Studying Ancient World History in 20th-c. China

A review of The Making of an Alienated Past: The Study of Ancient World History in Twentieth-Century China, by Xin Fan.

In contemporary China, world history as an academic discipline studies the history of the entire world except, curiously, that of China. This is no mere oversight but a deliberate design at most, if not all, colleges and universities throughout mainland China. This systemic expulsion of the historical entity that is China from world history is seemingly arbitrary, but like all things in the world, it does have a history. The story of how this came to be is the subject of this richly researched dissertation The Making of an Alienated Past: The Study of Ancient World History in Twentieth-Century China by Xin Fan. It tells the story of how history came to be constituted as a professional academic discipline over the course of the long twentieth century in China. As the dissertation amply demonstrates, it was a very contentious process informed by both rich native historiographical traditions and the global circulation of historical practices. As China struggled to transform its late imperial order into a modern nation, the very idea of history became a key discursive site for articulating the relationship between tradition and modernity, competing understanding of the idea of progress, and the proper position of China within the global order past and present. It is true that the “past is never dead,” as William Faulkner once famously said, and in twentieth-century China, the past was more alive than ever; the anxious imagining of a new order for the present has gone hand in hand with a fervent remaking of the distant past.

Xin Fan is not alone in his interest in the writing of history and the making of the historical discipline in twentieth-century China. In just the past few years, we have seen the publication of two edited volumes on this very topic, namely Transforming History: The Making of a Modern Academic Discipline in Twentieth-Century China, co-edited by Brian Moloughney and Peter Zarrow (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2011), and The Challenge of Linear Time: Nationhood and the Politics of History in East Asia, co-edited by Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014). Together, there are close to two dozen essays on various aspects of this subject by scholars in North America, Europe, Australia, Taiwan, and mainland China. It is an increasingly crowded field, to be sure, but nevertheless, this dissertation does stand out for its specific focus and methodology. Instead of tackling the vicissitudes of the entire historical profession, it focuses on just the historians who studied “ancient world history” in the twentieth century (p. 1). That very term itself was subject to numerous debates, but in practice, it generally refers to the history of the world from antiquity to no later than the end of the fifteenth century C.E. (p. 288).

This is the first work in the field to focus on this specific segment of the historical field as it developed over the course of the century. Moreover, methodologically, it is also distinctive for its heavy emphasis on the material contexts behind these historiographical debates. Many works in the field, such as Q. Edward Wang’s Inventing China through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), approach these transformations in the idea of history as fundamentally intellectual events that can and should be understood on conceptual grounds alone. This dissertation, however, argues that we cannot truly appreciate these contentious mobilizations of the human past by Chinese historians apart from their socio-political and institutional conditions. As it will become clear in the following synopsis, this distinct focus and methodology are certainly well justified for the great interpretive dividends which they have yielded.

This century-long narrative on the vicissitudes of “ancient world history” in modern China is related over five chapters, in addition to an Introduction and Conclusion. In the Introduction, the author not only defines the basic topic of the dissertation and elaborates on its historiographical significance but also lays out in great detail his methodological orientation. It begins with an elaboration on the curious “alienation” of China as a historical entity from the study of world history, and on top of that, the decidedly marginal status of the study of world history within the wider historical discipline in contemporary China. To reconstruct the genealogy that has led us to this curious juncture, the author sets out to study the historical constitution of the “knowledge system” within which the study of ancient world history became a distinct discipline in modern China (p. 10). Specifically, Fan is interested in the “professionalization process” of the field of ancient world history in order to excavate the complex social, political, and intellectual relations within which the field of ancient world history thrived and then declined over the course of the twentieth century. In other words, this is not just an account of the changing ideas of history, but also an excavation of the intimate “relations between power and knowledge systems” as seen through the fortunes and misfortunes of ancient world history in modern China (p. 11). The Introduction concludes with an outline of the structure of the dissertation with a special note regarding its focus on the biographies of individual historians and the author’s deliberate delimitation of its scope to only the events in mainland China. Related materials in Taiwan and Hong Kong are left out for pragmatic reasons.

