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Writing Chinese History

Writing Chinese History

Hao Chen

As historians, we are always terrified to be labeled as “backward-looking nostalgic” who have no clue about what happens in modern society. We are obsessed with the past, but at the same time we are afraid to indulge in the past. We use the idea of “presentism” to legitimize our profession and proclaim that we understand how contemporary issues are informed by the past.

In his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, John Gaddis writes, “we advance bravely into the future with our eyes fixed firmly on the past: the image we present to the world is, to put it bluntly, that of a rear end.” As historians, we look back to think forward. Interestingly, “think forward” here may not refer to predictions of future but the critical evaluation of our present society, which has an impact on the future. I agree with this purpose and I believe the idea of “look back, think forward” also applies to historians in China. This interpretive blog post will analyze the purposes of historical study from the Chinese perspective from three different angles: relations between individual and spiritual order, continuity and transition in history, and historical specialty and cultural nationalism. I will also make comparisons between Chinese and western historians to reflect the methodological training I have received so far. Lastly, I will comment on some current problems of the study of history in China.

Man and Heaven

In the Chinese tradition, scholars believe history is the best way to understand the relations between “man” and “heaven”. “Man” refers to individual human beings, while “heaven” is the vertical spiritual order from the universe to the natural and human components of the world. “Man” and “heaven” mutually integrate with and generate each other. Chinese historians pursue the in-depth coherence between “man” and “heaven” as the highest level of humanity.

History itself is the bridge to achieve this coherence. History instructs us to observe, investigate and evaluate human development in the past, particularly, the complexity and diversity of human behavior. To Chinese historians, history is shaped by both human beings themselves and their relations to the “heaven”, the spiritual order. Historical study helps the Chinese (academics and public) to comprehend the human nature as a whole first, and then inquire about the implication of man-heaven relations underpinning this nature: How can man-heaven relations be realized through historical transition? Is there any guidance for us to look into man-heaven relations in the future? Furthermore, historical study inspires the Chinese to critically re-evaluate their roles within the man-heaven relations. Hence, they can use these relations to achieve greater universal peace.

Chinese historians have more teleological concerns in historical study than their Western colleagues from North America and Europe. History becomes the vehicle by which they approach metaphysical concepts. Furthermore, Chinese historians integrate the human and natural components of the world when they write history, while Western historians sometimes split them apart. Western historians prefer to concentrate on the human component by sometimes narrowly defining “history” as the study of human activities in the past.

Environmental historians research the human involvement in the natural world but they do not illustrate the relations between human and natural components on earth in the same way the Chinese do – to achieve spiritual harmony between “man” and “heaven”. In contrast, history is a mirror for Chinese historians to reflect the man-heaven relations, which can therefore be better sustained. Even though modern Chinese historians have been profoundly changed by western ideas, many of these historians, especially for those who have dedicated their careers to pre-modern cultural and social histories, continue to understand history under the context of man-heaven relations.

Continuity and Transition

Chinese historians believe that history demonstrates the continuity of human nature which allows them to comprehend the dynamics of life. We, human beings, project the dynamics of life to ourselves through historical study, a process which fundamentally differentiates us from animals. The dynamics of life are embedded in and represented by the continuity of human nature across time and space, which Chinese historians believe they can extract from historical study. The past without present is not the real past. The present without past is not the real present. Continuity makes the interactions between past and present reliable and authentic because it demonstrates the fundamental consistencies in human nature.

Historical transitions also fascinates Chinese historians because they believe that these moments define the fundamental nature of history. History is derived from apparent and subtle changes. No matter how much the past is comparable to the present, the past is still the past because our society varies across time. Although there are continuities, the study of transformations tells us why history will become history. Therefore, Chinese historians separate historical periods according to their conceptualization of grand transitions. For example, they divide Chinese history into different dynasties not because of a scholarly obsession with the highest form of power, the emperor and royal family, but because they believe that the fall of an old dynasty and the rise of replacement results in dramatic political, economic and social turbulence inside the Empire. Hence, according to historian Ch’ien Mu in his definitive account Chinese Historical Methods, dynastic substitution becomes a symbol of transition, the pivot on which history turns.

Compared to its Western counterpart, Chinese historians perceive continuity and transition as mutually inclusive in history. They complete each other, and human lives revolve around the spirit of eternity that is born of both continuity and transition. Historical study inspires Chinese historians to obtain spiritual power to pursue, reach, and promote that eternity.

