- Inventing China through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography
There is a growing interest in and literature on the establishment of the Academy in twentieth-century China. Q. Edward Wang adds to this important body of knowledge with his book Inventing China through History: The May Fourth Approach to Historiography. Wang explores the birth of the modern Chinese discipline of history, whose development he traces from the early nineteenth century through the 1960s. In so doing, he also examines the lives and works of a number of well-known and less well known liberal Chinese intellectuals, predominantly professional historians, as they grappled with reconciling China's traditional past with their visions for China's future. Wang does an admirable job of sketching the professional (and sometimes personal) lives of Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Fu Sinian, He Bingsong, Yao Congwu, Luo Jialun, and Chen Yingke to show how their cross-cultural experiences both informed and complicated their approaches to history and their understanding of Chinese modernity.
Wang starts his book with a review of some of the Western literature on Chinese historiography. He includes works by Joseph Levenson, Laurence Schneider, Arif Dirlik, Prasenjit Duara, Tang Xiaobing, and LionelM. Jensen. While the selection may seem rather scattershot, this review is helpful to situate the reader vis-à-vis Wang's own theoretical concerns. Wang suggests that some of these earlier scholars have
overlooked a development within the discipline of historical scholarship in modern China and underestimated its significance. Liberal historians in the Republican period were criticized mainly because they failed to promote liberalism more successfully in China. That kind of teleological observation blamed Chinese intellectuals for a "failure" that had more to do with the extreme circumstances, that is, the Anti-Japanese War, than with any supposed "fallacy" in their political and academic pursuits. Consequently, it failed to give full credit to the role these intellectuals played in causing the transformation of historical study in China. . . . [History] was transformed from a subject auxiliary to the study of Confucian classics (jing) to an autonomous discipline of modern scholarship.(p. 10) [End Page 286]
Wang himself is particularly interested in examining the relationship between what he calls "the transnational and the national aspects of Chinese historiography" (p. 22) and in revealing how the attempt by Chinese intellectuals "at reconstructing China's past on a scientific basis helps us see the interrelationship between tradition and modernity that was once considered antithetical" (p. 23). Ultimately Wang is most successful and most innovative in providing evidence for a conclusion he himself does not stress: in showing how the exigencies of wartime in China subverted the process of writing "scientific" history, and, indeed, how the promise of liberalism was subverted in a China too politically polarized to foster—or even tolerate—intellectual objectivity.
Chapter 2, "New Horizon [sic], New Attitude," investigates the scholars who Wang feels were most pivotal in getting the reevaluation of the practice of history in China off the ground. He starts with Qing scholar Gong Zizhen (1792-1841), whose emphasis on the sociopolitical nature of history, Wang argues, would have a critical impact on future historical thinkers. Wang then turns to Wei Yuan (1794-1857), whom he calls "the first Chinese who realized it was time to learn from the West" (p. 34), and follows with the scholar Wang Tao (1828-1897), who tried to unite "the two historiographical traditions" (Western and Chinese). Wang traces these historians in their journey from trying simply to "incorporate the Western world into Chinese historical narratives" (p. 42) to actually searching for "a new understanding of tradition by rewriting Chinese history" (p. 42), and locates the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) as a critical moment in this process. He finishes the chapter with an analysis of Liang Qichao's historical work, particularly The New Historiography. This book, claims Wang, "redefine[d] history from the nineteenth-century Western perspectives on nationalism, Darwinism, and modernism" (p. 48) and "marked a new beginning in Chinese historical thinking and the...