Re-reading Ancient History

By Peter Zarrow

By sheer chance I came across the August 1964 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies (23.4), which features a “Symposium on Chinese Studies and the Disciplines.” Reading those essays, I felt a shock of recognition. They raise the question of what has changed in the field and what has not changed in nearly 50 years. The symposium was based on a panel from the 1964 Association of Asian Studies annual meeting. AAS members can read all the back issues of JAS for themselves, but here are a few comments from one jaundiced perspective.

The symposium consists of articles by Joseph R. Levenson, Mary C. Wright, G. William Skinner, Maurice Freedman, and Frederick W. Mote, with a note from Benjamin Schwartz—all of whom had written, or were writing, monographs that even today are not past their due date (Ed. note: see the end of this essay for more on each of the above figures and their major publications). I would like to return to a few of their concerns.

Wright’s essay began, “I think the study of China requires the study of its history,” and “I think the proper practice of the historical profession in general requires some awareness of the history of China.” To my ears at least, this sounds so bleeding obvious that the only question is what kind of world made it necessary to say it out loud. True, today we are in an era when “history” is disappearing from at least American secondary schools, and university history departments are being downsized (along with the rest of the humanities), but historical literacy is probably as high as it has ever been. And although “the West is best” school is thoroughly entrenched in academia, I doubt there is any way back from the continued incorporation of China into historical thinking and the new world history. Wright was attacking two enemies, both of which have largely disappeared: the Hegelian historian (my term) who simply did not believe that China (and India and so forth) possessed history; and the Sinologist, who did not believe historical methodologies had anything of interest to say about China. Those masters of timeless textual studies who so annoyed Wright are today nearly invisible. I will come back to “Sinology.”

For his part, Levenson began with an attack on “Sinology” defined as “control of texts”—which is a “wonderful means but a weak end.” Again, from today’s point of view, it seems entirely reasonable for Levenson to proclaim that we need to be in control: we come to the texts with our questions, we don’t let the texts tell us what our intellectual problems are. There does seem to be an odor of mid-century masculinity in this way of posing the issue (as in Freedman’s insistence that anthropological initiation-by-fieldwork turns the adolescent into a man). Be that as it may, today we take for granted who gets to ask the questions. That does not solve the epistemological issues of where our questions come from, and how we treat the data in order to answer them, etc., etc. (questions that Levenson was certainly aware of), but reflects a certain confidence largely maintained even in today’s world of intellectual crisis and uncertainty.

The symposium-writers were polite to their Sinological ancestors. Levenson suggested that Sinology had been a corrective to “free-floating literary chinoiserie” of a previous age, but was now outdated by the professionalization of the “Chinese field.” The real problem for Levenson seems to have been that Sinology represented a grand ghetto-ization of a pseudo-field that was thereby kept away from the real fields where the action was: the disciplines of art, philosophy, literature, history, and so on. How can we explain the irony that more than almost any scholar today, Levenson was as comfortable talking about the grand swathes of Chinese art and philosophy and literature as his own field of modern history? In debunking Sinology, Levenson did not want to deny China’s unique qualities but to claim that “China belongs now in a universal world of discourse.” Levenson’s was a warning that China should not be—and could not be—objectified any longer.

In response (I take it), Mote attempted a defense of Sinology. He did so by changing the definition somewhat. “Sinology means the study of Chinese civilization as a coherent whole.” Obviously one cannot know everything, but the scholarly “ideal” should be to remain always aware of the “larger whole.” Mote’s target here was the kind of academic disciplinization that led to fragmentation. We know something about that today as well.

It may seem that as long as everybody is allowed like Humpty Dumpty to define words as they see fit, all we get are unobjectionable slogans. Who does not want to keep the whole in mind, to the degree possible? And who does not want historians or sociologists of China to be able to speak professionally with their disciplinary counterparts? Whether China belongs to a universal world of discourse may seem tricky if we reject the premise that there is any such thing, but I know very few scholars today who do not act as if they accept the premise.

The point is not that these makers of modern China studies were uttering truisms but that they were responding to what they saw as the threats of the day. One of these was gatekeepers of the Altar of History, today long vanquished. But the specters of Sinology, not least via the later movement of “area studies,” are still with us today. Perhaps they are built in to the very structure of “our” (Westerners’) need to learn about “them” (Chinese). On the one hand, surely Levenson and Wright could claim victory in the academic war against Sinology-as-textual-studies. On the other, Mote’s call for an “integral” approach to China—later phrased as multi-disciplinary scholarship and perhaps, even later, in cultural studies when it deals with China—can hardly be ignored.

