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Chinese historiography

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Chinese historiography refers to the study of methods and assumptions made in studying Chinese history.

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Narratives and Interpretations of Chinese history

Dynastic Cycle

View of history that sees the rise and fall of dynasties as passing the mandate of heaven. In this view, a new dynasty is founded by a moral uprighteous founder. The dynasty then established itself. Over time, the dynasty becomes morally corrupt and dissolute. The immorality of the dynasty is reflected in natural disasters and foreign invasions. Eventually, the dynasty becomes so weak as to allow its replacement by a new dynasty.

Marxist Interpretations of Chinese history

Most Chinese history that is published in the People's Republic of China is based on a Marxist interpretation of history. The Marxist view of history is that history is governed by universal laws and that according to these laws, a society moves through a series of stages with the transition between stages being driven by class struggle. These stages are

  • slave society
  • feudal society
  • capitalist society
  • socialist society
  • world communist society

The official historical view within the People's Republic of China associates each of these stages with a particular era in Chinese history as well as making some subdivisions.

  • slave society - Shang dynasty
  • feudal society - decentralized feudalism - Chou to Sui
  • feudal society - bureaucratic authoritarian feudalism - Tang to Opium War
  • feudal society - semi colonial era - Opium War to end of Qing dynasty
  • capitalist society - Republican era
  • socialist society - PRC 1949 to ?
  • socialist society - primary stage of socialism - 1978 to 2050 (?)
  • world communist society - ?

Because of the strength of the Communist Party of China and the importance of the Marxist interpretation of history in legitimizing its rule, it is difficult for historians within the PRC to actively argue in favor of non-Marxist and anti-Marxist interpretations of history. However, this political restriction is less confining as it may first appear in that the Marxist historical framework is surprisingly flexible, and a rather simple matter to modify an alternative historical theory to use language that at least does not challenge the Marxist interpretation of history.

Anti-Imperialist Narratives

Closely related are anti-imperialist narratives. While some anti-imperialist narratives notably those of historians within the People's Republic of China as well as Western Marxist histories incorporate anti-imperialist narratives in their histories, many anti-imperialist narratives are non-Marxist or as in the case of the Kuomintang in the 1960s, actively anti-Marxist.

Modernist Interpretations of Chinese history

This view of Chinese history sees Chinese society in the 20th century as a traditional society seeking to become modern, usually with the implicit assumption that Western society is the definition of modern society.

This view of Chinese history has its roots with British views of the orient of the early 19th century. In this viewpoint, the societies of India, China, and the Middle East were societies with glorious pasts but that they have become trapped in a static past. This view provided an implicit justification of British colonialism with Britain assuming the "white man's burden" of breaking these societies from their static past and bringing them into the modern world.

By the mid 20th century, it was increasingly clear to historians that the notion of "changeless China" was untenable. A new concept, popularized by John Fairbanks was the notion of "change within tradition" which argued that although China did change in the pre-modern period but that this change existed within certain cultural traditions.

There are a number of criticisms of the modernist critique. One centers on the definition of "traditional society." The criticism is that the idea of "traditional society" is simply a catch all term for early non-Western society and implies that all such societies are similar. To use an analogy, one could classify all animals into "fish" and "non-fish" but that classification would be hardly useful, and would imply that spiders are similar to mountain goats.

The notion of "change within tradition" also been subject to criticism. The criticism is that the statement that "China has not changed fundamentally" is tautological, that one looks for things that have not changed and then define those as fundamental. The trouble with doing this is that when one can do this with anything that has lasted for an extended period of time resulting in absurd statements such as "England has not changed fundamentally in the past thousand years because the institution of the monarchy has existed for this long."

Convergence Theory

Convergence theory is a broad term which includes a viewpoint popular among non-Marxist Chinese intellectuals of the mid 20th century. This includes Hu Shih and Ray Huang[?]'s involution theory. This view was that the past 150 years was a period in which Chinese and Western civilization were in the process of convergence into a world civilization.

This view is heavily influenced by modernization theory, but is also strongly influenced by indigineous sources such as the notion of "shih-jie da-tong" or the Great Unity. It has tended to be less popular among more recent historians. Among Western historians, it conflicts with the postmodern impulse which is skeptical of great narratives. Among Chinese historians, convergence theory is in conflict with Chinese nationalism which includes a strong element of China as being unique.

