The Practice of History and China Today

The text below is based on discussions conducted at the symposium of this name in Sydney 17-19 December 2013. Organised by the Australian Centre on China in the World, the symposium was also the culmination of a two-year project on ‘Re-reading Levenson’ undertaken by six historians: Geremie Barmé (Australian National University), Timothy Cheek (University of British Columbia), Gloria Davies (Monash University), Madeleine Yue Dong (University of Washington), Mark Elliott (Harvard University), Wen-hsin Yeh (University of California Berkeley).

The symposium required participants to have read beforehand Joseph Levenson’s seminal work Confucian China and its Modern Fate (published as a trilogy in 1967). To provide a present-day context for the discussion, three recent publications were recommended as background reading: ‘After the Future in China’ by Geremie Barmé, Renewal: The Chinese State and the New Global History (HKU, 2013) by Wang Gungwu and the 30 January 2013 seminar on ‘New Tianxiaism: China’s Moment in World History’ 新天下主义: 世界历史中的中国时刻 by Xu Jilin. The thirteen participants of the symposium were: Geremie Barmé, David Brophy (University of Sydney), Timothy Cheek, Gloria Davies, Madeleine Yue Dong, Mark Elliott, Leigh Jenco (London School of Economics and Political Science), Liu Qing (East China Normal University), Qian Ying (ANU), Will Sima (ANU), Brian Tsui (ANU), Xu Jilin (East China Normal University) and Wen-hsin Yeh.

(17 December, Day 1 morning) Session 1 Rethinking Chinese History and Levenson’s legacy

(Barmé) ‘Is China writing itself out of world history?’ How should we engage with the state’s promotion of ‘Chinese characteristics’ with regard to mainland scholarship on Marxist thought past and present? We should also note the importance of discursive authority 话语权 in the PRC; considering ‘the China story’ as a state-endorsed narrative vs. the stories that the world tells about China.

(Yeh) The political and intellectual contexts of historiography are of particular importance in relation to reading Levenson today. The idea of Confucian China as a dying world was imaginable in the 1960s. Levenson lived in a time where, in the absence of contact with the PRC, it was still possible to imagine and essentialise Chinese civilisation. How does today’s globalized scholarship alter the stakes of engaging with China and the idea of Chinese civilisation?

(Elliott) Levenson saw the history of modern China as making guojia 国家 from tianxia 天下, making nation from empire, a premise that still serves as the foundation for much thinking about the last century of Chinese history. But if the tianxia-empire out of which the guojia-nation was made is understood to be not ‘China’ but ‘China under Qing rule’, and in particular the Qing of the Yongzheng reign as interpreted via Japanese Sinology, how does that affect our understanding of that transformation? A serious engagement with the Chinese discourse of empire from the nineteenth to the twentieth century shows that it is not a neutral term: from a Chinese perspective, ‘empire’ 帝国 appears as a Western concept – though again filtered through a Japanese lens at some level.

(Cheek) What logic governs the framing of the historical question ‘from tradition to modernity’ – is the framing itself deterministic (that is, envisaging a given modernity as telos)? How do we engage with the idea of shijiezhuyi 世界主义and how does it differ from the received sense of ‘cosmopolitanism’?

(Davies) It’s important to attend to the conditions we set – what our arguments and ideas will allow – when we approach a text. Historiography identifies problems and tensions but in recursive ways (to discover new patterns and ways of understanding in received knowledge) that are different from the discourse of theoretical analysis (whether literary or philosophical). In other words, if theorising leads from concept, hypothesis or premise to argument, historiography requires us to also ponder recursively how a story got to be told a certain way (Z said this because Y had earlier said of what X said that…). Is Levenson’s ‘amateur’ style of writing admissible in today’s academy? Is it understandable to Chinese colleagues? Why is it that we refer often to John K. Fairbank and Paul Cohen, but not so much to Levenson, when so many of the questions that people (e.g. Prasenjit Duara, Benjamin Elman, Rana Mitter) have been asking come from Levenson?

