IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 16 | Regions |East Asia

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The International Project on Chinese and Comparative Historiography

In China, history appears to be the idée fixe which has encapsulated the Chinese world views throughout all ages. Thus, the study of the Chinese historiographical tradition is really worth devoting one's time to. Research in this field is expected to be led along some interesting new pathways thanks to an exceptionally exciting project - the International Project on Chinese and Comparative Historiography. Activities carried out this project include a 'Conference on Sung Historical Thinking' and a preparatory meeting for a series of three conferences on 'Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture in a Comparative Perspective'.

By Achim Mittag

'China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world', this is the opening sentence of the present Constitution of the People's Republic of China from 1982. Indeed, since ancient times, history has occupied the centre of Chinese thought. This has resulted in a great abundance of historical records in China, which have come down to us and which cover a period of nearly 3,000 years with exceptional continuity. For some modern interpreters, however, the line quoted only sums up what has been going wrong with China both in the past and in the present. They would argue that China is caught in a 'prison of history', leaving little hope for an easy escape because in China '[the] pasts and the ways they are perceived ... restrict the present to a greater extent than most other cultures of the world are restricted by their pasts' (W. J. F. Jenner). However debatable this view is, it reminds us that historical thought, far from operating solely at the level of abstract notions, is closely interrelated with the discourse about the socio-political and the everyday world, constantly laying claim to a Sitz-im-Leben. Given this, the study of Chinese history writing and the Chinese cultural patterns of remembering the past appear to be especially relevant for a better understanding of the intellectual and cultural traditions of China, and for gaining a deeper insight into the inner machinery of the Chinese traditional world.

Inaugural meeting

Recently, enthusiasm for the study of Chinese historiography has been renewed. This is indicated by a range of research activities undertaken in the last few years, notably a seminal conference 'Chinese Historiography in Comparative Perspective', organized by Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik in Heidelberg March/April, 1995 (see History and Theory 35:4 (1996)). With the aim of arousing further interest and of promoting co-ordination of research work, an International Project on Chinese and Comparative Historiography project was launched. Adding to the campaign, a Chinese Historiography Study Group has been organized under the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), which gives information about its ongoing activities in a newsletter
The International Project on Chinese and Comparative Historiography was initiated by Thomas H. C. Lee (City College of New York, CUNY) in co-operation with Conrad Schirokauer (Columbia University). Jointly organized by Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Bielefeld University; the National Taiwan University; and the City College of New York, this international project is directed by Thomas Lee, Conrad Schirokauer, Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer (Herzog August Bibliothek), Jörn Rüsen (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut, Essen, Germany), Huang Chun-chieh, and Ku Wei-ying (both National Taiwan University).
With an initial grant from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the core-group of the International Project, joined by various other scholars, held an inaugural meeting at West Point, New York in November 1995, to chart the course of activities. There was a broad consensus agreeing to carry earlier concerted efforts at surveying and evaluating Chinese historical writing a step further and, at the same time, to relate closely to the contemporary discourse on theory and history, which has been stimulated by the radical political changes of the recent post-1989 past and the need for new cultural orientations. It was agreed to lay the emphasis on the comparative intercultural approach, for the purpose of establishing a constructive dialogue between Chinese historians, scholars in Chinese intellectual history, and specialists in Western and non-Western historical thinking. The group committed itself to addressing the methodological problems involved in such an intercultural comparison and to intensifying contacts with institutions and research networks in the field of history and theory, such as the International Commission for the History and Theory of Historiography, which publishes the Storia della Storiografia. To achieve this purpose, the group was very fortunate to be joined by three experts in Western historiography: president of the afore-mentioned Commission, Prof. Georg G. Iggers (SUNY, Buffalo/N.Y.), editor of History and Theory, Prof. Richard Vann (Wesleyan University), and Prof. Dan White (University of Albany).
Finally, the group decided to explore nine broader topics, namely: 1. notions of time; 2. 'culture historique'; 3. memory and identity; 4. history as texts; 5. institutionalized history; 6. ideology and historical criticism; 7. comparability; 8. forces shaping changes in history; 9. turning points in historical thinking (for further details, see Chinese Historiography Study Group Newsletter No. 1).

Conference on Sung Historical Thinking

After a busy year of preparation, the International Project embarked on an ambitious effort to reconsider 'Sung Historical Thinking and Historical Culture' in January this year; the Sung period (960-1279) being considered a turning point in the history of Chinese historiography. The conference, which again was made possible by a grant of the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and which was efficiently organized by Thomas Lee, in Nassau, Bahamas, assembled a number of senior and junior scholars in Sung Studies as well as some experts in Western historiography, from the USA, Germany, Taiwan, and Japan. Stimulated by a most enjoyable conference setting beside the beach, the discussions broke new ground in mapping out of what has been termed the evolving multiplicity of histories during the Sung period.
Apart from the intriguing question of what was new in Sung historiography and which new trends developed during this period, the topic of historical identity in the horizon of Sung Chinese people figured prominently in the discussions. As an invaluable document by which to inquire more deeply into this topic, Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer introduced a 12th century historical atlas ([Sung-pen] Li-tai ti-li chih-chang t'u), which was recently reprinted from a copy shipped to Japan in 1151. On the 48 maps contained in this unique carthographic work, China is shown as being an unchanging entity throughout the ages, protected by the Great Wall to the north from time immemorial.
The diversity of approaches and topics researched in the foregoing papers can neatly illustrate the broad range of Sung historical thinking. All the more will it be difficult to make a selection for the intended conference volume, a tast to which Conrad Schirokauer and Thomas Lee have committed themselves.

Conference series

Meanwhile, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation has accepted a grant proposal submitted under the auspices of the International Project by the German side. This proposal concerns a series of three conferences to be held in Germany 1998-2000. Broadly in line with the agreed general topics mentioned above, the conferences will concentrate on the following three topics: 1. Collective Identity, Experiences of Crisis, and Traumata; 2. Religion, Ritual, and Myth; 3. Ideology and Historical Criticism. The first of these conferences, organized by Jörn Rüsen, Chang-tze Hu, and Achim Mittag, will take place at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Institut in Essen (Germany), from 16-20 June 1998. A central theme of this conference will be the significant fact that Chinese identity is and continues to be deeply rooted in history, which can also be easily seen from the ongoing debates in Mainland China and Taiwan about China's destiny and the prospects for preserving her 'Chineseness' in a rapidly globalizing world. The conference will focus on the relationship between collective identity and the specific mode of past-oriented thinking in China, paying special attention to the question of how experiences of crises and traumata were dealt with in Chinese historiography. It is hoped that the conference will result in acquiring new empirical knowledge about Chinese history writing and Chinese historical thought, and that it will generate new conceptual and methodological research strategies in the field of comparative historiography.
:For further information:

The Chinese Historiography Study Group Newsletter
Prof. Murray Rubinstein: maruby1@ix.netcom.com
Prof. Thomas H.C. Lee: thlcc@cunyvm.cuny.edu
Dr Achim Mittag: Mittag@let.leidenuniv.nl
:Dr Achim Mittag is an ESF Fellow stationed at the IIAS.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 16 | Regions |East Asia