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Crossing frontiers of Marxist historiography

Author  :  Cai Zhen     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-08-26

As a notable master in contemporary Chinese scholarship history, few would deny Guo Moruo’s contribution to academic arena in China.

Guo received the traditional education by attending from family school, higher elementary school to junior middle and senior school. He was mostly interested in Confucian classics given by the teachers Shuai Pingjun from higher elementary school and Huang Jinghua from Jiading Middle School (today’s Sichuan Le Shan First School), where his partiality to history was sprouted, as he usually said.

In 1914, motivated by “saving the country through science”, Guo travelled to Kyushu University of Japan to study medical science. It was a time when literature and history were regarded as useless. For nearly a decade in Japan, Guo received entirely different education from that in homeland. He assimilated Western knowledge of natural science and accessed the frontiers of scientific theories by that time. He had chances to listen to Albert Einstein’s lecture on “theory of relativity”, and participate into Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s experiment on biology. At the same time, he immersed into the books of literature, aesthetics, philosophy and other writings about humanity and social science, allowing him to shift from medical science to humanity later without difficulties.

He came to know about the Marxist theory of socialism during his stay in Japan, but he simply learnt it as one of the schools of Western thoughts. What appealed to him more at that time was pantheism and Lebensphilosophie; he was more attracted to Baruch de Spinoza, Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche. However, upon returning to his home country, his interest started to change after he had a close observation and understanding of Chinese society. The thoughts of Marx and Lenin gradually superseded Spinoza and Goethe, becoming the sway of his ideology.

In 1924, Guo Moruo translated the book Social Organization and Social Revolution written by the Japanese Marxist economist Hajime Kawakami, which provided an opportunity for him to explore more knowledge about Marxism. After that, his thinking progressed by leaps and bounds.

He at first rejected the concept of individualism engendered in the period of May Fourth Movement in his literary perceptions and literary works. Vigorously advocating proletarian revolutionary literature, Guo criticized on feudalist and capitalist ideology and culture. Later on, he participated in the National Revolution, and subsequently, the Northern Expedition and Nanchang Uprising.

In the summer of 1928, Guo and his family were exiled from China and took a refuge in Chiba, Ichikawa of Japan. He was tempted by the impulse to write. Having been secluded for almost half a year, Guo spent most of his time on reading, delving into literature, philosophy, economics, history and other disciplines of social science. At the same time, baptized by the National Revolution, Chinese intellectuals were heatedly debating on the nature of Chinese society and revolution. And Guo Moruo was one of them.

The publication of his work in 1930 Study on Ancient Chinese Society marked Guo Moruo ascending onto the arena of China historical studies as a materialism historian. It is also the first book to introduce Marxist historiography into China.

Guo Moruo departed his journey in the study of historiography after he fully accepted Marxism. It is inevitably leading him to examine ancient Chinese society from a perspective of historical materialism. This was not merely the recognition with a particular school of academic thought but instead, showed faith in scientific system. As he wrote in his letter to Cheng Fangwu (one of the representative figures of the New Culture Movement), “Marxism is the only spiritual tenet of our times.”


Cai Zhen is from Guo Moruo Museum of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the executive director of China Guo Moruo Research Society.


Chinese link:


Translated by Bai Le 

Editor: Yu Hui

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