(Dong) Levenson’s central interest was on China’s ‘re-entry’ into the world in modern times. He saw the historicisation of this process as occurring at a time when tianxia had become guojia; when Confucianism had gone from a universal value to a ‘Chinese characteristic’; and ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ had become separated. Levenson’s evaluation of the condition of nineteenth and twentieth century China is debatable, but it is clear that he believed that China had to re-enter the world (from which it had become isolated), and had to do so on cosmopolitan grounds. This has been a central question not only for scholars but ordinary Chinese as well. In this sense, Levenson’s thinking is still meaningful.

Discussions in China on this issue of ‘re-entering the world’ have been focused on China as an exception: for instance, the ‘China model’ highlights nationalism. Noticing this tendency, Western scholars have been critical of the ‘China model’ and its nationalism. But this type of debate leads to a dead-end politically. We need to keep in mind that the Chinese are not doing something exceptional when they defend the idea of China’s exceptionalism: all large countries have done so. Levenson compared China and the West (as opposed to contrasting them) and he did so dialogically. His method might help us think more productively about the relationship between the two. In other words, Levenson treated China not as an object of study but as illustrating problems faced by the whole modern world. His approach alerts us to the fact that what should concern us are not ‘China’s problems’ but rather modern problems encountered in and exemplified by China. Other questions we should keep in mind are: how do we describe and reflect on our own historical practices? What is the relationship between historical studies and the social sciences, both in the West and China? How has China been criticising the West?

(Yeh) In addressing the relevance and the lack of relevance of Levenson today, we are dealing with what is happening today. There are the historical narratives of China emerging today and the story of China that Xi Jinping wants to be told. If we read Levenson attentively, we will find that at the core of the Levensonian narrative, there is a China story. China’s encountering of the world. A story that is inspired by two key events and the narratives they have elicited: the Opium Wars at one end and 1949 at the other. 1785 is presented as a prelude to modern China. The transformation of Confucian China is its inevitable disintergration, and the museumification of the past. Levenson’s narrative is focused on power relations. He was certain that the Confucian elites were incapable of entering into and adapting to a modern world, basing his judgement on nineteenth century China’s military failures. Levenson’s use of Max Weber makes his narrative different from John K. Fairbank’s. Levenson sought to produce a social analysis of Chinese culture but in the sense of ‘men thinking’ as China thinking. I see this as a combination of brilliance and prejudice.

One of the most intriguing issues for us historians is how cultures read each other, on an uneven play field, then and now. Chinese constructions of China’s cultural uniqueness, then and now, are of particular interest. In the light of present-day developments, do we consider Levenson’s argument that modern China could no long dictate its own terms as no longer convincing? In Volume Three of his trilogy, Levenson wrote of a fragmentation of Confucianism. But his Confucianism was state ideology. If we adopt a more open view of the Confucian classics and the premodern tradition, would we have a different view? Would we distinguish more carefully between contributions to ‘civilisation’ as opposed to ‘nation’? We should also note that Levenson never attacked patriarchy.

Nonetheless, Levenson is inspiring, because he helps us to see the work of historical narration as historical theory-making. This leads to the issue of what kinds of theory we are making, and what sort of issues our theories can be applied to. So let’s begin by asking what the problems are.

(17 December, Day 1 afternoon) Session 2 Questions of periodisation and time (led by Geremie Barmé and Wen-hsin Yeh)

(Xu) ‘What is China?’ The question now lacks definition. [To use the idea of tianxia – ‘all under Heaven’ – a keyword for Levenson], has ‘empire’ 帝国 now become imaginable, in the sense of ‘an empire bereft of a tianxia-consciousness’ 没有天下意识的帝国? To relate Levenson to current issues for mainland historians, we need to ask how terms such as national ‘self-confidence’ are being used in mainland public discourse, a confidence that rests on money, and what it means for China to have a national identity or ‘selfhood’ 自我 based on identifying common ‘enemies’ but without having a common agreed-upon political-civilisational core. Is this a nation-state with the face of empire 以帝国为面目的民族国家 and can it last a long time?

