- Research Trends in Asia: “Writing History during a Prosperous Age”: The New Qing History Project1
Ever since its collapse in 1911, the Qing Empire has attracted widespread scholarly attention both in China and abroad. At the turn of the twentieth-first century, the study of Qing history gained new momentum in the People’s Republic of China when the State Council committed hundreds of millions of RMB and launched a major project with the mission to compile a comprehensive new history of the Qing Dynasty. This massive research project thus far has involved more than 1,600 researchers from various disciplines and institutions across the country, and it aims, within the ten years from 2002 to 2012, to produce a multi-volume history that will provide a full account of the current state of our knowledge of the dynasty. This essay intends to introduce this national project to the community of scholars working on Qing history outside of China.
The first section of this essay discusses the re-emergence of the idea to write a dynastic history of the Qing. Historians based in the Institute of Qing History at People’s University (Zhongguo renmin daxue) incubated the idea of (re)writing the Qing dynastic history at the turn of the twenty-first century; but as it developed, the initiative began to involve Chinese intellectual circles at other institutions. This initiative reflects the convergence between a long-standing pragmatically based academic concern with deciphering and comprehending the successes and failures of this dynasty on the one hand, [End Page 120] and the new possibility to conduct that inquiry based on an expanding primary source base and the application of new theories and methodologies on the other. Second, the essay examines the Chinese government’s involvement in this project. This is crucial to the project as it provides a solid base of financial support and a mechanism to pool resources across institutional boundaries, both in terms of research and administration. Of course, the government’s interest and commitment also reflects an official cultural agenda that seeks to transplant its staggering successes in the economic arena into academia. The third part of the essay examines the project itself. The term “project,” or gongcheng in Chinese, suggests the new Qing history’s broad scope. The core is a multi-volume history of the dynasty. In addition, a series of auxiliary projects to promote new directions in primary source research and translations of scholarship in foreign languages are proposed as well. Fourth, this essay will focus on primary source work initiated and managed by the new Qing history project. One important mission of the project is to select and publish previously unused primary source materials in Chinese, ethnic, and foreign languages. This has resulted in the publication of a number of new source collections since 2002. Finally, the essay will discuss the Qing history project’s intended dialogue with colleagues outside China. In order to promote transnational dialogue, the project has allocated substantial funds to translate studies of Qing history in foreign languages into Chinese, thereby providing an invaluable channel to introduce international scholarship to the Chinese research community and the general public.
Initiative from an Intellectual Circle
Within the Chinese intellectual community, the idea to write a multi-volume history of the Qing first emerged in the early 1980s. Although historians produced two multi-volume monographs—one provides a chronological history of the Qing by reign and topic and the other is a biographic study of historical figures—the research ended abruptly, due in large part to the limited research funding that government was able to allocate and some problems of intra-institution cooperation.2
In 2001, two leading Qing historians—Dai Yi and Li Wenhai from the Institute of Qing History, together with other well-known scholars in the field, initiated discussions raising the possibility of organizing historians nationwide under official auspices to write a new Qing history. From their point of [End Page 121] view, this project is important primarily because of the Qing’s relevance to contemporary China. They argued that the roots of some of the domestic and international problems that China faces today are part...