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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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4. China. In China, the beginnings of history were
very remote and independent of outside influences; the
achieved tradition was unparalleled in its length and
its internal consistency, the prestige of the subject
exceptional, and the literary output of incredible bulk.
Most imposing of all was the way in which the classical
values, the established techniques, and the organization
of the profession were able to maintain themselves for
century after century, and almost down to the present.

From the very first the importance of the individual
historian is a significant factor in the story. He descends
from the “temple-archivist” who, in the place where
sacrifices were made to ancestors, looked after the
documents—the registers, inventories, family trees,
records of contracts, and decisions of the oracles. In
the case of princely houses, he would draw up treaties,
record edicts, and draft the documents which granted
feudal enfeoffment. But also he had charge of divination
and would decide the day for making a journey, hold-
ing a ceremony, beginning a war. From an early date
this archivist-astrologer recorded events, and in this he
was perhaps regarded as making a report to ancestral
spirits. He would also look after the calendar, record
eclipses of the sun and moon, and deal with the time-
table generally. Even at a later date the account of
events, anomalies, or catastrophes in nature would
sometimes have a disproportionate place in historical
writing, and some have suggested that, for the Chinese,
there existed an intrinsic relationship or a special sym-
pathy between the workings of nature and the work-
ings of history. A certain mystique always attached to
writing itself and it seems to have been regarded as
a way of communicating with the divine order. The
recording of an historical event was important there-
fore; in a sense it was necessary in order to catch and
clinch the event—like the case of a run in any game,
which is unachieved unless it gets into the score-book.
At the imperial court the archivist-astrologer-recorder
sometimes acquired great influence, and acted as sec-


retary to the ruler or went on diplomatic missions.

The cataclysms of Chinese history seem to have
spared little of the historical writings of the pre-
Confucian days, and from early times there was con-
troversy over the genuineness and the textual accuracy
of the things that did survive. This did not prevent
the establishment of a small group of Chinese classics,
which everybody was required to study; and amongst
these was the Shoo King, known as the “Book of His-
tory” or the “Book of Documents.” It is a collection
of royal speeches, edicts, memorials, feudal documents,
etc., some of which purport to go back to very ancient
times. There are sections which anticipate the later
treatises on governmental institutions, but the impor-
tance of the work lay in its political and moral teach-
ing. Another classic was the Spring and Autumn
an example of a type of literature which the
princes of various states were apparently producing
from at least 753 B.C. It consists of the crude annals
of the principality of Loo, the country of Confucius,
whose connection with the work is so difficult to un-
derstand that even in ancient days there were con-
jectures that it must have been written in a kind of
code, or valued in view of some oral tradition attached
to it.

The Chou dynasty had already been ruling in China
for six hundred years when, in the fifth century B.C.
it entered its final stage, which lasted till the third
century and is known as the period of Warring (or
Contending) States. It coincided with a tremendous
flowering of culture, bringing philosophical thought to
its climax (almost synchronizing with the rise of phi-
losophy in Greece) and producing in thought and liter-
ature an originality and freshness never acquired again.
For a long time before this there had been a movement
towards what we should call rationalism—one which
brought incidental support to history by insisting on
the “immortality” that men might secure in the mem-
ory of future ages. But history was still more greatly
helped because philosophy at this place and time did
not mean either cosmological theory or metaphysical
speculation; it meant the kind of wisdom that is neces-
sary for the conduct of life, and particularly the con-
duct of government. Philosophy came down to street-
level and greatly affected the general mentality; but
also it sought to exercise its persuasive power on
princes, and it resorted, not to deductive reasoning,
but to the exploitation of historical examples. Con-
fucius in particular (born probably 551, died in 479
B.C.) stressed the importance of history, and seems to
have been afraid that, in those times of confusion and
war, the records of the past would be destroyed. A
reverence for the past and respect for the example set
by one's ancestors were an important part of his teach
ing. In this period, converging forces were in fact doing
much to shape the Chinese mentality and to dispose
it for a great development in the study and writing
of history. And history which had once been almost
a ritual art, was turned into a secular moralizing affair,
greatly addicted to “praise and blame.”

In 213 B.C. the famous “burning of the books,” de-
creed by an Emperor who had united the country and
was hostile to the Confucians, combined with a change
in both the forms and the materials of writing to
produce a serious cultural hiatus. But in 206 B.C. the
victory of the Han dynasty led to the reversal of the
ban on books and now the Confucians came under
imperial patronage. The recovery of the ancient writ-
ings became a great objective, but clearly proved more
difficult than a Westerner can easily understand, so that
these ancient writings emerged in a state of confusion.
The followers of Confucius took charge of the restora-
tion of the classics, the reestablishment of the tradition
and the revival of history. Confucianism, in fact,
secured the whip hand in China at this moment, and
men were taught to see the past with Confucian eyes,
but also to treat the ancient texts with superstitious
care. As a result of the vicissitudes that had been
suffered by these texts there emerged a subtle tech-
nique of textual criticism, which was later to develop
greatly and became one of the remarkable features of
Chinese scholarship.