(Liu) Is the ‘centennial’ 百年 concept post-Levenson? There’s much soul-searching, for instance, about China’s lack of progress from the 1880s to the 1980s. The ‘centennial’ mode of critical analysis in Chinese scholarship examines the problems associated with the 1880s – how to fit China into the world? – as haunting China anew in the 1980s without resolution. There is a deracination and disjunction which is strongly reflected in the language, through which China today appears as a half-Chinese, half-Western thing. So there’s a sense among mainland scholars that there has been a warp in the Chinese sense of time; that ‘the future must go back to the past’, but the question is: to go back to which point in time?

(Barmé) To what extent does the use of sanctioned rhetoric create a specific kind of reality? When does an idea ‘stick’? For instance, what holds Xi Jinping’s China Story (‘the China that is not allowed to grow up’) and online criticism in relationship to each other? On periodisation, we need to add to our engagement with the ‘centennial’ the recent Party format of referring to two thirty-year periods (1949-78 and 1978 to the present).

(Liu) We must also note that the image of China as a land of great achievements coexists with that of China as embroiled in problems. China’s Chang’e lunar exploration mission and air pollution have proceeded in tandem.

(Cheek) What signs do we look for to know that an idea has stuck?

(Jenco) Recursive thinking makes the definition of ‘what sticks’ a retrospective act.

(Davies) We need to consider Levenson’s use of the word ‘fate’ in relation to his remarks about faith as a choice that history opens up: ‘to will to be…and to be willed’.

(Elliott) ‘Fate’ is the one word in the title of Levenson’s work that we’ve paid the least attention to. One way of understanding fate is as a type of historical recursiveness: the thing that makes change seem like fate, like something inescapable, that we keep coming back to and that prevents the emergence of a belief in transcendence. I would say this was one of the distinguishing qualities of the CCP-led revolution.

(Brophy) On a related issue, a term like tianming 天命 (‘Mandate of Heaven’) cannot be reconstructed or resurrected once it’s gone.

(Yeh) China has travelled many paths since the CCP took over, but has lost its map in the process. So there’s no general map in which all of the multifarious paths make sense. We could say that the triumph of the CCP in China (if it is a triumph), understood from a Levensonian perspective, is an overcoming of problems and contradictions that has come at the expense of a historically cogent China – its ‘map’. Thus while the CCP presents the nation as progressing toward Chinese modernity 3.0, it is no longer able to promise with its former confidence that ‘the new’ would resolve the problems of ‘the old’.

(Liu) The CCP emphasises taking unprecedented steps, so the idea is of first paving the path and then producing a map. More specifically, Chinese scholarship today seeks to identify an ‘alternative modernity’ at work in the nation’s history since the 1880s (if we treat this decade as marking the start of Confucian China’s rapid decline). We should note that the CCP understands the history of modern China as the history of modernisation, in which 1949 denotes a ‘new start’ and an acceleration of the modernising process. The problem for us is that the ‘alternative modernity’ espoused during the Mao era did not achieve what it promised.

(Ying) So the Marxist timeline is disrupted by the Chinese approach to revolution.

(Liu) Well you could say that ‘time began again’ in the post-Mao period under Deng Xiaoping. This time, the process of modernisation led to the ‘Chinese miracle’ and consequently to the privileging of the ‘China Model’. In terms of imagining China’s modernisation as a process occurring in time and space, we could say that the nation’s present economic success has encouraged a rich variety of ways in which to discuss ‘socialism with special characteristics’. Can the ‘body’ of capitalism be successfully tamed and brought under the control of the socialist ‘mind’? That’s an unprecedented challenge.

(Tsui) We should also note that there are two ways of approaching the ‘China Model’ and they are distinct: either a model that is tailored for China or a model for the world.

