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Chinese historiography

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

History of Chinese Historians

Record of Chinese history dated back to the Shang Dynasty. The Classic of History, one of the Five Classics of Chinese classic texts is one of the earliest narratives of China. The Spring and Autumn Annals, the official chronicle of the State of Lu covering the period from 722 BCE to 481 BCE, is among the earliest surviving Chinese historical texts to be arranged on annalistic principles. It is believed to be compiled by Confucius.

Zhan Guo Ce was a renowned ancient Chinese historical work and compilation of sporadic materials on the Warring States Period compiled between 3rd century to 1st century BCE. Its author is unknown.

The first systematic Chinese historical text, Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian, was written by Sima Qian. The book covers the period from the time of the Yellow Emperor until the author's own time. Due to his highly praised work, Sima Qian is often regarded as the father of Chinese historiography.

Records of the Grand Historian is the first among Twenty-Four Histories, a collection of Chinese historical books covering a period of history from 3000 BC to the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.

Shitong is the first Chinese work about historiography compiled by Liu Zhiji between 708 and 710. The book describes the general pattern of the past official dynastic historiography on structure, method, order of arrangement, sequence, caption and commentary back to the pre-Qin era.

Zizhi Tongjian, literally "Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government", was a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography. Emperor Yingzong of Song ordered Sima Guang and other scholars to begin compiling this universal history of China in 1065 and they presented it to his successor Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1084. It contains 294 volumes and about 3 million words (or Chinese characters). The book chronologically narrates the history of China from the Warring States period in 403 BCE to the beginning of the Song Dynasty in 959 CE.

Zizhi Tongjian changed a tradition dating back almost 1,000 years to the Shiji; standard Chinese dynastic histories (collectively the Twenty-Four Histories) primarily divided chapters between annals (紀) of rulers and biographies (傳) of officials. In Chinese terms, the book changed the format of histories from biographical style (紀傳體) to chronological style (編年體), which is better suited for analysis and criticism.

As a tradition, rulers initiating new dynasties would order the scholars of the previous dynasty to compile its final history.

Narratives and Interpretations of Chinese history

Dynastic Cycle

China's traditionalist view of history 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. Over time, the dynasty becomes morally corrupt and dissolute. The immorality of the dynasty is reflected in natural disasters, rebellions, and foreign invasions. Eventually, the dynasty becomes so weak as to allow its replacement by a new dynasty. This theory became popular during the Zhou dynasty. It is not entirely cyclical because it claims the golden age has passed and history is gradually descending towards decadence.

This theory also claims there can be only one rightful sovereign ruling all under heaven at a time but throughout Chinese history there have been many contentious and long periods of disunity where the question of legitimacy is moot. Another problem arises if the dynasty falls even if it was virtuous. The last ruler of a dynasty is always castigated as evil even if that was not the case. The greatest weakness was the end of the cycle itself with the birth of the Republic of China. Notions of the Mandate of Heaven and divine monarchy were discarded, as shown in two unpopular and failed attempts to restore the imperial system by Yuan Shikai and Zhang Xun.

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 - Xia to Shang
  • feudal society - decentralized feudalism - Zhou to Sui
  • feudal society - bureaucratic feudalism - Tang to Opium War
  • feudal society - semicolonial 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 than 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.

There are several problems associated with Marxist interpretation. First, slavery existed throughout China's history and has never been the primary mode of production. While the Zhou can be labelled as feudal, others were centralized states. To account for the discrepancy, Chinese Marxists invented the term "bureaucratic feudalism", which is an oxymoron. The placement of the Tang as the beginning of the bureaucratic phase rests largely on the imperial examination system which finally overcame the nine-rank system; prior to this both systems were in use. Some World-systems analysts contend capitalism first arose in Song dynasty China by following Kondratiev waves to their source.

Three Stages of Revolution

The Kuomintang issued their own theory of political stages based on Sun Yatsen's proposal though it is limited only to recent history.

The most obvious criticism is the near identical nature of "political tutelage" and "constitutional democracy" which consisted of one party rule until the 1990s. Chen Shui-bian proposed his own Four-Stage Theory of the Republic of China.

