World History and National Identity in China

Where did this idea come of the introspective, largely self-absorbed Chinese world that used to be one of the popular explanations of why, in the 19th century, the country succumbed so badly to European semi-colonisation and exploitation? Xin Fan’s study, `World History and National Identity in China’ (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2021) gives more than enough evidence that there were figures from the start of the 20th century, when the Qing empire still (just about) existed that were part of a network domestically, and linked to ones internationally, thinking about world history, and what China’s place in that might be. For this influential group, there was nothing self-absorbed or inward looking.

This book, drawing on a huge range of disparate reference materials, in English, Chinese and other languages, lays out the careers of some of these figures, and restores them, at least in the English language, to a more appropriate profile than they have enjoyed in recent times. Chen Hengzhe is one of the most striking – China’s first female professor, educated in the US, and deeply involved in the debates about the teaching, reception and understanding of `world history’ in China through the Republican era (1912-1949).  Her creed was simply expressed: `to seek mutual understanding among humanity, and draw on the cultures of different countries as one common legacy’ (51). He Bingsong was another who had been educated in the US in the 1920s, teaching world history in his native Zhejiang and then Peking University after his return. So too did Lei Haizong, son of a priest ordained by a British missionary, who went to the University of Chicago and then returned to work at Tsinghua around the same time.

These figures matter, as Xin Fan argues through this monograph, because their work, by its very nature, raised important questions about the boundaries between China, with its often asserted unique intellectual heritage and culture, and the wider world. Some of their importance was in being part of a great wave to introduce new ideas and new understanding about the outside world into the country at a time when that external world was all too often imposing itself and figuring in people’s lives in increasingly disruptive ways. But they also, in contrasting ways, and using different starting points, did focus on how generic issues like nationalism, development and the concept of humanity itself, could be thought about, articulated, contest and be embraced within an environment which was undergoing profound change. This did not just mean through the dismantling of the Confucian tradition and its hold over the political and cultural elite which accelerated towards the end of the Qing, but also by China seeing itself as figuring in a process of world development, rather than being some great outcrop, isolated and adrift from everything else. In this era, as Xin succinctly states, `Chen, Lei and He [were] forerunners of world historical studies [where] all attempted to situate China’s past, present and future within a world-historical context in their scholarly works. They realised the value of non-Chinese history; they cared about what was being taught and understood as well as the value of carrying out research in world history’ (84).

The period after 1949, as with almost every other aspect of social and political life in the country, saw seismic change. The People’s Republic of China founded that year under the Communists presented many anomalies. One was this tension between subscribing to a universalist, non-China originated ideology (Marxism-Leninism) but in a way which stressed how this had been adapted and crafted to local particularities and in that process made markedly different. Such a mindset presented many challenges to intellectuals, making them rethink and reposition themselves so that they avoided violating the main, and increasingly large, number of intellectual rules the new regime was setting. This was reinforced by the fact that, as Xin states, Mao Zedong had `a negative view of Chinese intellectuals.’  More practically, those working in World History needed to adapt to the new education system the Communists constructed. Unlike in the past, those embarking on college studies were allocated subjects rather than freely choosing their own (a system that survived to the 1990s). History generally had to be researched within a Marxist framework, with its stipulations about historical determinism. Xin states that `from 1950 to 1978, the Chinese government sent 12,755 students abroad (100).’  8414 of these were to the Soviet Union. That meant that those in what could be broadly described at the humanities, or political science, ended up adopting a largely Soviet view of human development. It also meant that the kinds of primary source material in Latin, Greek, or other European languages apart from Russian that US educated scholars like the three mentioned above had been exposed to in an earlier age were regarded as unimportant and redundant. For contesting this, in the Hundred Flowers Movement in 1957, Lei Haizong was criticised and eventually punished.

There were thornier arguments which continued across the Maoist period. One was about the status of slavery in ancient Chinese history – and the vastly contentious matter of how a concept like feudalism was meaningfully applied to China. This particular issue, along with that around the Asiatic Mode of Production and what it meant, addressed directly the ways in which it was permissible, within a Marxist framework, to allude to unique characteristics of Chinese development, but also exposed how easy it was, with the political winds changing, to find oneself adrift and vulnerable to attack. Throwing Maoism into the mix just thickened the plot, because that of course did create the paradoxical result of a bespoke version of a universal thought system. Xin records the fate of some of the better known World History specialists over this period, and how they survived, or, in some tragic instances, didn’t.

From 1978, the imprecation to `liberate thinking’ under the Deng leadership meant that a sort of renaissance occurred. In the unlikely place of Changchun, north east China, an Institute for the History of Ancient Civilisations was established. Its founder was Lin Zhichun, the doyen of World History studies in China. Over the rest of the decade and into the 1990s, this centre grew, hosting international visitors and creating a global network.  Alongside this, the World Academic Series in Chinese Translation started, in 1981. (By 2011, it had issued 500 translations).  Over a decade later, in the mid 1990s in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, where I was based for two years, I remember being impressed by the vast amount of Western material available in Chinese, of which this was a good example.  This was indeed, as Xin notes `an impressive achievement, especially if compared to Western scholars’ limited efforts to translate ancient Chinese classics’ (157).

All of this simply reinforces the idea that `opening up’ to the outside world, to use the language beloved of Chinese officials today,  far from having started in 1978 out of nowhere, was something created on the foundations of all the work of the many Chinese scholars detailed in this book from a much earlier period. China’s continuing commitment to `internationalisation’ even at a time, as today is, when its global role is so contested, should not therefore be a surprise. Going from this book, the anomaly would be a China that is an inward looking country. The default was always to be curious and engaged with the wider world, with the sole, but very significant change, that these days that engagement is practically so much easier.

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