The first two chapters constitute Part 1 of the dissertation, entitled “The Rise of Ancient World History in China.” In Chapter 1, “The Birth of Ancient World History in China,” the author describes the intellectual and institutional beginnings of the field in the late nineteenth century. To demonstrate the absence of the idea of world history prior to the late nineteenth century, the author turns to the writings of Guo Songtao (1818-1891) and Xue Fucheng (1838-1894) who were among the first Chinese diplomats to visit Europe and North America. Through their travels, both diplomats were impressed by the advances of Western nations. And interestingly, in their writings, they both tried to make sense of the rapid rise of the West by comparing its nations to the great dynasties in ancient China. This common reliance on indigenous historical templates to interpret the world-historical rise of the West “clearly indicates the lack of world-historical paradigms among Chinese intellectuals,” and that “world history as a historical genre did not exist in China before the late nineteenth century” (pp. 35 and 36; emphasis in the original). But this changed rapidly at the turn of the century.

As contact with the West increased, world-historical studies at last appeared in the first years of the twentieth century. In particular, the author identifies the publication of the Xishi gangmu (An Outline of Western History) by Zhou Weihan (1870-1910) in late 1901 as the “birth of ancient world-historical studies in China” (p. 37). With no fewer than thirty five volumes, the Xishi gangmu was “one of the first attempts to synthesize the existing literature about ancient world history in the Chinese language” (p. 38). The rest of the chapter is devoted to a detailed reading of this first work of world history in modern China. Fan is surprised to find that there was absolutely no evidence of the sort of alienation of China in its narrative found throughout contemporary historiography. If anything, Zhou Weihan seemed to actively work against the danger of separating China from the fabric of world history; in the author’s own words, it shows a “holistic view of history, which emphasizes the commonality of human civilization, and that this holistic view of history, in many respects, is contrary to the dominant view in Chinese historiography of today” (p. 26). By the end of the twentieth century, this early position would have become entirely marginalized, if not totally forgotten; the story of how this had happened is a leading question for the rest of the dissertation (pp. 26-27).

Chapter 2, “Professionalization and the Study of Ancient World History,” takes the narrative from the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) into the Republican era (1912-1949). While the publication of Zhou Weihan’s Xishi gangmu signaled at long last the arrival of world historical studies in modern China, it is in these first decades of the twentieth century that the professionalization of the historical discipline begins. In this period, the author identifies three fundamental transformations caused by this professionalization, “the introduction and translation of recent world-historical scholarship from the West, the inclusion of world history in secondary curricula, and the emergence of a flourishing world history textbook market” (pp. 85-86). In addition to these broad observations, the author also delves into the storied career of two historians that belong to this first generation of professional historians, Gu Jiegang (1893-1980) and Lei Haizong (1902-1962). While Gu Jiegang’s iconoclastic scholarship on early Chinese history exemplifies the relative intellectual freedom that historians enjoyed in the 1930s, Lei Haizong’s anxious search for China’s proper place in a global historical narrative epitomizes the growing tension between the demands of national history and world history in this period. Widely read in Western historiography, and inspired in particular by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, Lei Haizong adopted a “civilizational approach” to world history (p. 105). Unlike Zhou Weihan who searched for “universal principles” behind the different regional traditions in his Xishi gangmu, Lei Haizong emphasized the unique cultural attributes of each civilization. For him, the study of world history was an investigation into the distinct qualities and trajectories of the various civilizations of the world. And in the case of China, knowledge of its exceptional characters was precisely what was needed in order to revive and strength the oldest of world civilizations. This palpable tension between national history and world history, i.e., articulating China’s historical membership in the global order while insisting upon its distinct national character, would continue to influence the historical profession in the decades to come.

