Global history research requires global views

By ZHANG CHUNHAI, ZHAO LU / 09-14-2017 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In recent years, the research focus of global history has shifted from the history of material flows to the global history of ideas.

Global history research analyzes human history in its entirety. As various social issues become increasingly interconnected, research on global history continues to ferment. A global perspective is the key to perceiving global history in an academic and realistic sense.


Multiple dimensions
Entering the 21st century, global history, as a perspective and field of research, has drawn broad attention. Xia Jiguo, a history professor from Capital Normal University, said in academic practice, the study of “global history” in the narrow sense takes the “whole world” as a research unit. It focuses on the global direction of economics and the political context in which changes occur. Specific studies in this field emphasize close ties connecting research objects and economic globalization. “Global history,” in a broader sense, is the study of “world history” widely accepted in the English-speaking world. It emerged with the idea that “social changes do not occur in isolation and communication among different groups plays a key role in the process.” This research openly seeks connections and causal relationships between historical events, and thus connects the history of mankind to form global history.

Xia argued that despite the impacts of global history, historical studies of nations will remain for a long time. The history of mankind is complicated: there is development of a single community, and also large-scale evolution beyond national, political, geographical and cultural barriers. Any single model of historical research cannot reveal the panorama of history, thus requiring multifaceted examination.

Meng Zhongjie, a history professor from East China Normal University, said conventional research on world history in China involves historical studies of individual countries. Global perspectives are rarely seen and only big events are discussed. Chinese history is excluded in the discussion. Global historical research emphasizes integrity and connection of changes in the world, while assessing the overall influence of significant historical events from global perspectives, Meng said.

“Great power politics had been the research focus of previous studies on the history of the First World War. Now, assessment of the international political organizations and economic systems have been reviewed during the alteration of the world system, embodying a sense of wholeness,” Meng added.


New trends
Recent years have witnessed new trends in world history research. Meng points out that one of these has been a shift from American-oriented world history to world history with a global mentality. As the leading power in the latter half of the 20th century, the United States initiated world history research. In recent years, the US dominant position in global history research has been challenged due to changes in the international configuration. The world academic community began to prepare for global history examined from global perspectives.

Second, the research focus has been shifted from the history of material flow to the global history of thoughts. Now more and more scholars are engaged in research of the global history of ideas, emphasizing the duplication, development, borrowing, reproduction and passing back of ideas, in order to better understand the formation of the modern world.

Third, global cooperation has replaced isolated historical writing. In previous cooperation projects of historical research, the field of global history embodied more personal wisdom and achievements. As related research absorbs broader scope and more sophisticated fields, worldwide cooperative studies on global history have become a trend in the international academic community, enabling more Chinese scholars to participate in writing global history.

“There are two key points in global historical views. One is decentralization and the other is interaction,” said Li Xuetao, president of the Institute for Global History at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Related research emphasizes understanding history from interaction. In the process, those involved in these interactions should be regarded as subjects. Theories with any national or regional bias kind should be discarded.

Li said the introduction of the concept of global history changed the status of both “central” and “non-central” states. For example, German history recorded in A Concise History of Germany is interwoven with the history of France, Austria and Northern Europe. In this light, “interweaving” is the real form of historical evolution, Li added.

Meng said that for centuries, people’s historical views have been changing from introvert to extrovert, and from monotonous to diverse. Now historical views are profoundly affected by globalization. The role of every country and region must be acknowledged.




ZHANG CHUNHAI and ZHAO LU are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.