- Lishixue de kunhuo
Chen Zhiping, dean of humanities at Xiamen University, is one of the current standard-bearers of the Xiamen school of microhistory, a fact that comes through very clearly in this 2004 book on the study of history in contemporary China. Written for a relatively popular audience, this 140-page volume both justifies the discipline of history and attempts to define it. Chen's book is worth reading not only for his clear-eyed critique of certain recent trends in the history field, but also because it sets forth an ideal history with great clarity that reveals his background assumptions and historical academic context—something that any scholar hoping to interact with the history academe in China should attempt to understand. Throughout the book, one can see Marxist materialism both torn to shreds as an overarching theory and reconfigured as a methodological tool. Chen also presents one of the most unabashed, undiluted, straightforward pleas for objective, scientific history I have seen in a long time. His argument is most effective when discussing methodological issues, as he very carefully considers and critiques ways of using various types of sources. Somewhat paradoxically, the more ideological part of his argument still adheres to an underlying belief that history ought to somehow serve the state (or country, or people) and the present—but in a way that remains as unbiased as possible.
The first half of the book is spent on an overarching critique of current historical work. In chapter 1 he lays out three main categories of problem: political, moral, and foreign. For the political, he simultaneously criticizes historians for demonstrating both too much political awareness and not enough. Here he traces the uses of history back through time, starting with the ruler-centered idea of "history as a mirror," moving through Liang Qichao's push for history in service of the nation and Stalinist concepts such as the five-stage theory, and ending with the Mao-era appropriation of history as a tool for class struggle. In all of these cases, while the politicized details change, the primary constant is that history is meant to be in support of the state. It is this lesson that Chen takes away from his delineation of the political history of history in China.
On one hand, historical scholarship should not allow itself to be caught up in petty political infighting. On the other, it should have the wider interests of the people and the state in mind. In the moral realm, he focuses on chasing an objective truth. Scholars should uphold morality, but in doing so they should not distort the truth or use history to criticize the present by analogy and, furthermore, should not insist that they are always right and others always wrong. [End Page 511] Instead, they should together try to uncover the truth that is there, as objectively and scientifically as possible. A fine line to walk—some might even say contradictory, perhaps—but for Chen an obvious one.
As for the foreign perspective, Chen lambasts scholars who have taken Western political and historical theories and uncritically applied them to China. Here he spends two full chapters elaborating on his critique of Marxism as it has been applied to Chinese history in the past. In his view, many scholars have aligned themselves so closely with the Marxist view of history that the real subject of their study becomes Marxist theory and not the actualities of Chinese history itself. In particular, he takes major issue with the application of Marx's class theory to China and examines in detail its application to China and the resultant implications and distortions. In chapter 2, he critiques the assumption that Chinese landlords formed the economic foundation of the state in the same sense as estate-owning lords in Western feudalism, arguing instead that the small peasant economy provided the tax base for the imperial state in China. In chapter 3 he goes on to dismantle Marxist periodization as applied to China, noting that...