Chinese historiography

Chinese historiography
History of China
History of China
3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors
Xia Dynasty 2100–1600 BCE
Shang Dynasty 1600–1046 BCE
Zhou Dynasty 1045–256 BCE
 Western Zhou
 Eastern Zhou
   Spring and Autumn Period
   Warring States Period
Qin Dynasty 221 BCE–206 BCE
Han Dynasty 206 BCE–220 CE
  Western Han
  Xin Dynasty
  Eastern Han
Three Kingdoms 220–280
  Wei, Shu and Wu
Jin Dynasty 265–420
  Western Jin 16 Kingdoms
  Eastern Jin
Southern and Northern Dynasties
Sui Dynasty 581–618
Tang Dynasty 618–907
  (Second Zhou 690–705)
5 Dynasties and
10 Kingdoms

Liao Dynasty
Song Dynasty
  Northern Song W. Xia
  Southern Song Jin
Yuan Dynasty 1271–1368
Ming Dynasty 1368–1644
Qing Dynasty 1644–1911
Republic of China 1912–1949
People's Republic
of China

Republic of
China (Taiwan)

This box: view · talk · edit

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.

The Zuo Zhuan, attributed to Zuo Qiuming in the 5th century BC, is the earliest Chinese work of narrative history and covers the period from 722 BCE to 468 BCE.

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 BCE 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; see also Imperial Seal of China. In fact, less than a third of China's history was the country under the rule of a single state. 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. These theories were first applied in the 1920s by Chinese scholars such as Guo Moruo, and became orthodoxy in academic study after 1949. 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 the First Opium War
  • feudal society - semicolonial era - First 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 was for many years 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. [1]

Partly because of the interest of Mao Zedong, historians in the 1950s took a special interest in the role of peasant rebellions in Chinese history, and compiled documentary histories to examine them. [2]

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.

There has been a gradual relaxation of Marxist interpretation after the death of Mao in 1976,[3], which was accelerated after the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and Revolutions of 1989, which have damaged Marxism's ideological legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese people.

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".

Support for the inclusion of ethnic minorities' history in China's own history varies in accordance with separatist and nationalist politics. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama, long insistent on Tibet's history being separate from that of China's, conceded in 2005 that Tibet "is a part" of China's "5000-year history" as part of a new proposal for Tibetan autonomy.[4] Korean nationalists have virulently reacted against China's application to UNESCO of Goguryeo tombs in Chinese territory: the absolute independence of Goguryeo is a central aspect of Korean identity, because according to Korean legend, it was comparatively independent from China and Japan, in contrast to subordinate states like the Joseon Dynasty and the Korean Empire.[5] The legacy of Genghis Khan has been contested between China, Mongolia, and Russia, all three states having significant numbers of ethnic Mongols within their borders, and holding territory that was conquered by Khan.[6]

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 politically 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.

Western scholars have reacted against the ethnic inclusiveness narrative in PRC-sponsored history by writing revisionist histories of China, that feature, according to James A. Millward, "a degree of 'partisanship' for the indigenous underdogs of frontier history". Scholarly interest in writing about Chinese minorities from non-Chinese perspectives is growing, as Western scholars project sympathy for American minorities onto Chinese minorities.[7]

Modernization 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 modernization 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."

In the opposite vein, the Japanese history Naito Torajiro argued that China reached "modernity" during its mid-Imperial period, centuries before Europe. He believed that the reform of the civil service into a meritocratic system and the disappearance of the ancient Chinese nobility from the bureaucracy constituted a modern society. As noted above, some world-systems analysts such as Janet Abu-Lughod thought China invented capitalism during this period with the rise of a monied economy and the invention of paper currency.

The problems associated with this approach is the subjective use of "modern" and "capitalist". The old nobility had been in decline since the Qin dynasty. While the exams were meritocratic, most examinees were of the gentry background. Expertise in the Confucian classics did not guarantee competent bureaucrats who could manage public works or prepare a budget. The early capitalists theory is also unsound in that merchants were at the bottom of the four occupations due to Confucianism's hostility to commerce. The social goal was to invest in land and enter the gentry, ideas more similar to the physiocrats than that of Adam Smith.

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. [8]

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.

Eurocentric interpretations and the impact of imperialism

Eurocentric interpretations focus on interaction with Europe as the driving force behind recent Chinese history. For instance, many periodization schemes use the First Opium War as the starting point for the modern period.

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. Examples of the first interpretation include the works of H.B. Morse, who wrote chronicles of China's international relations such as Trade and Relations of the Chinese Empire (1910- ). Examples of the second start with the works of T.F. Tsiang and John King Fairbank, who used newly opened archives in the 1930s to write from the Chinese point of view. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-yu edited the influential China's Response to the West (1953), which was in turn criticized for ascribing change in China to outside forces. Paul Cohen, a student of Fairbank's, articulated the agenda of the next generation in his call for "China-Centered history of China." [9]

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.

