井底之蛙

6/17/2008

Chinese history sucks

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:07 am

As a profession anyway. Historians are notorious for thinking that the past matters a lot, and most of us even think the past matters even if it has nothing to do with the present. (We’re weird that way) If you are a China historian, however there are always peoplewho are only interested in the contemporary rise of China. Whenever I ask my Modern China students why they are taking my class I usually get a lot of them who are interested in “how China got where it is now” by which they usually mean (even if they don’t yet know it) events since 1983. 1 To some extent I don’t mind this. At most small schools China historians will be the only China person there, and talking about contemporary China is part of the job. Part I like too. I find China today fascinating, and giving half-baked opinions on it is a lot of fun. Plus I’m told by colleagues in less trendy fields that this public interest is why people are always shoveling money at me. (Using very small shovels, I might point out)

All that said, I’m glad I’m not Jonathan Spence. He is currently giving the Reith Lectures in England, and apparently the format is 20 minutes of Spence talking about Chinese history followed by 40 minutes of questions about contemporary China. Given that “the value of history is in its relevance to the present” this is not that surprising, and Spence’s choice of topics probably did not help. It would be refreshing to me, however, if Chinese history in the West could draw at least some audience of people who thought that Confucius, like Socrates, was worth knowing about even if it had nothing to do with your stock portfolio, and who thought that the White Lotus was just as interesting/important/cool as the Wars of the Roses even if neither of them has much to do with Darfur.

  1. Blogposts also tend to get more attention if they are focused on the present. []

8 responses to “Chinese history sucks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Chinese history sucks As a profession anyway.” In many other ways too. Historians in China were executed, tortured, imprisoned, etc. for not telling the story the way they should – glorifying the current dictator.

  2. Bill says:

    “Chinese history sucks As a profession anyway.” In many other ways too. Historians in China were executed, tortured, imprisoned, etc. for not telling the story the way they should – glorifying the current dictator.

  3. R says:

    I agree with a lot of your points, especially the one about Confucius and his thought being worth knowing. However perhaps I can balance things a little bit by pointing out that many members of the target audience (people with stock portfolios) probably don’t care too much about Socrates either.

  4. AWG says:

    # R Says:
    June 18th, 2008 at 12:02 am

    I agree with a lot of your points, especially the one about Confucius and his thought being worth knowing. However perhaps I can balance things a little bit by pointing out that many members of the target audience (people with stock portfolios) probably don’t care too much about Socrates either.

    Maybe so, but I suspect some of them, at least, would still tell you that he Matters–because he’s one of the foundations of Western thought, because they studied him in school as teens, because, well, he just is, etc. etc. I don’t think they’d ask quite as many tongue-in-cheek questions about whether Socrates would have approved of modern capitalism, haw haw.

    I suppose curiosity about only contemporary China is better than no curiosity at all (which is also pretty common), but I’ve still found those Reith Lecture Q&A sessions pretty frustrating so far.

  5. I think that interests in contemporary society, no matter which one it is, are a reflection of our interests in “what will happen next.” Historians often criticize political scientists for trying to “scientifically predict” future outcomes (I studied poli sci before), but I believe that many people are genuinely curious (or worried) about the future of human society. I came to think that political science is not necessarily the best way to deal with this question (and thus I switched the field).

    Even if historians are neither interested in, nor responsible for, predicting the future, we still need to answer the “so what?” question. Explaining contemporary China is one way of answering this question. Emphasizing Socrates or Confucius thoughts also require an explanation of “so what?”. Given that, Chinese history has a great potential to offer answers to the “so what” question in so many creative ways!

  6. Cindy Luk says:

    The White Lotus may not have anything to do with Darfur, but it certainly have similarities with the rise of the CCP. The recent display of Chinese nationalism certainly has it roots on Chinese history of the past 150 years. Important things to know by anyone interested in making a buck in the Middle Kingdom. Carrefour learned it the hard way.

    As a lay person, I think there’s nothing wrong to say that history is only important if it’s relevant to contemporary lives. Regrettable, but perfectly understandable. And it is the duty of modern historians to make Chinese history relevant to the average Joe.

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  8. J Chan says:

    In reply to 1 & 2 above. Many people were killed in European
    societies (including the new World)and by the Church. In these places,
    to historians you need to add Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, heathens,
    witches, women, Orientals, Negroes, scientists, heretics, and so on and so on.

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