Historical Specialty and Cultural Nationalism

Like their western counterparts, Chinese historians focus on various areas of specialization rather than universal history. They mostly devote themselves to limited, non-universal generalization. As John Gaddis indicates in his book, historians “generalize for particular purpose, hence practice particular generalization.” Historians do not declare that their interpretation of a single case has worldwide applicability. Historians do examine possible explanations of historical trends, but unlike social scientists, they never create simplified models to predict future outcomes. The preference for particularity is commonly shared by both Chinese and Western historians. For Chinese historians, they investigate the particulars of history mostly through in-depth investigation of continuity and transformation.

However, Chinese historians are sometimes overly focused into on historical particulars, especially national history. They instrumentally connect this area of specialization to Chinese national uniqueness. For example, they always prefer to ask: what does it mean to be “Chinese”? How is “Chinese history” different from “Others’ histories”? The consciousness of cultural nationalism strongly motivates the Chinese historians to seek answers that legitimize the national experience.

I will not divide this cultural nationalism into Benedict Anderson’s categories of “official nationalism” and “colonial nationalism,” in his landmark monograph Imagined Community, which is the outward-looking sentiment against the foreign influence. The cultural nationalism behind inward-looking Chinese historical specializations is in fact a response to the domestic crisis caused by the New Cultural Movement and the Cultural Revolution in twentieth-century China. During the first half of that century, Chinese intellectuals and politicians lost confidence in their scholarly traditions and proposed to eliminate them all to “revive” China. Both the New Cultural Movement and the Cultural Revolution sought to wipe out Chinese classics from late imperial period.

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They believed these traditions to be historical burdens that brought instability and turbulence to China, a belief that almost created cultural factions and even social crisis. After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese historians looked back and began to fear that the entire nation would lose its intellectual legitimacy. To rebuild and recover from their professional insecurity under the narrative of cultural nationalism, Chinese historians turned inward, leading to an inordinate concentration on historical specialization when compared to other countries.

Chinese Historians: What Are The Problems Now?

Despite the fact that Chinese historians had come up with their own ways to perceive historical study, they still face several problems that, in my opinion, obstruct the development of Chinese historiography and have serious cultural and social implications. First, the traditional historical spirit is declining. Fewer Chinese history professors and students combine historical study with the pursuit of the dynamics of life. They are overly concerned with academic jargon, forgetting that the purpose of historical study in the Chinese tradition goes far beyond scholarly arguments. It is about the genuine cultivation of the whole person rather than the soulless production of academic machines. Some of them are even losing touch with the concepts of historical continuity and transformation, the foundations of the Chinese historical discipline.

Secondly, few modern Chinese historians consider man-heaven relations and their relevance to historical study and the modern world. “Man-heaven” relations should be the guiding philosophical principle that directs people to regenerate the mutual connection between the human and the natural components of the world. It provides a vision of how humankind is capable of achieving ecological equilibrium and societal harmony. This philosophy provides solutions not only to the global environmental crisis but also to social inequality and cultural prejudice. Chinese scholars should use their unique historical understanding to support general humanity in the world instead of abandoning of the concept of man-heaven relations even within their own national boundaries.

Thirdly, cultural nationalism determines the research focuses of most modern Chinese historians. Many of them look at history from a strong Sino-centric point of view and impose a patriotic narrative on their books and articles. Their knowledge and interests are geographically constrained within East Asia, giving them little motivation to extend their expertise to other areas of history, from North American and European to Middle Eastern and African histories. This concentration on national history exists not only in the discipline of history but in the overall system of education in the humanities.

Concluding thoughts

Although Chinese historians have developed more teleological and utilitarian views about historical study, they can still reach a fundamental consensus with western historians on the general purpose of doing history: look back, think forward. Based on this common ground, Chinese and Western historians are able to learn from each other’s approaches. In fact, the discipline of history itself has been transformed by historiographical interchanges between different cultural systems since the end of the Cold War in 1989.

Historians from different cultures are now keener to research cross-cultural contacts in a global context. For example, Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu and Frances Wood’s Did Marco Polo Go to China initiate constructive inter-civilizational dialogues, and have transformed the entire discipline. Historians have also recently adopted a multidisciplinary framework to fill the gaps between history and other subjects. As Jared Diamond did in his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Society, historians can draw on pale-biology, archaeology, climatology, and even geography to get a better sense of the past. Chinese historians should catch up with these ongoing scholarly developments and dedicate themselves to enriching both national and non-national historiographies.

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