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All scholars should assume global historical perspectives

NAN BINGWEN | 2019-04-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Xu Guangqi (right), an imperial official in the Ming Dynasty, worked closely with the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the translation of Western texts on mathematics, hydraulics, astronomy, trigonometry and geography into Chinese, leaving an important mark on Sino-Western cultural communications. Photo: FILE


Today, human beings have mastered an enormous amount of knowledge, and the disciplines corresponding to this knowledge are of incalculable size. In this light, scholars of different fields face the problem of how to treat history and its study, which has a wide range of implications. Whether scholars can properly deal with it has immense consequences.


Historical perspective
It is evident that all historians are keen on historical observations, or in other words, have a historical sentiment. As for non-history scholars, some people do pay attention to historical studies and its theories, concepts and methodologies; however, the majority lack a clear understanding and subjective historical consciousness. Scholars who are not specialized in history should also take on a historical perspective.

Scholars study a wide variety of subjects and the names of the subjects they study usually do not include the word “history,” which is the precise definition of “non-history scholars” in this article. In fact, the objects studied by non-history scholars are not completely unrelated to history, because nothing is static and everything has a process of emergence, evolution and eventual disappearance. In this process, one incident or phenomenon is always associated with the rest, one way or another. These processes, relations and influences are precisely the “history” of that object.

The world is, in general terms, nature, with the exception of humanity. Humanity studies itself and all the objective existence beyond itself. In view of this, the whole of human knowledge has been summed up as human history and natural history. This generalization is correct and is drawn on the basis of treating the change and interrelation of the objective world outside of humanity as it really is.

Therefore, it is recommended for non-history scholars to read the research of historians who are different from themselves, because successful research discusses much of human beings’ understanding, experience and lessons stemming from the transformations of themselves and nature, some aspects of which are likely to be enlightening. It is particularly instructive if the work of a historian is in full accord with that of a non-historian. For example, a non-historian who has worked on a particular calendar topic could benefit from reading the corresponding work of a calendar historian.


Relevance to the present
The task of historians is to study the past of humanity and nature. However, they should also not forget to set aside a considerable amount of time and effort to reflect on contemporary China and the world, analyze the current development and trends, and then combine that knowledge with historical experience and lessons, to find solutions for real-life problems and make the world a better place.

In short, historians should have a valuable contemporary sentiment that cares for the well-being of people around the world today. Only in this way can the role of historians be brought into full play and the function of the discipline of history be displayed.

For example, in today’s world, some countries hold on to extremely selfish purposes, treat other countries with a hegemonic mentality, boldly pursue national interests and preferential policies, and frequently press sanctions, or use the means of threat, to bully those who don’t comply to their will, hindering normal global diplomatic relations and mutually beneficial economic exchanges.

Against this backdrop, China explicitly stresses normal economic ties, mutual benefit, win-win cooperation and a vision of a common community of humanity. Through the Belt and Road initiative, China is making its promise come true, which has the warm support and welcome of people all over the world.

In this light, it is urgent for today’s historians to stand up, actively explore historical examples to elaborate on the harm of bullying between countries, and promote the idea of unity and cooperation. This is indeed an important opportunity to fully display the contemporary sentiment of historians.

In this aspect, there are many positive and negative examples in Chinese history and the history of other countries in the world. For example, China and the Korean Peninsula have been friendly for generations, and the relations between the two sides were even closer in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

There was no war between the two sides, and there were frequent exchanges between envoys and businessmen. Economic exchanges brought great benefits to both countries. The cultural exchanges between the two sides have promoted each other and brought about improvement together. Chinese poems written by Korean intellectuals were included in Chinese-edited poetry collections, which has enriched Chinese literature. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, a monumental work written in Chinese by Korean official historians, recorded the political, economic and cultural exchanges between China and Korea at that time, which testifies to the friendly ties between the two countries.

The historical relations between Japan, China and Korea also have had their downsides. During the reign of Emperor Wanli (c. 1573–1619) in the Ming Dynasty, Japan launched an invasion into Korea. The Korean resistance alone was inadequate, and the Ming Dynasty was invited to send troops to the country. After years of on-again, off-again warfare, the Japanese finally failed and withdrew. The war was won and lost on both sides, with both suffering heavy losses. This is a negative example of Japan’s bravado in waging war at the expense of others.

Examples like these are plenty, waiting for historians to analyze and expound in depth, so as to enlighten future generations and make the past serve the present. The majority of historical scholars should devote themselves to this course with strong contemporary sentiment in order to produce satisfactory results.


China and the world
Chinese historians should undoubtedly focus on China’s history. However, lacking a world perspective would greatly impede their work for the following two reasons:

First, the birth and development of Chinese history did not take place in isolation, but with the constant interaction and mutual influence of neighboring countries and even countries far away. Therefore, if scholars of Chinese history have no world perspective, they tend to ignore the influence of foreign factors on the evolution of Chinese history, so that the study of Chinese history is not comprehensive, which ultimately affects their research’s quality and accuracy.

Second, China is the only ancient civilization in the world that has lasted for thousands of years. The reason why it can be so is by no means an accident. From a macro perspective, it has a reasonable and effective regime structure, national institutions, legal system, social system and ideology, which is flexible enough to adapt to the changing reality over a rather long period of time. This is an important achievement. It has not only benefited China, but also influenced surrounding countries and even distant countries.

For example, it was not until the late Ming Dynasty that Western missionaries came to China and in their letters to their home countries in Europe called China “a happy land,” because the imperial examination system gave everyone a chance to control their own destiny. The establishment of the Western civil service system somewhat drew on the experience of China.
When Western missionaries preached in America and other places, they often resorted to coercion. In China, however, because of its relative strength, missionaries could only use the flexible methods that conformed to local conditions.

Scholars of Chinese history know the thousands of years of Chinese civilization well and if they acquire a world perspective, they could further dig into the Chinese experience and make it convenient for people all over the world to learn from it and thus promote the faster development of human civilization.

In the past ten years, I have participated in revising the Twenty-Four Histories and come to know many experts dedicated to the compilation of ancient Chinese books. An important reason for their generations’ dedication and hard work is that everyone believes the Twenty-Four Histories is a reservoir of thousands of years of Chinese civilization, and they know that it is not only the pride of Chinese people but also a precious part of global cultural heritage. To look at it this way, these scholars have a global sentiment that motivates them to perfect their work.

In short, once scholars who study Chinese history have a global sentiment and perspective, they will be better prepared to benefit, along with their discipline, both the Chinese people and the people of the world.


Nan Bingwen is a senior professor of history at Nankai University.

(edited by JIANG HONG)