Schwartz’s warning against “The Fetish of the ‘Disciplines’” was in this spirit. Something in the “New Sinology” also seems in this spirit—see Geremie R. Barmé, “On New Sinology,” first published in the Chinese Studies Association of Australia Newsletter no. 3 (May 2005). Barmé emphasizes engagement with contemporary China—indeed, the whole Sinophone world—which is precisely where traditional Sinology was generally seen as missing in action. But he also emphasizes the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to a range of texts (and images), premodern as well as contemporary. In my reading, Barmé is trying to counter the ‘presentism’ of so much academic, journalistic, and popular work on China. He remarks that “those who are unlettered in the basic histories, languages and ideas of the last few centuries will be only ever semi-literate in the culture, thought and even language of China today.”

Presentism in this sense (it seems to me) includes the imperialistic claims of the social sciences to perfect knowledge based on one flavor or another of rational choice and decision theory. As Mary Wright suggested so long ago, the China studies field should welcome illiterate social scientists (illiterate in Chinese) to use our data. Some of them will even, as Mote graciously allowed, become Sinologists. Neither Wright nor Mote could foresee the day when serious analysis would ignore historical culture altogether.

Nor did the social scientists writing in the 1964 symposium foresee the day of their triumph. In their twinned pieces “What the Study of China Can Do for Social Science” and “What Social Science Can Do for Chinese Studies,” Skinner and Freedman, like the pioneers they were, foresaw the day when a significant number of social scientists would study China and change both their disciplines and Chinese studies. Without knowledge of China, the social sciences could hardly claim to be universal, Skinner pointed out. This point is today widely accepted, at least among my small circle of friends. Freedman was a little more challenging: he not only stated that the contribution social sciences might make to Sinology lay in the social scientists’ ability to make explicit comparisons, produce systematic generalizations, and make new models of social reality, but he also warned that the social sciences had their own agendas (my word).

Wright foresaw an interaction of historical work and social science analysis that I think in many ways was born out by the great strides made in the social history of China in the late twentieth century. I do not know if Chinese studies have changed the social sciences in anything like the way the social sciences changed the writing of history in the field. Obviously we live in a very different scholarly world than 1964, when area studies was but a toddler. But we can still ask, does an economist studying the Chinese banking system need to know Tang poetry? The (new) Sinologist may say, yes. But does a Tang historian need to keep up with the latest social networking system in the Sinophone world? The (old) Sinologist may have denied it, but it seems doubtful that scholarship divorced from present-day concerns will mean much.

I do not know if the early Sixties should be seen as a particular moment of self-reflection and a new phase of professionalization. If so, it might be compared to the critique of the field that emerged out of the New Left movement circa 1970 (spearheaded by the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars) and the critique of the postcolonial school in the early 1990s (spearheaded by positions). The 1964 essays in JAS seem politically naïve after all the extra-academic and intra-academic wars of more recent generations, but their professional concerns seem quite fresh. For all that has changed, the battles between the social sciences and the more humanistic disciplines seem never to have ceased, and the tension between disciplinary specialization and general understanding (cultural and linguistic immersion to the extent possible) is probably unresolvable. Of course, all this navel-gazing tells us more about the West than China, though with luck it better equips Westerners to understand China—and perhaps has helped the most recent generation of Western scholars to interact and work with Chinese scholars around the world. In China itself recent years have seen a revival (if that is the right word) of “national studies” (国学 guoxue), a culturalist approach to texts not entirely unlike Sinology. It is too soon to say whether “national studies” will degenerate into nationalist essentialism or produce stimulating cross-disciplinary work. One day it might contribute to the dream of universal social science. Who knows?

Dramatis Personae & Selected Bibliography

Joseph R. Levenson (1920-1969), taught at the University of California-Berkeley: Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and the Mind of Modern China, 1953; Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy, 1958-1965; and (with Franz Schurmann) China: An Interpretive History, from the Beginnings to the Fall of Han, 1969.

Mary C. Wright (1917-1970), taught at Yale University: The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: The T’ung-chih Restoration, 1862-1874, 1957; and (ed.) China in Revolution: The First Phase, 1900-1913, 1968.

G. William Skinner (1925-2008), taught at Cornell and Stanford Universities: Leadership and Power in the Chinese Community of Thailand, 1958; Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, 1965; and (co-ed.) The Chinese City between Two Worlds, 1974, and The City in Late Imperial China, 1977.

Maurice Freedman (1920-1975), taught at the London School of Economics: Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore, 1957; Lineage Organization in Southeastern China, 1958; Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung, 1966; and (collected essays) The Study of Chinese Society, 1979.

Frederick W. Mote (1922-2005), taught at Princeton University: The Poet Kao Ch’i, 1336-1374, 1962; Intellectual Foundations of China, 1971; and Imperial China 900-1800, 1999.

Benjamin I. Schwartz (1916-1999), taught at Harvard University: Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, 1951; In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West, 1964; and The World of Thought in Ancient China, 1985.

Peter Zarrow is a historian at the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica. His work focuses on modern China and he is the author of China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949 (Routledge, 2005).

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