Rebecca E. Karl is Associate Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of
The Economic and the State: The Asiatic Mode of Production
This essay reexamines the hoary old conceit of the Asiatic mode of production (AMP) in its initial posing in Chinese historiography in the 1930s and in its reemergence in the 1990s. The intranational comparative allows for an analysis of the AMP not only as a form of global economic history but also as a form of cultural condemnation and contemporary desire. In the latter form, its contemporary linkage to the centrality of the state permits the AMP to return in the 1990s as a positive marker of Chinese state-cultural continuity rather than a negative marker of Chinese economic stagnation. Taking up the AMP in its earliest Marxist systematicity, and then in its 1930s and 1990s historiographical incarnations, this chapter interrogates the gaps between universal economic concepts and locally lived histories and the ways in which those gaps are bridged in today’s culturalist discourse.