(Elliott) We need to consider the practice of history against the agency of historiography. There are many different types of historical narrative that can co-exist. The problem with the China Story is that there can only be one version, and state efforts to limit other versions, and to limit access to sources makes it hard to produce alternatives. How much will we be able to get out of the Qing History Project when those volumes are finally published? What will it tell us about how history is being written?

(Brophy) Should we think in terms of a responsibility to tell history as world history?

(18 December, Day 2 morning) Session 3 focused on Chinese senses of ‘empire’ and ‘nation-state’.

Led by Mark Elliott, it began with a discussion of the new challenges encountered by historians who work with archives. Chinese archives have become much less accessible than they were previously and concerns were raised about the adverse effects this would have on both empirical research and analysis. The session highlighted the revival of tianxia as a concept in recent mainland scholarship:

(Brophy) Rhetoric matters when we consider present-day uses of terms like fuxing 复兴 (renewal) and tianxia; what do these terms augur in relation to the idea of China today and the place of Qing history? If we associate tianxia as all-under-Heaven with such notions as universalism, cosmopolitanism and assimiliation, then we must also note that these notions changed over time.

The Qing was a conquest dynasty but one where Manchus were dispersed across the territory (unlike the Yuan which retained its own land of Mongolia). Thinking of universalism requires us to consider the assimilation of frontier areas in which Qing standards and rules were imposed on others. This is a model of assimilation that has lasted. We should also ask what ‘frontier’ signifies in the sense of a ‘Qing frontier? In this regard, the late Qing view of tianxia is what has been incorporated into the present-day discourse of the ‘nationalities’ (minzu) system in the PRC.

(Elliott) The Qianlong era presented a form of sovereign-centred universalism. Tianxia as it is now used avoids any reference to the nation-state or empire. For example, Zhao Tingyang uses the term as a would-be superior alternative to the Westphalian system: something that is less or even non-hierarchical. A new tianxia-ism seems to connote China’s restoration to greatness but without engagement with its authoritarian past. It also allows for new ways of discussing a multi-ethnic China.

(Cheek) I think you’ve hit the heart of the matter: tianxia as a term for domestic use can help to breathe new life into the idea of one China with multiple ethnicities 民族. So understood, tianxia resembles Sun Yat-sen’s notion of ‘five races under one union’ 五族共和.

(Brophy) Tianxia as Zhao has used it is an IR concept that has no domestic applicability.

(Barmé) But practically, does this tianxia make sense only in a revamped hierarchy contingent on the CCP being in power?

(Elliott) This is a great question. I think indeed that one reason we are seeing a resurgence of interest in tianxia has to do with the unspoken assumption that there is a strong (Chinese) center at the heart of it; think about the world order that was the preferred model before this, namely of China leading the Third World – in which case we might also want to raise the idea if we are really entirely in a post-Cold-War world.

(Cheek) Philip Kuhn’s Soulstealers is worth re-reading in relation to these issues, for what it indicates of a general mindset in the ‘prosperous age’ of Qianlong, that is, as an example of how three distinct kinds of people (emperor, bureaucrats, and commoners) experienced tianxia order in the late eighteenth century.

(Yeh) Conceptualisation of the domestic vs. the international, and of frontier vs. borderland, cannot avoid imposing a hierarchical spatial order. We should also consider the work of the United Front Department, which looks after places like Taiwan that are conceived of (in the PRC) as neither domestic nor international.

(Cheek) Exactly! Remember Mao in 1939 and the Three Great Weapons of the Chinese revolution: we focus on party building and armed struggle, but tend to neglect the united front. It’s worth considering the mental worlds and operational structures that the united front 统一战线 produced to support a new version of tianxia. I suspect this undergirds the offer coming out of the Third Plenum (2013) to let ‘social organisations’ help in local administration—bringing to mind Qing accommodation of local elite supplementary services in local famine relief, works, education, etc—in support of the orthodox order.

(Elliott) The United Front Department is also in charge of Tibet and Xinjiang affairs.

