55 years of compiling ‘A General History of China’

By XIU XIAOBO / 01-13-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: Cai Meibiao and A General History of China

The Chinese historian Cai Meibiao (1928–2021) possessed a vast store of knowledge. His scholarly research spanned from history and philology to linguistics and many other disciplines. The compilation of Zhongguo Tongshi, or A General History of China, is viewed as his most representative academic achievement. A General History of China is an influential historiographical masterpiece, as well as a microcosm of Cai’s academic career.

Starting from the fifth volume
Cai entered the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1953. At that time, Fan Wenlan (1893–1969), a leading Chinese historian and the director of the institute, was revising Zhongguo Tongshi Jianbian, or A General History of China (Concise Edition). This book was compiled under an unusual background. In 1940, Fan was received by Mao Zedong in Yan’an, and was appointed as the director of the Office of Historical Research at the Party School of the Central Committee of CPC. At that time, Mao Zedong called on the whole party to learn Chinese history and to understand China’s national conditions. Fan was commissioned to organize the office staff to compile a concise book of China’s history. This book, which was named A General History of China (Concise Edition), was actually written independently by Fan. This book originally included three volumes. Only the first and second volumes were completed. The third one was not completed because Fan was given a new task.
After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Fan began to rewrite the book he hadn’t finished before. The book he rewrote, known as the Revised Version of A General History of China (Concise Edition), was not a simple revision of the previous three-volume work, but a new history. According to the division of labor, each person who assisted Fan was responsible for researching a field in history, and providing materials or first drafts for Fan to analyze and rewrite. This book extensively absorbed new academic findings of the time. Cai assisted Fan and became his right-hand man.
From 1953 to 1965, four volumes of A General History of China (Revised and Concise Edition) were successively published, covering China’s history from antiquity to the Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), and Five Dynasties (907–960) eras. At that time, Fan suffered from heart disease, which caused his health to deteriorate. In his letter to Cai, Fan said that he could no longer write by himself, and hoped that Cai could organize other people and work together to finish the book. One year later, Fan passed away.
Fan’s death brought the compilation of the book to a standstill, until Premier Zhou Enlai instructed the team to continue writing it. Cai was appointed to preside over this project. He knew that taking over this job meant that his whole life would be dedicated to the unfinished undertaking left behind by Fan.
‘A General History of China’
Continuing with the compilation of A General History of China (Revised and Concise Edition) was a huge and arduous project. As the editor-in-chief of its following volumes, Cai had a lot to do. At first, he planned to compile six volumes about the history before the First Opium War in 1840. In addition, the book was no longer a revised version of A General History of China (Concise Edition) as its content increased, and it was more than a “concise edition” of China’s history. The sequel should have a new name. “A General History of China” was the most appropriate.
At that time, the Institute of Modern History could not complete all the work of the project alone, so Cai invited scholars from Nankai University, Fudan University, and other universities.
Collaborators wrote the first draft or provided materials, which were then edited by Cai. Cai didn’t simply edit these drafts or materials, but scrutinized and rewrote them word by word throughout. This was the same as Fan did before. If the first draft had 100,000 characters, only 30,000 characters might be used in the book. Cai believed that rewriting was necessary because each collaborator had his or her own writing style. Simply patching their writings together would lead to inconsistencies and conflicts. 
Cai also adhered to using basic historical materials to narrate basic facts. Denis Crispin Twitchett (1925–2006), a professor at the University of London, and one of the co-editors of The Cambridge History of China, once told Cai that they had never finished the first volume of The Cambridge History of China, because they couldn’t keep pace with China’s speed of making new archaeological discoveries. Finally, they had to give up the pre-Qin (before 221 BCE) history of the first volume and start from the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties. The pursuit of absorbing the latest unearthed documents and archaeological findings at all times certainly would lead to the problem of “failing to keep pace.” Therefore, Cai preferred not to present the latest archaeological discoveries in the book.
When compiling A General History of China, Cai inherited Fan’s ideas and methods of writing A General History of China (Concise Edition). Meanwhile, he had his own understanding and made innovations during the process, which can be seen from the following example:
Cai’s A General History of China began with the Song (960–1279), Liao (907–1125), Jin (1115–1234), and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties. This was an era of intensified ethnic conflicts, characterized by many unprecedented problems. Over the 2,000 years from the Han to the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the Han people had ruled over non-Han ethnic groups many times, and had been ruled by non-Han ethnic groups many times as well. In history, there were conflicts and wars between the Han and non-Han ethnic groups, as well as among non-Han ethnic groups. However, these conflicts and wars didn’t create distances but strengthened exchanges and connections among the Han and other ethnic groups. This was because in the new dynasties formed after conflicts and wars, the non-Han ethnic groups absorbed the Han culture and developed new forms of their own culture. The Han culture was more widely spread during the reign of non-Han ethnic groups, and gained new development as it absorbed the cultural elements of other ethnic groups. Conflicts and fusions formed an intricate yet colorful history of China. 
Therefore, in A General History of China, Cai added a chapter for the Western Xia [also known as the Tangut Empire, existing from 1038 to 1227 in present-day northwestern China], which was not found in previous general history books, in the section on Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan history. He also added a chapter of “the various ethnic groups under the rule of the Yuan Dynasty” in the section on the Yuan history.
55 years of effort
Since Cai followed Fan to compile the general history book, he had devoted most of his time and energy to this project. For decades, he could be found in his office every day, writing come rain or shine. 
Through the unremitting efforts of Cai and his colleagues, six volumes of A General History of China were successively completed, and were combined with the first four volumes compiled by Fan. This ten-volume masterpiece was published by the People’s Publishing House between 1978 and 1993. According to the original plan, the tenth volume ended with the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor (r. 1796–1820) of the Qing Dynasty. Many scholars and readers suggested adding the late Qing history—from the reign of the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821–1850) to that of the Xuantong Emperor [the final Qing Dynasty ruler, who was forced to abdicate in 1912]—to the book. At that time, Cai was already in his seventies, but he still set about working again.
 I have Cai’s call slip on hand for the library of the Institute of Modern History, and the date written on it is January 7, 2002. Cai was 74 years old that year.
In 2005, two volumes of manuscripts were finally completed, depicting the decline and downfall of the Qing Dynasty. In 2008, these two new volumes were combined with the first ten volumes and were published together, with a total of nearly four million characters. Some people advocated writing four more volumes of China’s history until the founding of the PRC in 1949. Cai discussed this matter with many people, and they all felt that this task should be left to future generations.
Sima Guang (1019–1086), a high-ranking Song Dynasty scholar-official, spent over 20 years compiling the Zizhi Tongjian [Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government, a pioneering reference work in Chinese historiography covering 16 dynasties and spanning almost 1,400 years]. He finished this work at age 63. In his letter submitted to the throne, Sima said that he suffered from blurry vision and tooth loss, and all his energy had been devoted to Zizhi Tongjian. In 2008, the 12 volumes were published as a box set, A General History of China. At that time, Cai was 80 years old. Before the publication, Cai said: “Looking back at the time when I participated in editing the first volume of this book in 1953, 55 years have passed before I knew it.”
Xiu Xiaobo is a professor from the School of History at Qingdao University.