the past that is free of bias and prejudice?

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Cohen's Main Points

Much of what Cohen argues throughout his book is quite convincing. As he clearly demonstrates, every event has at least two sides to its story, and the Boxer rebellion is no exception to this rule. However, uncovering these multidimensional aspects of the past is not difficult, he argues, as long as one is willing to dig deep enough to find it. So what can a historian do in order to arrive at a higher truth of events, such as the Boxer rebellion? Cohen argues that while it is nearly impossible for a historian to ever construct a complete and total rendition of the past that encompasses all of its complexities, he proposes that a higher level of understanding about past events can be constructed if a historian takes into account multiple perspectives in their overall research. A detailed survey of an event coupled with a broad examination of the experiences of all participants involved, he asserts, can help alleviate problems in reconstructing an over-simplified interpretation of the past. This is largely the stance taken by Cohen in his approach to the Boxers. Not only does Cohen provide an analysis of their movement through the eyes of the foreign relief force, but he also examines the uprising through the eyes of civilians as well as the Boxers themselves in order to provide a thorough portrait that encompasses each of the sides present.

By further incorporating the mythologized legacy of an event in the years and decades following its occurrence, Cohen also argues that deep-rooted biases are often exposed in a manner that can help shed light on the mindset and motivations of individuals that participated in events, as well as provide a higher level of truth to historical moments in time. Because the Boxer Rebellion was a highly complex movement that encompassed people of multiple backgrounds (social, ethnic, and religious primarily), the type of analysis proposed by Cohen is crucial for both professional and amateur historians to understand if they wish to avoid the pitfalls of over-simplification.

Personal Thoughts

In closing, Cohen's book is both well-written and compelling with its main points. His heavy reliance on primary sources and ability to construct a story-driven account of the Boxer Rebellion (all while using the event as a resource for historical-training) is both impressive and intriguing.

Overall, I give this book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to both professional and amateur historians. Not only does this book shed light on a key event in Chinese history, but it also provides a crucial framework for scholars that should always be followed when conducting academic research. Definitely check it out!

Questions for Discussion

1.) What was Cohen's main thesis? Did you find his argument(s) compelling? Why or why not?

2.) What was Cohen's objective in writing this book?

3.) What sort of primary source materials does Cohen rely on?

4.) Did you find this work to be engaging? Why or why not?

5.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? In what ways could Cohen have improved this book?

6.) What did you learn from the contents of this work? Was there anything that surprised you?

7.) Who was the intended audience for this work? Can both scholars and the general public benefit from Cohen's work?

Works Cited

Cohen, Paul. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.


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