(Xu) My use of ‘New Tianxia-ism’ should be read as a critical response to nationalistic writings promoting the ‘China Model’ that have been assimilated into the official discourse. I also used it to question the idea of a ‘China proper’ based in the argument that China is essentially an agricultural civilisation. In his influential book Lodged in China 宅茲中國, Ge Zhaoguang provides a version of this argument. If we define China as such, there is no place for the peoples and cultures of China’s grasslands.

In using ‘New Tianxia-ism’ I seek to engage with questions about China as a civilisation and a geopolitical entity from the perspective of universal values. I use the term to evoke a sense of the cosmopolitan and buoyant – something that resists being bogged down in the paradigm of China vs. the West. ‘May Fourth’ was, in this regard, a form of ‘New Tianxia-ism’ in the making.

I should also point out that the terms tianxia and diguo (empire) complement each other. If we read diguo as a geopolitical concept, tianxia refers to the art of government that puts flesh and bones on diguo. On this point, we must note that issues concerning China’s national sovereignty and China’s core interests have remained of particular importance to government from the late Qing to the present。

(Following Xu’s remarks about how his sense of ‘new tianxia-ism’ draws attention to the uptake of universal principles in modern China, and hence differs from Ge Zhaoguang’s sinocentric representation of the Song dynasty as a proto-cosmopolitan empire, Elliott and Liu pointed out similarities between Xu’s and Ge’s understanding of tianxia.)

(Day 2 afternoon) Session 4 focused on the impact of Communist Party rule on Chinese historical thinking and on the changing senses of ‘continuity’ (cultural and historical) and ‘Chinese civilisation’. Led by Timothy Cheek and Madeleine Yue Dong, highlights include:

(Tsui) Levenson treated Communism as a species of nationalism. He traced the replacement of Confucian universalism by ‘nationalistic communism’, seeing the rise of ‘the people’s China’ as one smooth trajectory. Having credited Cixi’s coup against the 1898 Reforms for driving the last nail into Confucianism’s coffin, Levenson followed the Confucian worldview’s afterlife into Maoist China. The intervening years saw the Chinese intellectual elite trying to balance the inevitability of modernity with the yearning for a national cultural identity. Chinese Communists were successful in appealing to universal history without entirely abandoning traditional Chinese modes of understanding and expression. They accomplished what the cultural conservatives could not.

It is interesting to read Levenson against Antonio Gramsci, given that both China and Italy faced similar challenges of the transition from empire to nation-state. Yet Gramsci’s understanding of the problem could not be more different from Levenson’s. Gramsci sought to account for the crushing defeat of the people’s Italy. One of Gramsci’s key points is that the demise of a universal tradition was more toxic than the mere mummification of a knowledge system. He faulted nineteenth-century Italian nationalists for seeing themselves as inheritors of a degraded imperial civilisation. They worked either to revive indigenous ‘national heritage’ or to peddle an aloof cosmopolitanism. He accused both groups of deserting the oppressed (subalterns) and excluding them from the emerging nation.

At one point in his trilogy, Levenson observed that the Chinese Communists had objected to both the reactionary adoration of Confucianism and the liberal celebration of humanism. According to Levenson, this Communist attitude became a last resort for solving the abiding identity crisis of modern China. The Maoist celebration of the famous Tang poet Bo Juyi was presented in nationalistic terms: it affirmed ‘the people’s China’. Levenson wrote in a manner that encourages readers to ask: what constitutes ‘the people’? Is this idea rooted in the mythologised jingtian 井田community which had no real bearing on twentieth-century China? Or should we seek ‘the people’ in the playful cacophony of traditional and modernist symbols, goods and lifestyles of Republican-era Shanghai urban culture? Or should ‘the people’ be understood as the downtrodden who contributed to, benefited from, and suffered under state socialism? Should ‘the people’ be underpinned by the concept of democracy? ‘Nationalistic communism’ is a concept we need to unpack carefully.

