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Faced with dilemma, historical research should not deviate from social reality

Author  :  Ren Jidong     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-04-18

Now that socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, it is high time that humanities and social sciences in China also embrace a new chapter. However, the contemporary study of history faces some dilemmas. 

As historical research becomes increasingly specialized and professionalized, many research results become more and more alienated from the needs of the general public. Many scholars are overly focused on reading the historical classics and conducting research inside universities and institutes while they ignore what is going on outside.

At the same time, various works of popular history are emerging that reinterpret and recount historical stories along with film and television dramas based on historical stories that depict imperial court intrigue between queens, consorts and concubines. However, these are mostly pseudohistory. 

What this situation shows is not that the study of history itself has lost its appeal and inspirational influence, but that some research results have not kept pace with the times and therefore have become disconnected from reality. Not emphasizing the importance of its social function and not focusing on the real needs of the public, the discipline of history has lapsed into a self-enclosed and narcissistic state. This is also what has deprived historical research of its source of creativity.

To closely align the study of history with the new era, scholars should properly consider the fundamental issues that determine the direction of research. For example, how can the discipline be adapted to the new circumstances that arise as the cause of building China into a great modern socialist country in every dimension advances? How can scholars take full advantage of the merits of the discipline and help it to achieve its potential to guide national governance? In what way can the historical and cultural identity be intensified among the members of society in the process of pursuing the Chinese Dream? What are the right approaches to discovering new growth engines that foster the disciplinary development of history, while at the same time satisfying people’s needs for high-quality historical and cultural products and extending the discipline’s scope of application in public spheres? These are questions that are worth pondering. 

As Lu You, a prominent poet of Southern Song Dynasty (1127—1279), put it: “If you really want to learn to write poetry, it is essential to be knowledgeable about what is beyond poetry.” It is the same with historical research. The study of history, a ceaseless conversation between the present and the past, cannot fulfill its social function if it does not conform to reality. To constantly build the momentum of development, it is indispensable for the discipline to step out of the study room and be geared to society for the benefit of national governance and social affairs, through which, its values in the contemporary times can be truly fulfilled.

In giving full play to its social function in the new era, the study of history should lay greater emphasis on the major issues of the current era, ensuring that historicity and reality parallel each other. For instance, some issues of common concern to people such as those related with ecology and environment, cultural conflict, and population flows, as the result of the interplay between history and reality, are the issues of both the present and the past times. Focusing on these issues is not only conducive to addressing the critical problems that we now face but also is helpful for broadening the scope of historical research, innovating the research thinking, and enriching the research methods.


This article was edited and translated from People’s Daily. Ren Jidong is the director of the Institute of History at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.


(Edited and translated by BAI LE)

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