European conflict interpretations of Chinese history

European conflict interpretations focus on interaction with Europe as the driving force behind recent Chinese history. There are two variants, one focuses on Europe as the driven force behind China's quest to modern, the other focuses on the effects of European colonialism.

One criticism of this view is that it ignores historical forces that do not involve Europe, such as indigineous economic forces. One example of a blind spot which is provided by this viewpoint is the influence of central Asian policies on interactions with Europe in the Qing dynasty.

Post-modern interpretations of Chinese history

Post-modern interpretations of Chinese history tend to reject the grand narratives of other interpretations of history. Instead of seeking a grand pattern of history, post-modern interpretations tend to focus on a small subset of Chinese history.

In attention rather than focusing on the political elites of China, post-modern historians look also at the daily lives of ordinary people.

Issues in the study of Chinese history

Recent trends in Chinese historical scholarship

The late 20th century and early 21st century has seen a large amount of studies of Chinese history, quite a bit of it revisionist in that it seeks to challenge traditional paradigms. The field is rapidly evolving with much new scholarship. Much of this new scholarship comes from the realization that there is much about Chinese history that is unknown or controversial. To give one such controversy, it is an active topic of discussion whether the typical Chinese peasant in 1900 was seeing his live improve or decline. In addition to the realization that there are major gaps in our knowledge of Chinese history is the equal realization that there are tremendous amounts of primary source material that has not yet been analyzed.

Recent Western scholarship of China has been heavily influenced by postmodernism.

For example, current scholars of China tend to question the question, and look heavily at the assumptions within a question before attempting to answer it. For example, one begins to answer the question "Why did China not develop modern science and capitalism?" by asking the question "Why are we assuming that what China did develop was not modern science and capitalism?" This then brings up the question of what are the essential characteristics of modern science and capitalism, and whether it makes any sense at all to apply European concepts to Chinese history.

One example of the fruitfulness of questioning assumption comes from questioning the assumption that "China was weak in the 19th century" and pointing out the fact that at the time in which China was supposedly weak, it managed to extend its borders to record sizes and Central Asia. This in turn has caused scholars to be more interested in Chinese policies and actions in Central Asia and has led to the realization that Central Asia affected Chinese policies toward Europe in a deep way.

Another trend in Western scholarship of China has been to move away from "grand theories" of history toward understanding of a narrow part of China. A survey of papers on Chinese history in the early 21st century would reveal relatively little attempt to fit Chinese history into a master paradigm of history as was common in the 1950s. Instead, early 21st century papers on Chinese history tend to be empirical studies of a small part of China which aim to reach a deep understanding of the social, political, or economic dynamics of a small region such as a province or a village with little effort made to create a master narrative which would be generalizable to all of China.

Also, such current scholars attempt to assess source material more critically. For example, for a long period it was assumed that Imperial China had no system of civil law because the law codes did not have explicit provisions for civil lawsuits. However, more recent studies which use the records of civil magistrates suggest that China did in fact have a very well developed system of civil law in which provisions of the criminal code were interpreted to allow civil causes of action. Another example of the more critical view taken toward source material has been anti-merchant statements made by intellectuals in the mid-Qing dynasty. Traditionally these have been interpreted as examples of government hostility toward commerce, but more result studies which use source material such as magistrate diaries and genealogical records, suggest that merchants in fact had a powerful impact on government policies and that the division between the world of the merchant and the world of the official was far more porous than traditionally believed. In fact there is a growing consensus that anti-merchants statements in the mid-Qing dynasty should be taken as evidence of a substantial erosion in the the power and freedom of action of officials.

Finally, current scholars have taken an increasing interest in the lives of common people and to tap documentary and historical evidence that was previously not analyzed. Examples of these records include a large mass of governmental and family archives which have not yet been processes, economic records such as census records, price records, land surveys, and tax records. In addition there are large numbers of cultural artifacts such as vernacular novels, howto books, children's books, which are in the process of being analyzed for clues as to who the average Chinese (if there was such as thing) lived.


Early Imperial China[?]
Mid-Imperial China[?]
Late Imperial China

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