(Barmé) Richard Kraus’s book, Brushes with Power, is worth re-reading in this context. Confucian statecraft during the late Qing was already a part of modern teleology, posed in response to the growing missionary influence in China, especially missionary ways of organizing and producing knowledge.

(Dong) I suspect that Levenson shows some essentialism in his discussion of Cai Yuanpei. He wrote: ‘The fact is, simply, that a European who admired traditional Chinese achievements remained just a European with cosmopolitan tastes, not the synthetic Sino-European whom Cai envisaged; while the Chinese who admired Western achievements might pass through cosmopolitanism and synthesis together and become a Western covert.’ If we follow his argument to its logical end, then no culture can learn anything from other cultures, and everything new has to be generated purely from an internal source of creativity. This appears to be a static and unhistorical view of history. It is entirely possible for something that could not have happened under the power relations of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to happen in a changed world of a different time.

(Davies) There’s a vital difference between Western and Chinese ways of essentialising. Whereas Western philosophy has been motivated by the question of ‘what is’, Chinese thought, ancient and modern, has revolved around ‘knowing how to be’. So if we grant that essentialising is an aspect of theorising, what we encounter in Chinese are a range of practices concerned with the moral and practical consequences of knowledge. Not surprisingly, history still trumps philosophy in the modern Chinese humanities for questions of how and what one learns, or should learn, from the past have always mattered more than such questions as ‘what is philosophy?’ or ‘what is history?’ that have an abiding importance in the Western humanities.

(Dong) In terms of new developments in Chinese scholarship on modern Chinese history, we must note the abiding influence of Marxist historiography. Levenson argued that Marxist historiography enabled the Chinese to gain a psychological balance in their relationship with the West: China did not have to fall behind the West forever, but could catch up and even surpass the West by overcoming passive evolution through active revolution, by using the human will to conquer Nature, and by speeding up the temporal to shrink the spatial differences. Today, with China’s rise, a similar logic seems to be at work: socialism and capitalism are perceived as forces in contestation yet headed toward the same destination. To control the direction of history, to conquer Nature, to manipulate the temporal – these convictions remain strong. Moreover, mainland scholars continue to credit Marxist historiography with enabling the Chinese to develop a new narrative, to write a ‘general history’ by making ‘society’ the subject of history and by making the economy as the determining factor of history.

We should also note the important role played by the ‘sinicisation of Marxism’ as a political concept in the narration of modern China. China’s historical exceptionalism is often justified on the Marxist time axis, for instance, through the description of China’s ‘special characteristics’ as a ‘semi-feudal and semi-colonial society’.

These ideas that I have outlined affect not only Chinese scholars but Western scholars too. We share the same dilemma of being trapped in a poverty of narratives of nineteenth and twentieth century China. To date, we seem to be confined to modernisation theory, or anti-colonial and anti-imperialist theory; the latter criticises the former but they are two sides of the same coin. After 1949, all social science disciplines were abolished, and only literature, history, and philosophy remained, and history has been reduced to elaborating the conditional mode in which the Party narrates Chinese history: ‘It is only because of the CCP…’ 只有中国共产党, which complements the ‘inevitability’ plot-line.

There have been primarily three party narratives: (i) the semi-feudal and semi-colonial society narrative; (ii) the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial narrative; (iii) the revolutionary 革命 narrative; and more recently (iv)the unity 大一统 narrative.

There is a serious lack of cogency among these narratives. It would be worthwhile comparing research in social history with the CCP’s own narratives. There must have been reasons for the CCP’s success, but these might not be the ones presented in Party history.

(Cheek) Weber’s concept of patrimonialism is useful for reflecting on Party thinking and Party history. In China, bureaucratic rationalism is framed around ‘correct ideas’ 正确的思想, which turns administrative problems into moral ones (the heart of Weber’s patrimonialism). Pitman Potter’s book on Peng Zhen is worth reading in this light, especially on how Peng Zhen laid down the rules of Party management. The efforts of both Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping to revive ‘authentic Maoism’ suggest we have a case not of thought losing its institutional base (the monarchy) as in Levenson’s study of Confucianism, but rather have a case of an institution (the Party-State) losing its thought (Maoist ideology). Levenson argued Confucianism could not live without its institutional base, but it has—albeit with core changes—and is once again a force today [albeit, much reduced—see Jenco’s comments for Session 5]. Likewise, this suggests a longer life—albeit with changes—for a post-ideological Communist China.