Ethnic Inclusiveness

Also sponsored by the PRC is the view that Chinese history should include all of China's ethnic groups past and present (Zhonghua Minzu), not just the history of the Han Chinese. China (including its internal vassals/tributaries) is viewed as a coherent state formed since time immemorial and exists as one legal entity even in periods of political disunity.

The benefit of this theory is to show the contributions of non-Han to Chinese history. It allows once "foreign" dynasties like the Mongol Yuan and the Manchu Qing as well as the Khitan Liao, Jurchen Jin to be appreciated as part of the Chinese tapestry, allegedly helping reduce the alienation of ethnic minorities living in China. This theory also avoids "Han centered" analyses. For example, it denies Yue Fei, a "Han Chinese" who fought for China against the Jurchens, a place as a "hero of China".

But the theory has led to criticism and international disputes. It has been identified as a smokescreen for China's hold on Tibet and Xinjiang. China's claims on Taiwan are also criticized by those who think, ideologically, that the PRC does not have legitimate claims on these territories. Mongolia and Vietnam have concerns that it will be used against them in future since they could be labeled "Chinese" under the theory. Korean historians dispute the labeling of ethnic Korean archeological sites in China as Chinese. The theory has also been accused of giving rise to controversial characterizations such as the identification of Genghis Khan as "Chinese", while there exists a modern Mongolian nation-state. Apologists for the "ethnical inclusiveness" theory cite the fact that there are more ethnic Mongols living in the Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia than the nation-state of Mongolia to assert that China actually has a stronger claim to the Mongolian heritage than Mongolia does.

The Chinese tradition since the Jin Dynasty (3rd century AD) that emperors of one dynasty would sponsor the writing of the official history of the immediately preceding dynasty has been cited in favor of an ethnically inclusive interpretation of history. The compilation of official histories usually involved monumental intellectual labor. The Yuan and Qing Dynasties, which might be thought "foreign" as their imperial families were not of the Han people, faithfully carried out the tradition, writing the official histories of Han-ruled Song and Ming Dynasties respectively. Had the two "non-Han" imperial families not thought themselves as continuing the "Mandate of Heaven" of the Middle Kingdom -- the cosmological center of their known world -- it would be hard to explain why they retained the costly tradition. Thus, every non-Han dynasty saw itself as the legitimate holder of the "Mandate of Heaven", which legitimized the dynastic cycle regardless of social or ethnic background as it was moral integrity and benevolent leadership that had been validating the "Mandate of Heaven." By assuming the mantle of the legitimate dynasty, the ethnic groups that established such non-Han dynasties are thus regarded as having forfeited their right to remain ethnically distinct from China.

The ethnic inclusiveness theory is not limited to the PRC alone. The Tongmenghui initially regarded the Manchus as non-Chinese occupiers. They quickly realized that ethnic inclusiveness was needed if the new republic was to maintain control over the territories bequeathed by the Qing dynasty. "Han independence" was therefore scrapped in favor of the Five Races Under One Union principle, which later developed into the theory of Zhonghua minzu. The Republic of China regime on Taiwan continues to claim a much larger territory encompassing Mongolia and Tannu Uriankhai.

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 (see Orientalism). 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 Fairbank 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."

Hydraulic Theory

Derived from Marx and Max Weber, Karl August Wittfogel argued that bureaucracy arose to manage irrigation systems. Despotism was needed to force the people into building canals, dikes, and waterways to increase agriculture. Yu the Great, one of China's legendary founders, is mostly known for his control of the flood. The hydraulic empire produces wealth from its stability and while dynasties may change, the structure remains intact until destroyed by modern powers.

Critics of Wittfogel's oriental despotism theory point out that water management was not a high priority when compared to taxes, rituals, and fighting off bandits. The theory also has a strong orientalist bent which regards all Asian states as generally the same.

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 indigenous sources such as the notion of "shijie datong" 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 driving force behind China's quest for modernity, 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 indigenous 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 life 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 in 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-merchant statements in the mid-Qing dynasty should be taken as evidence of a substantial erosion in 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 processed, 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, how-to books, and children's books, which are in the process of being analyzed for clues as to how the average Chinese (if there was such as thing) lived.

See also

Periodization

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