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History needs systems, not fragmentation

Author  :  QIAN CHENGDAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-04-03

Since the reform and opening up, the study of history in China has been developing rapidly. Over the decades, one of the most notable features of the field’s progress is that it has become increasingly detailed, and research themes have become increasingly specified and deep. This is a good phenomenon for history itself—without being detailed, specific and deep, history has no way forward and no prospect for development. 

However, emerging from this general trend is a noteworthy symptom. Historians, including those already mature scholars and graduate students as well as the younger generation of scholars, have bred a tendency to believe that historical study does not need a system or should shed the constraints of a system; they believe the study of history does not need theory either. For research themes, the more detailed and specific, the better. As for why the themes are chosen, and if a theme necessitates theory, these questions count for little. There are even some who assert that a system does no good for research and that theory will even hinder it. As a result, a type of anti-system school of thought pervades and the phenomenon of fragmentation is spreading.

From the latter half of the 20th century till now, this fragmentary phenomenon has become ever more prevalent. Some prefer not to adopt systems and reject all frameworks, equating history with myth and regarding historical writing as storytelling. Influenced by postmodernism, which is basically characterized by deconstruction, the study of history is being deconstructed and becomes ever more fragmentary. This is the major crisis that the study faces at present. 

Does the study need a system? The answer is definitely yes. Being systematic is an intrinsic feature of history. It is through a system by which historical materials are chosen and by which history is reviewed and written. Those engaged in the study of history all know that historical materials themselves are fragmentary and scattered, and as such they need historians to sort them out and integrate them. The task of historians is to select the ones they consider valuable, comb through them, and make them “history.” But what kind of historical materials are valuable and deserve to be written into history? Different scholars have different criteria and benchmarks for selection. Why is this? Because a system is at work. A system provides criteria for the selection of material and establishes the frameworks for historical writing.

Without a system, historical materials would forever be what they are but never “history.” To me, a system denotes that a framework of thinking has been identified and research is being conducted within this framework. Since the framework of thinking is correlated with the research concept, theoretical guidance is indispensable. In terms of concrete research themes, the key is being neither specific nor broad. Broad things can be perceived from even a very specific theme—the key is whether it has a system. Without a system and framework, even a broad theme can be fragmentary. 

Here is an example for when a system is not needed. Peking University published a book named The World: A History by Felipe Fernández-Armesto several years ago. This is a book that examines history from a global perspective, and one that typically does not need a system. In the preface, the author says that this book does not require a system and there is absolutely no system in the book.

He tries to include everything he could find into the book: places across the world from ancient times till present, all peoples and all civilizations. The book is excellently written and is a delightful read. However, it can be found that, as the author is a journalist and writer who has not received professional training in history, though he writes the book very well, the historical materials are those easily at hand and gathered without elaborate curation. If he had happened to encounter other materials, then this book would be about a different history. Readers may still only have a pile of fragments in front of them that have not yet been integrated into a “world” even after reading the book. 

The traditions of both the study of Chinese and world history emphasize the importance of systems both consciously and subconsciously, and they both have already established systems. In today’s China, the study of history has warmed up from a freezing point, becoming increasingly popular, which is an exciting thing. However, those who specialize in the study of history should disseminate not only knowledge of history but also the values and concepts of history to the public. And what are the values and concepts of history? They are embodied in the system. Otherwise, public history would become mere entertainment. Already many things have become entertainment, and the phenomenon appears in many sectors. Once public history becomes public entertainment and arises casually over dinners and drinks as a pastime, it can be distorted.


This article was edited and translated from Beijing Daily. A notable historian, Qian Chengdan is Boya Chair Professor from Peking University and director of the Institute of Area Studies at the university.



Edited by BAI LE

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