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Reinventing Modern China

Imagination and Authenticity in Chinese Historical Writing

Huaiyin Li

Publication Year: 2012

This work offers the first systematic analysis of writings on modern Chinese history by historians in China from the early twentieth century to the present. It traces the construction of major interpretive schemes, the evolution of dominant historical narratives, and the unfolding of debates on the most controversial issues in different periods. Placing history-writing in the context of political rivalry and ideological contestation, Huaiyin Li explicates how the historians’ dedication to faithfully reconstructing the past was compromised by their commitment to an imagined trajectory of history that fit their present-day agenda and served their needs of political legitimation.

Beginning with an examination of the contrasting narratives of revolution and modernization in the Republican period, the book scrutinizes changes in the revolutionary historiography after 1949, including its disciplinization in the 1950s and early 1960s and radicalization in the rest of the Mao era. It further investigates the rise of the modernization paradigm in the reform era, the crises of master narratives since the late 1990s, and the latest development of the field. Central to the author’s analysis is the issue of truth and falsehood in historical representation. Li contends that both the revolutionary and modernization historiographies before 1949 reflected historians’ lived experiences and contained a degree of authenticity in mirroring the historical processes of their own times. In sharp contrast, both the revolutionary historiography of the Maoist era and the modernization historiography of the reform era were primarily products of historians’ ideological commitment, which distorted and concealed the past no less than revealed it.

In search of a more effective approach to rewriting modern Chinese history, Reinventing Modern China proposes a within-time, open-ended perspective, which allows for different directions in interpreting the events in modern China and views modern Chinese history as an unfinished process remaining to be defined as the country entered the twenty-first century.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

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pp. vii-xii

As a study of Chinese historiography on modern China, this book is to some degree also a reflection of my journey in the field of modern Chinese history in China and the United States over the past thirty years. My training in history began in the early 1980s, when I was a history major and...

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Chapter 1. Introduction

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pp. 1-32

This book looks at how Chinese intellectuals have written about China’s “modern history” through their incessant construction of various, often conflicting, explanatory schemes and narratives since the early twentieth...

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Chapter 2. Origins of the Modernization Narrative: Nationalist Historiography before 1949

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pp. 33-73

Calling for a “revolution in history” (shijie geming) in China at the very beginning of the twentieth century, Liang Qichao (1873–1929), then an exile in Japan after the failure of the 1898 reform, legitimated the “new historiography” he espoused by juxtaposing it to the old historiography prevailing in China...

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Chapter 3. Origins of the Revolutionary Narrative: Marxist Historiography before 1949

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pp. 74-109

The revolutionary narrative emerged in the 1930s and 1940s primarily as resistance by the Chinese Communist Party and its supporters to the modernization narrative then prevailing in mainstream historiography under the Nationalist regime. Among the Marxist historians...

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Chapter 4. The Making of a New Orthodoxy: Marxist Historiography in the 1950s

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pp. 110-131

One of the major challenges that confronted official historians in China after the communist revolution was how to attenuate the pragmatic quality of the revolutionary historiography of the 1930s and 1940s, and create a new interpretative schema that was consistent with the orthodox Marxist doctrines...

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Chapter 5. Between the Past and the Present: The Radicalization of Historiography under Mao

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pp. 132-169

The “historiographical revolution” (shixue geming) began in 1958 at the height of the Great Leap Forward as a result of growing dissatisfaction among CCP leaders with disciplinized history and its weakened ability to link the past with the current needs of the party-state. Proponents of the revolution questioned...

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Chapter 6. Challenging the Revolutionary Orthodoxy: “New Enlightenment” Historiography in the 1980s

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pp. 170-203

Coinciding with the inception of economic reforms and with “liberating the mind” ( jiefang sixiang) in the ideological area, a new intellectual trend, known later as the New Enlightenment (xin qimeng), emerged in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Having witnessed nationwide turmoil or having personally suffered...

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Chapter 7. From Revolution to Modernization: The Paradigmatic Transition in Reform Era Historiography

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pp. 204-235

The rise of the New Enlightenment historiography in the early 1980s, as it turned out, was only the beginning of a two-decade process in which Chinese historians not only reformulated their basic views about the major historical issues in late Qing and Republican China, but also reconstructed the conceptual...

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Chapter 8. Master Narratives in Crisis

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pp. 236-260

Intellectually, a remarkable development in China in the 1990s and 2000s was the rise of neoliberalism as the dominant ideology shaping the thinking of mainstream intellectuals as well as policy makers in the government. Based on a consensus to establish a market economy in China, to legalize and protect property...

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Chapter 9. Conclusion

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pp. 261-278

Since the early twentieth century, influenced by Western historiography, the writing of modern Chinese history has centered on the construction of narratives. Compared to the chronicles or annals that dominated Chinese historiography...


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pp. 279-292


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pp. 293-298


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pp. 299-332


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pp. 333-338

E-ISBN-13: 9780824837266
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836085

Publication Year: 2012