Marlborough College Summer School

China and World History

Paul Dukes interprets the heritage of China in the context of global history

KEEPING UP WITH THE SWING from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Sixteenth International Congress of Historical Sciences in 1985 moved further away than its predecessors from a concentration on the West. There were more delegates than before from the East, especially Japan and China, and ample opportunity to listen to them on subjects close to their homes. In addition, general themes could be discussed in a more complete manner: 'Weber and the Methodology of History' included speakers from Japan, Hong Kong and India; 'The Image of the Other' was introduced by a wide range of papers, among them one on Judaism in China, and another on the minorities in pre-modern East Asia.

The more particular meeting that I attended, the International Commission on the History of the October Revolution in Russia, was able to do some justice to aspects of what my late supervisor Hugh Seton-Watson deemed to be 'unquestionably one of the greatest events in all human history' by involving forty speakers from fifteen different countries. These included Chen Zhihua, from the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who kindly gave me an overview of studies of world history in China from 1980 to 1984.

Considerable progress had been made in this brief period because of the reimplementation of the guiding principle 'let a hundred schools of thought contend'. In academic research, any viewpoint should be respected, 'as long as it is stated on good ground, upheld with sound reasoning and can be regarded as one school of thought'. In practice, it seemed that one school was still more popular than the ninety-nine potential rivals, since the overwhelming majority of Chinese historians agreed that Marxism's basic principles of historical materialism continued to provide a basic theory and methodology. However, Marxism should not be 'a sterilised and immutable dogma' for the world was forging ahead and time advancing.

Unlike some of its counterparts elsewhere, the government had given encouragement to the social sciences; among thirty-three projects deemed projects of priority, ten were studies of world history. By the end of 1984, fifteen national research societies had been set up to pursue such studies with a membership of 2,000 scholars. A journal entitled World History had been in existence since 1979, and a number of individual works had been published along such lines. These included not only books on most continents and many countries, but also on a variety of other subjects including a brief military history of Russia, 1514-1917, and essays on the history of Sino-British relations.

In the estimation of Chen Zhihua and his colleagues, their work possessed four common characteristics. Firstly, they tried to bring to light the phases and law of development of the evolution of human society from primitiveness to civilisation, from isolation to mutual interaction eventually converging into an entire history of the world. Although the study of regions and nations could serve as a basis for the study of the subject as a whole, they should not be put together like an assorted cold dish but integrated organically. Secondly, Chinese historians concentrated on topics which related closely to their socialist modernisation drive and could provide historical lessons for them. These would include the transitional period of the Soviet Union and the origins of the Second World War, for example. Thirdly, they paid attention to the compilation of various kinds of reference books and the popularisation of knowledge. A two-volume Foreign History was nearing completion as part of the Chinese Encyclopaedia. Six volumes out of a projected seven on Biographies of Prominent Figures in Foreign History had already come out, as well as two out of ten of a Chronicle of Events in Foreign History. A broad inculcation of patriotism, internationalism and historical materialism was provided by a number of books and by a monthly periodical published by the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences with the title Knowledge of World History. Could this be China's answer to History Today?

We might soon find out, since the fourth common characteristic of the activities of Chinese historians is the extension of their international contacts, both personal and by way of the publication of translated foreign 'classics'. These have included the actual classics of Thucydides and Tacitus, as well as Gregory on the Franks and Machiavelli on Florence. More recent works appearing in Chinese have been F. Mehring's German History since the Late Middle Ages, M.N. Pokrovsky's Outline of Russian History, H.G. Wells' Outline History of the World and John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World. Chinese historians have also attempted to keep up with foreign developments in such fields as information science and quantitative analysis.

How much can we know in our turn of the work being produced by the Chinese historians? Obviously all too little in our ignorance of their language and the absence of translations. At the very least, however, we can learn a little of the directions being taken by. them by looking further at the data provided by Chen Zhihua. A few further words then on history ancient, medieval, modem and contemporary, as under recent examination in China. In their Outline of Ancient World History, a group of authors have given up the traditional designation of the world's 'four great ancient nations' (Babylon, Egypt, India and China) and substituted 'three major cultural zones': the American; the Eastern and Southern Asian; and the Mediterranean with its various hinterlands.

A topic exercising scholars both ancient and medieval has been the 'Asian mode of production' identified by Marx. Some have argued that it should not be taken as a geographical term, but rather as an early phase in the history of all nations. Others have suggested that it was the feudal social-economic formation of the Eastern pattern in contrast of that of Western Europe. There was no general agreement on this question, although the majority were reluctant to meddle with one of the basic principles of Marxism, that a law governing the social development of mankind was the successive replacement of the five modes of production: primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist.

As well as devoting a considerable amount of attention to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Chinese historians have looked closely at the bourgeois revolutions of modern times, especially in England, France and the USA. They have attempted to appraise objectively the role of such individuals as Cromwell, Robespierre, Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, and to examine carefully the variations of bourgeois revolution played out in German unification and the Meiji Restoration in Japan. They have also considered the opposition movements in all these cases, especially the struggle for socialist revolution. To a long-standing interest in the Paris Commune, they have added another more recent in the First and Second Internationals.

Research on the contemporary period, from 1917 onwards, has focused on four main subjects: the transition of the Soviet Union from capitalism to socialism; the transition of the United States from monopoly capitalism to state monopoly capitalism; the history of the Second World War; and questions relating to the history of the national liberation movements of Asian and African countries as well as in Latin America.

Under the first heading, it is interesting to note that, although the achievements under the leadership of Stalin are still affirmed, the Stalinist pattern of socialism is also scrutinised for its shortcomings. There has been some positive appreciation of the arguments of Bukharin concerning the balanced development of industry and agriculture. In American history, Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'New Deal' has been 'reappraised, some investigators finding.g in its avoidance of the total collapse of the national economy a prevention of the USA taking the path to fascism, an eventuality which could have produced dire consequences for the outcome of the Second World War. On this subject, while emphasising that the Chinese theatre was the first to open and the last to close, as well as being among the bloodiest, Chinese historians have also looked at such questions as the possibility of opening up at an earlier juncture the Second Front in Europe, at least some of them asserting that it could have been done in 1942. Concerning national liberation movements, the role of bourgeois leadership has come under scrutiny, but so has the question of the evolution and transformation of the various societies struggling for independence.

The more we come to understand Chinese studies, the more we gain a fresh perspective on ours. As our own hundred schools contend, possibly we, too, will develop a view of the components of the West moving from isolation to mutual interaction with each other and with the East, then on to convergence into an entire history of the world.