> Dialogue > Dialogue

Theories of ancient Chinese historiography do exist

Zheng Ou | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today
Qu Lindong was born in Feidong, Anhui in 1937. He completed his undergraduate degree in the Department of History at Beijing Normal University and went on to study Chinese historiography under the tutelage of Bai Shouyi. Currently, he is a senior professor and PhD supervisor in the Department of History at his alma mater. His well-known works include: Tang Dynasty Historiography Theory Manuscript, Essays on Chinese Historiography Theory, Chinese Ancient Historiography Criticism, Historical Thought, Du You Critical Biography, Historiography and Historical Comments, Historiography, The Outline of Chinese Historiography, Chinese Historiography Theory Heritage, A Concise Guide to Chinese Historiography, The General Theory of Chinese Historiography, Essays on Chinese Historiography Theory in the 20th Century, The Social Position of Historiography. Qu is also chief editor of the three-volume series Chinese Ancient History Theory and has published over 300 papers and articles in the field of history. 
Chinese Social Sciences Today In one of your works you mention that you have reflected deeply on the statement “There have been no theories of ancient Chinese historiography” since the 1980s. Could you please elaborate on your original line of thinking about this topic?
Qu Lindong: In 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China re-established the ideological line “seek truth from the facts.” Subsequently, historians within the academy began to rethink about their discipline in terms of theory. Criticizing dogmatism, reductionism and one-sidedness was significant activity in Chinese intellectual circles during 1980s. At the time, enormous western works on historiography theory burst into China one after another. For the young people in that period, western historiography theory seemed as novel as western fast food. Consequently, some scholars started to search for theoretical counterparts in Chinese historiography, but were disappointed, concluding “there are no theories of ancient Chinese historiography.” This statement exerted an influence on academia. My subject is history and I could not help but feeling disheartened by this statement. Ancient Chinese historiography does, in fact, have its own theories. However, at that time, proving so single-handedly was a very difficult undertaking. Thereafter, I began to consciously pay attention to the development of theoretical forms regarding ancient Chinese historiography.
In the course of research, the first problem one encounters is distinguishing between theoretical forms. There are two main theoretical forms in the study of history as an academic practice. Firstly, there are historical theories, which seek to delineate what are thought to be objective truths about the past; secondly, there are “theories of history,” or historiography theories which comment on the way history is constructed as a form of knowledge. However, researchers often confuse there theoretical forms, referencing “theories of history” when they are actually trying to discuss historical theories. Why does this confusion exist? I think because Historical Materialism is the most comprehensive and compelling theory of historical development, enabling it to become a ready substitute for actual historical knowledge. My teacher Bai Shouyi reflected on this issue in the 1983 edition of Historiography Survey (for which he was the editor), and also finds this problem very confusing.
Chinese Social Sciences TodaySo is theoretical research a new starting point for differentiating historical theories and theories of history?
Qu LindongYes. In 1987 I wrote a short article entitled “Historical Theory and the Theory of History” analyzing the differences and between historical and historiographic theories for the inaugural issue of Historiography Theory, the predecessor to Historiography Research Theory. Just the previous year, Chen Qineng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of World History had written Historical Theory and the Theory of History, and I later realized that Sir Yi Da had brought up this question in a lecture back in 1982.
After that, the task at hand for me was to study and develop a systematic understanding of these respective fields. In 1992, I published The Development of Ancient Chinese Historiography, which classified and summarized ancient Chinese historiography from longitudinal perspectives. A subsequent book entitled Chinese Ancient Historiography Criticism and published in 1994 explains this question from the perspective of historiography criticism, and it has spawned a brand new field in history. From the perspective of development of Chinese historiography’s development, historiographic criticism directly relates to the theory of history. Thus, from criticizing to raising questions, it completely accelerated theoretical development. Four years later, my book General Annals of Chinese Culture: Historiography introduced the development of theory on history versus historical theory. It employed historical concepts rather than historical theory. With my research taking me deeper and deeper, I authored The Outline of Chinese Historiography in 1999, which gave an overview of different approaches to historical theory and theory of history in different historical periods.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 382, Nov. 21, 2012
(Translated by Zhang Mengying)