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 number of studies of Chinese history that seek 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 quantities of primary source material that have 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 assumptions 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 considerably extend its borders 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 an 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 socio-economics, politicaldynamics, or cultural 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 recent 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 tapped 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.

In contrast, just as postmodernism has so far failed to take root in ethnic Chinese circles as opposed to a general sense of Chinese nationalist moral certainty, much of ethnic Chinese scholarship of Chinese history remains largely modernist or even outright traditionalist in outlook. The legacies of the modernist school, such as historian Lo Hsiang-lin (1906–1978) and the traditionalist school, as represented by historian Chien Mu (1895–1990) remain strong in Chinese circles. The more modernist works focus on imperial systems in China and employ scientific method to analyze epochs of Chinese dynasties from geographical, genealogical, and cultural artifacts, for example, from Carbon-14 dating and geographical records to correlate climates with cycles of calm and calamity in Chinese history. The traditionalist school of scholarship resorts to official imperial records and colloquial history works and analyzes the different dynasties' rises and falls using a Confucian philosophy, albeit modified by an institutional administration perspective.

From the beginning of Communist rule in 1949, until the 1980s, when China was in the early years of economic reform, the focus was largely on peasant life, as interpreted via the officially sanctioned Marxist theory of class struggle. From the time of Deng Xiaoping onwards, there has been a drift of focus towards a Marxist-inspired, moderated by Conficianism, nationalist perspective, and consideration of China's contemporary international status became of paramount importance in historical studies. The current focus tends to be on specifics of civilization in ancient China, and the general paradigm of how China has responded to the dual challenges of interactions with the outside world and modernization in the post-1700 era. Long abandoned as a research focus among most Western scholars due to postmodernism's influence, it remains the primary interest for most historians inside China.

See also



  1. ^ Albert Feuerwerker, "China's History in Marxian Dress," The American Historical Review 66.2 (1961): 323-353.
  2. ^ James P. Harrison. The Communists and Chinese Peasant Rebellions; a Study in the Rewriting of Chinese History. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
  3. ^ Kwang-Ching Liu, "World View and Peasant Rebellion: Reflections on Post-Mao Historiography," The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 40, No. 2 (Feb., 1981), pp. 295-326 [1]
  4. ^ McDonald, Hamish (2005-03-15). "Tibet part of China, Dalai Lama agrees". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2010-11-05. 
  5. ^ Gries, Peter Hays (Winter 2005). "The Koguryo Controversy, National Identity, and Sino-Korean Relations Today". East Asia 22 (4): 3–17. 
  6. ^ Kucera, Joshua (2009-08-10). "The Search for Genghis Khan: Genghis Khan's Lecay Being Reappraised in China, Russia". EurasiaNet. Retrieved 2010-11-05. 
  7. ^ Millward, James A. (1996). "New Perspectives on the Qing Frontier". In Hershatter, Gail. Remapping China: Fissures in Historical Terrain. Stanford University Press. pp. 121–122. 
  8. ^ Frederick W. Mote, "The Growth of Chinese Despotism: A Critique of Wittfogel's Theory of Oriental Despotism as Applied to China," Oriens Extremus 8.1 (1961): 1-41.
  9. ^ Paul Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York, London:: Columbia University Press, 1984), Ch 1 "The Problem with 'China's Response to the West,'pp. 1-56, and Ch 4, "Toward a China-Centered History of China," pp. 149-198.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Chinese art — Chinese jade ornament with dragon and phoenix design, late Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC 482 BC) …   Wikipedia

  • historiography — historiographic /hi stawr ee euh graf ik, stohr /, historiographical, adj. historiographically, adv. /hi stawr ee og reuh fee, stohr /, n., pl. historiographies. 1. the body of literature dealing with historical matters; histories collectively. 2 …   Universalium

  • Historiography — See also: Historian Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic. Scholars discuss historiography topically – such as the… …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese literature — History of Literature Bronze Age literature Sumerian Egyptian Akkadian Classical literatu …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese sovereign — History of China ANCIENT …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese Revolution (1949) — Mao Zedong declares the People s Republic of China The Chinese Revolution in 1949 refers to the final stage of military conflict (1948–1952) in the Chinese Civil War. In some anti revisionist communist media and historiography, as well as the… …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese language — Unless otherwise specified, Chinese texts in this article are written in (Simplified Chinese/Traditional Chinese; Pinyin) format. In cases where Simplified and Traditional Chinese scripts are identical, the Chinese term is written once. Chinese… …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese economic reform — History of the People s Republic of China     1949–1976, The Mao Era         …   Wikipedia

  • Chinese intellectualism — The current status of Chinese intellectuals reflects traditions established in the imperial period. For most of this period, government officials were selected from among the literati on the basis of the Confucian civil service examination system …   Wikipedia

  • Historiography and nationalism — Historiography is the study of how history is written. One pervasive influence upon the writing of history has been nationalism, a set of beliefs about political legitimacy and cultural identity . Nationalism has provided a significant framework… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.