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Building contemporary Chinese social history

Author  :  XIAO HAOCHEN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-05-31

Contemporary Chinese social history should involve the development of a social security system. By the end of 2016, the number of holders of the People’s Republic of China social security card, pictured above, had reached almost 1 billion.

Since the 1980s, social history has drawn its focus from the field of history research. With the rise of social history research, contemporary Chinese social history research has emerged as a mixed product of social history and contemporary history. It has yielded considerable outcomes, entering a new stage of disciplinary system construction and general history compilation.


Zhang Shifei, a professor from the School of Marxism Studies at Renmin University of China, said contemporary Chinese social history has far more extensive, complex and richer research subjects than that of modern Chinese social history in regard to scope, field, industry and population. In general, Chinese contemporary social history targets the whole process of the development of Chinese society in contemporary times.

Social history research involves multiple aspects, such as social environment, composition, life, consciousness and transformation. Zhang also suggested including the development of social welfare systems in these studies. Due to the sophistication of contemporary Chinese social history, it is necessary to establish a set of scientific evaluation systems that includes the aforementioned six aspects for analysis.

Li Jinzheng, deputy dean of Chinese Social History Studies Center at Nankai University, said the definitions of “modern age” and “contemporary age” are dynamic. Hundreds of years later, these concepts are not likely to be applicable. In order to avoid problems, “Chinese social history” is a more viable concept to pursue as it would not change with the times.

Social history is the “history of questions.” It emphasizes the discussion on historical issues based on reality. Contemporary social history attaches great importance to the connection between history and reality. Xing Long, dean of the Chinese Social History Studies Center at Shanxi University, said contemporary Chinese history had a profound impact on current Chinese society. It is a valuable attempt to introduce social history into the records of contemporary Chinese history.

No “fragmentation”

As with other fields in historical studies, contemporary Chinese social history research relies on diverse types of material, including documents, literature, material data and visual and oral information.

Li argued that compared to ancient and modern times, it is easier to collect materials on contemporary history. Journals, archives, folk documents and material data are all relatively easy to locate and preserve, and most witnesses are still alive. The key to contemporary historical research lies in the collection and compilation of materials. In recent years, many universities and academies have achieved a lot in collecting folk documents, drawing attention from international academic circles and gaining national support. Li emphasized the importance of verifying the truth of various types of materials through comparison between them. Oral materials, in particular, can only be used as supplementary information due to the subjectivity of each individual and their fading memories.

Materials are essential to the development of contemporary social history, while theories determine its direction. Zhang confirmed the trend of micro-level studies in contemporary social history. Micro-level research is necessary to improve the social history system from all aspects. Adding more historical details improves research credibility, providing the basis for macro-level research. “More details” does not mean “fragmentation,” which should be avoided. It should be noted that influenced by historiography and especially Western historiography, the proportion of case studies has increased in national historical research. However, if there is not a relatively systematic and standardized analytical framework, the micro-level research will lose its specificity and significance. It is easy for “fragmented” research to lose its direction, and even go in the opposite direction of historical materialism. Interpreting the same historical material from different perspectives will come to different conclusions. Therefore, contemporary social history has to focus on its view of history and adhere to historical materialism for guidance, Zhang concluded.

General trend

In terms of the history of the development of the discipline, contemporary social history is a new research field both to contemporary Chinese history and Chinese social history. Li pointed out that as an emerging discipline, contemporary social history lacks overarching publications, and most of the research outcomes are fragmented.

Compilation of general contemporary social history requires adequate understanding of the general historical trend, along with an understanding of basic progress, experience, and principles of historical development. There is only one general trend among many clues in historical development.

Editor: Yu Hui

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