Then the famous Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien (ca. 145-87 B.C.)
inherited from his father the undertaking to narrate
the course of history from the very beginning. The
work that he produced is mythical in its early parts,
but, from the middle of the third century B.C., it be-
comes more detailed, more personal—a more precise
piece of connected narrative. When it comes to the
fuller story of the Han dynasty (down to the Emperor
Wu) it uses official records, but supplements these by
personal experience and the cross-questioning of eye-
witnesses. Sometimes the narrative is strange and diffi-
cult for the Western reader, because different aspects
of it emerge as it is repeatedly retold in successive
studies of leading people. The reader who wants the
overall story is left to look after the dovetailing himself.
The author does not see the need for connections,
developments, underlying movements of causation—all
the things which enable a Western narration to become
more organic. The whole texture is governed by the
fact that the author sees history as the product of men's
wills and does not seek to get behind the wills. It is
as though we had stories from eyewitnesses who re-
ported what they had actually seen in a battle but
never envisaged the affair as a whole, or looked for
any policies behind it. If Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien sees things in
the large—the collapse of an empire for example—it


is for the purpose of moralizing. The result is most
impressive as literature, and it achieves real beauty,
standing as perhaps the best thing in Chinese histori-
ography. Besides recording imperial history, Ssŭ-ma
Ch'ien produces chronological tables, monographs,
annals of vassal princes, and biographies, e.g., of
scholars. The monographs include studies of music, the
state of the calendar, hydrography, and political econ-
omy, for Chinese historical writing was intended to
be of particular use to public officials. Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien's
influence on the future was to be very great.

Henceforward the specialized role of the historian
becomes recognized as part of the civil service, and
one can trace the early stage in the development of
the examination system which was to make the entry
into the bureaucracy so conditional on scholarship.
Under the T'ung dynasty (from the seventh century
A.D.) there emerged a History Office which was an
organ of government, and history became an important
subject in the civil-service examination, which now
achieved its permanent form as a competitive affair.
The Chinese bureaucracy always produced a great
amount of writing—reports from officials, financial
accounts, memoranda concerning government, criti-
cisms of contemporary conditions. A high proportion
of government officials would spend part of their ca-
reers in the History Bureau, and historical narratives
came to be produced on the committee method. The
Diaries of Activity and Repose reproduced the utter-
ances of the Emperor and the business that he con-
ducted, day by day. These were abridged so that when
the Emperor died there emerged the Veritable Record,
a survey of his whole reign. When a dynasty came to
an end, a comprehensive account would be written
under the succeeding dynasty; and this, the Standard
was an important thing, produced for nearly
two thousand years on a pattern set initially in the
first century A.D. by Pan Ku in his History of the Former
Han Dynasty.
The succession of Standard Histories,
if translated into English, is calculated to require 450
volumes and 500 pages each; and this is only a small
proportion of the vast historical production of China.
No other nation possesses such voluminous, continuous,
and (within their own terms) accurate records of so
long a past. One of these dynastic histories, begun in
the year 1679, took forty-six years of labor though
fifty-three historians had been set to work upon it.

It was all official history, written by civil servants
for civil servants and not intended to form reading
matter for a wider public. Even those who wrote
history privately would themselves belong to the
official class and would need government records—they
might even be aspiring to enter the civil service. The
historian had to register discrete facts, not to produce
generalizations, or describe the background or examine
processes. He was not supposed to be an interpreter,
but if his words could coincide with the text of actual
documents, it was imagined that his objectivity was
complete. It was really in essays and monographs that
he was able to discuss institutions, economic conditions,
the state of the arts, etc. As time went on, everything
tended to become conventionalized, and in any case
there would sometimes exist a conspiracy of silence—
the refusal to take note of the important influence of
Buddhism during a number of centuries, for example.

The Chinese were remarkable in their textual criti-
cism. They could seize on the anachronism that ex-
posed a forgery or an interpolation. They learned a
great deal about the transmission and the vicissitudes
of ancient texts, and were helped by masses of bibli-
ographical material that had been handed down from
very early times. As successive historians so often
copied one another verbatim, they could check the
authenticity of ancient texts by comparing what had
been reproduced by previous writers at various times.
It naturally followed that an important aspect of
Chinese criticism was the detection of forgeries. On
the other hand they seem to have assumed that if a
statement in a chronicle or a document had not been
contradicted anywhere, this alone would justify their
accepting it as true. Where there were two contra-
dictory accounts of an event, their first impulse would
be to try to reconcile them with one another, or to
produce a story that would embrace both. At worst,
they would have to opt for one of the two and they
would not say why—they might simply leave the re-
jected source unmentioned. When they were satisfied
about the genuineness of a document, it did not occur
to them to interpret it—construing it in terms of the
people or the situation behind it. They would not ask
whether a witness might be insincere, or prejudiced
or moved by vested interest; and—in their reverence
for the written word—they did not see that a document
ought to be treated rather as a detective would use
a clue.