(Davies) The revival of Maoism in recent years is a form of faux counter-discourse when used to criticise present-day inequality since its authority is vouchsafed by the one-party system – a counter-discourse that effectively reinforces the dominant discourse.

(Barmé) It’s naughty but not dangerous: the long tail of Maoism. As for Mao, he simply equated proletarianisation with the non-West: this is because he saw the West as synonymous with bourgeoisification. We should note the Maoist inflections of the moral rhetoric used today to describe popular discontent about inequality – terms like chou fu 仇富 (hating the rich) and xuan fu 炫富 (flaunting one’s wealth). On bureaucratic rationalism, let’s not forget that Mao’s romantic ideal was the Paris commune, not bureaucratic Stalinism.

(Xu) So there’s no denying that the motivation for the Cultural Revolution was good; that it had its own internal logic, based in the transcendental values held by Mao!

(19 December, Day 3 morning) Session 5 focused on remembrance as a mode of inquiry and on attitudes, orientations, styles and values in Chinese historiography. Led by Gloria Davies, highlights include:

(Jenco) To ask what the recent Confucian revival is really reviving, we need to interrogate what is meant by tradition, how it has been received and what is assumed in the idea of an originary identity. Levenson’s notion of ‘creative engagement’ highlights the possibilities that different lineages of historical inquiry might open up within a received tradition. He saw Confucian thought as dead the moment its ideas failed to provide precedents for action. A more nuanced critical vocabulary has displaced Levenson’s work but his insights into Confucianism’s demise when it became something culturally specific (a ‘museum piece’) are helpful when considering the recent Confucian revival. The Confucian values of today do not inform action but constitute instead elements of a social imaginary in Charles Taylor’s sense of this term.

(Elliott) I wonder it was a more a case of Levenson marking the moment when Confucian ideas failed to be the sole source that provided precedents for action. On the point concerning Confucian values serving as elements of a social imaginary, would people like Tu Wei-ming and Stephen Angle disagree, and to what extent are they a part of this ‘Confucian revival’?

(Dong) The need to be aware of assumptions that frame our thinking reminds me of statements like ‘The Chinese didn’t seem to be ready for constitutionalism’ which are accepted without comment in scholarship today.

(Cheek) True: which Chinese exactly are ‘not ready’? And says who?

(Yeh) Huang Zongxi’s 黄宗羲 critique of the Ming civil service examination system is very useful for inquiring into the difference between history as a form of strategising, of working on behalf of the state (guo), as opposed to something of benefit to all, tianxia quite literally in the sense of ‘all-under-Heaven’ as the goal of knowledge. To treat history as strategy centred on examining the nation’s rise and fall 国家兴亡 does not allow new connections to be made.

(Qian) I’m interested in how state ideology is ‘practised’ in society and in the rise of ‘little traditions’ 小传统 as a consequence of mass politics and in the context of rapidly changing mass media. Documentary films create ‘histories’ in the sense of giving form to local stories, enabling their articulation and hence re-articulation. A topic I’ve been researching is the production of unofficial poetry journals in China, particularly by women migrant workers and ethnic minority writers. The governing paradigm of the poetry published in these journals is that of ‘collective suffering’ 集体遭遇, such that there is an implicit shared aim of asking how local communities are organised and how might they be improved. Such writings are at the margin of the nation and there’s little sense of the ‘nation’ as a concept. History matters instead as shared experience.

(Elliott) This is ‘history’, not ‘History’ – the difference is crucial.

