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  • The Origin of Modern Public History in China
  • Na Li (bio)


This article tracks all the manifestations of the past-in-the-present I have discovered in China. As both a watchword and a practice, public history finds expression in everyday life. Public imagination has been captured by sepia photographs, intimate family ephemera, windswept architecture, carefully crafted natural and historical walks, historical games and emotional oral testimonies. These emerging practices offer an ever-expanding space of dissidence and possibilities outside established categories or academic fields, and have a profound impact on how people see, feel about and engage with the past. Recognizing these fragmented public history impulses and claiming 'everyone is their own historian' can only get us started. If historians are to understand how the public's sense of history is shaped, they should understand how a historically conscious public is formed and resourced. My primary focus is why public history has such a widespread appeal among ordinary Chinese, and how it mobilizes a general population from almost all walks of life in today's China.

The revolution in media technology has shortened distances and altered how people communicate with each other, but technology simply accelerates an impulse that has been present for some time. As I have argued elsewhere, public history in China does not rise like the sun at an appointed time: it is present at its own making and has emerged in the last two decades alongside a deteriorating notion of a national identity unified by the state. This connection owes its origin to a quintessentially Chinese cultural tradition that values harmony between the heaven and the earth, humanity and continuity.1 Modern public history in China can be traced back to the early twentieth century when a growing sense of national crisis triggered a collapse of the traditional idea system, a yearning for roots and an attempt to popularize history.


The past is popular, but public history is different from popular history. Public history appeals to a socially stratified public with the capacity for critical thinking; it is not a spontaneous engagement with the 'mindless' [End Page 252] masses. The Chinese public has become passionate about explaining and interpreting the past, and within this 'public' have emerged groups of educated, thoughtful and socially responsible citizens. They actively participate in interpreting and presenting the past, and their writings impinge on public historical consciousness on a different scale. Electronic technology and the expansion of the Internet make it possible to reconstruct a national culture and identity or some kind of community that is otherwise virtual, fluid, rapidly changing and diverse. Several signposts mark the terrain of public history in China, from which I have unashamedly collected a few sparkling spots and teased out some threads that connect them into a unified whole.

'Unofficial' is the Key Word

Confucius says, 'if the traditional belief is lost, seek help among the folks (shili er qiu zhuye)'.2 One possible starting point in our exploration is oral history, which has long played an important role in collecting and transmitting historical knowledge. Even today, many ethnic tribes that lack formal written records rely solely on oral transmission. State-centred Chinese culture historically values two kinds of primary source: archaeology, and material culture, such as ancient temples, ancestral halls, written records and the collections of aristocratic families. Discourses of the States (Guo Yu), for example, is an ancient Chinese text that consists of a compilation of speeches attributed to rulers and other men from the Spring and Autumn period (770BC–221BC). Even part of the Zuo Tradition or Commentary of Zuo (Zuo Zhuan), an ancient Chinese history, is traditionally regarded as a commentary on the ancient Chinese chronicle Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu), with the addition of narrative structure to the formal chronicles.

Starting in the Han Wei period (202BC–265AD), Chinese history became centred on written texts and gradually acquired an authoritative status. Thus, some folk culture, which relies heavily (if not solely) on oral transmission, was lost. However, peoples without writing did have WuZhu,3 who were highly respected intellectuals in ancient times, to record and disseminate historical materials through oral history. Such cultures withstand...


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