The remaining three chapters, which deal with the development of the historical profession in the second half of the twentieth century, form Part 2 of the dissertation, “The Development of Ancient World History in the Socialist Period.” Chapter 3, “The Production of Historical Knowledge in 1950s China: The Question of Academic Authority,” studies the effects, both intended and unintended, of the Communist Party’s forceful attempt to collectivize the historical profession. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party quickly assumed leadership of all higher education institutions in the country. Moreover, the Party created the so-called “teaching-and-research unit system” (jiaoyanshi zhidu), within which all research and teaching at colleges and universities throughout the country was to be accomplished collectively under the directives of the Party leadership. Through the collective biographies of five historians, Tong Shuye (1908-1968), Lin Zhichun (1910-2007), and Wu Mi (1984-1978), in addition to the aforementioned Gu Jiegang and Lei Haizong, the dissertation details the lived experience of this new, state-controlled environment for historical research and teaching in the first decade of Socialist rule in the 1950s. While the younger generation of ancient world historians were on the whole more willing to cooperate with the state, the older generation was at best ambivalent over this apparent loss of individual intellectual autonomy. Counter-intuitively, the author argues, this very attempt by the Communist Party to discipline historical thought had in fact provoked greater desire among the Chinese historians to demarcate the line between academic matters and politics, historical scholarship and state ideological agenda, in order to preserve their intellectual autonomy. The next chapter, entitled “The Writing of Ancient World History in 1950s China: The Debate on the Asiatic Mode of Production,” continues this narrative on the state of the historical profession in the 1950s. It focuses on the debate over the meaning of the “Asiatic Mode of Production,” and how it became an even larger debate regarding whether China experienced merely an Asiatic inflection of the universal stages of historical development from slave society to socialism, as outlined by Marx, or if China was somehow exempted from the course of these otherwise universal stages. In these two chapters, we see how the historical discipline flourished due to an unprecedented level of state sponsorship, yet paradoxically there is a growing sense of disaffection among the historians over their perceived loss of autonomy.

Following the hiatus of significant scholarly activities during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the field of ancient world history experienced a revival of sort in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the subject of Chapter 5, “Ancient World History in the 1980s and 1990s: From Development to Predicament.” The publication in 1979 of the textbook Shijie shanggushi gang (Outline of Ancient World History) marked the beginning of a long series of publications and conferences devoted to the study of ancient history. Its chief editor, the aforementioned Lin Zhichun, also played an instrumental role in the 1984 founding of the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations at Northeast Normal University. It was certainly the most active among many other similar research institutes established in the same decade, and for the author it marked “the completion of the institutional aspect of the professionalization process of ancient world-historical studies in China” (p. 230). Despite these institutional advances, the field was actually experiencing an intellectual decline. Through a detailed account of the key historiographical debates in the 1980s on the Asiatic Mode of Production, the existence of city-states in ancient China, and the relationship between labor and humanity, the author convincingly demonstrates the declining influence of the Marxian dogmas that had long predominated historical scholarship since the 1950s. The abandonment of Marxian ideology, however, left behind an intellectual vacuum that has persisted to this day. New research took on an increasingly empiricist bent with little theoretical relevance; the field became increasingly fragmented, and more and more unable to speak to the debates within the larger historical discipline. The chapter ends with this pessimistic assessment of the state of the field, “After a century of development, the study of ancient world history seems to have returned to the same place in Chinese academia that it held in the beginning of the twentieth century: marginal and insignificant. Its robust disciplinary buildup in the 1950s and dynamic intellectual developments in the 1980s seem to have left little trace at the beginning of the present century” (p. 283).

Over the course of five chapters, this dissertation provides an expansive, richly researched narrative from the birth of ancient world history to its currently infirm state over the course of the long twentieth century in modern China. The Conclusion reiterates the sadly marginal status of ancient world history within the historical discipline today; it also elaborates on the ways in which the predominant interest in writing the national history of China has strangely compelled the arbitrary construction of the field of world history as essentially a sum of all foreign national histories. In the end, it calls for a rehabilitation of the study of ancient world history. More than just a disinterested rediscovery of our collective past, it has the potential to help us rethink many of our cherished assumptions about the idea of historical progress, the problematic meaning of modernity, and the historical relationship between China and the rest of the world over the longue durée. It turns out that, as those ancient world historians brought back to life by this dissertation had long understood, to appreciate the China of today, and to imagine its future, we will have to first look ceaselessly upon its distant past.

Vincent S. Leung
Department of History
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources
Zhou Weihan 周維翰. Xishi gangmu 西史綱目(1901-1902)
Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛. Gu shi bian 古史辨 (1926-1941)
Zhou Yiliang 周一良 Wu Yujin 吳于廑. Shijie tongshi 世界通史 (1962)
Lin Zhichun 林志純. Shijie shanggu shigang 世界上古史綱 (1979)

Dissertation Information
Indiana University. 2013. 327pp. Primary Advisor: Lynn Struve.

Image: Cover page from Zhou Weihan 周維翰, Xishi gangmu 西史綱目 (Shanghai: Jingshi wenshe, 1901).

Leave a Reply