(Davies) I’ve been thinking about the nature of historical scholarship – what does it mean to write about the past so as to highlight its importance. Levenson’s third book in the trilogy is deeply engaged with this question. I see the art of the historian as turning selected material remains of a given time and place into a coherent and vivid narrative – a narrative of consequence. In other words, historians don’t write about how things actually were: they subject the past to a plot-line (and to concepts, methods and theories) of the present.

(Elliott) Along the lines of Hayden White’s Metahistory?

(Davies) Yes, I think Metahistory was a seminal work in drawing our attention to the types of narrative and rhetorical forms used in historical scholarship. There’s the temptation to yield to a given plot, to foreshadow how later situations developed out of earlier ones. Levenson puts it poetically: the historian ‘stands on shifting sands, yet he must take a stand.’ This is part of a search for authenticity, if not ‘truth’.

(Cheek) This is a core issue and one that I see as a productive contradiction: in order for us to do more than reconfirm our preconceptions, our historical stories must be ‘as true as possible’ to past experience but at the same time we must use contemporary concepts to organise and communicate effectively, if our work is to be useful today.



The following text was distributed to participants on the first day of the workshop.

‘Ideas and Methods toward Rethinking Chinese History in Today’s Global Context’: a collective project

Geremie Barmé, Timothy Cheek, Gloria Davies, Madeleine Yue Dong, Mark Elliot and Wen-hsin Yeh

The analysis of ‘modern Chinese history’ as a practice is an enormous task and one that is best done collectively. At a time when Xi Jinping is calling for a thoroughgoing revision of the nation’s history in order for the Party ‘to tell the China story well’ 讲好中国故事, this task has become all the more urgent. What ideas and methods will the party-state utilise in its re-telling of the China story? What ramifications will it have for Chinese historical studies today and in the future?

The six of us have been meeting at regular intervals to discuss our work and to re-read key texts. We have found our collective reading practice to be highly effective in identifying problems that we share across our different endeavours. In the course of discussion, we’ve also each discovered blind-spots in our ways of thinking.

The present closed workshop is our first attempt at including other interested participants in our collective reading practice. For us, this small group format (no more than 15 people in total, the present workshop has 13) is necessary if every participant is to be fully involved in the discussions. The pressures of academic life have led us to read more and more for the purpose of ‘professing’ and peer-reviewed publication. We have grown unaccustomed to more adventurous forms of reading. By using a seminal text (in this case, Levenson’s Confucian China and its Modern Fate) the workshop is designed for everyone to share the fruits of their close reading and re-reading. We see this process as highly effective in getting people to interrogate their assumptions and judgements about the textualised past.

Let us dispense with the idea of ‘going back to the classroom’. The aim of this intellectual exercise is neither to repeat received knowledge nor to instruct others on how to do so. What we want instead is intensive engagement with what it means to be doing history today. What concerns and motivates us as historians? Which questions are the most important to ask? Why?

Levenson’s text has provided us with a framework for rehearsing new arguments, identifying gaps of understanding, sharing new insights and, more often than not, asking other members of the group for help in resolving mental blocks and unanswered questions. In fact, many of the questions listed in the workshop program came about as a result of our debating what Levenson meant in one or another instance. We do not pose these questions with a view to obtaining definitive answers: there can be none since every answer entails a set of assumptions about what history means to the inquirer.

The point of a collective reading practice is to discover anew which assumptions ground our understanding of history and how assumptions have changed over the decades. This small closed workshop is a product of institutional practice and a beneficiary of institutional funding. Yet, we hope to emulate Levenson by asking participants to engage with Chinese history in a spirit and style closer to that of the amateur (driven to make sense of things) than the professional (focused on peer-reviewed publication).

Insofar as the questions we pose in the program have arisen out of our collective reading of Levenson, they also constitute an important part of our research findings. Once articulated, they seem self-evident but the questions were not there at the start: they emerged only after many hours of discussion.

In welcoming you to join our reading practice, we hope that you will share our enthusiasm for rethinking Chinese history and our interest in developing analytical and critical tools that would enhance the independence of historical inquiry.