Theorizing PRC History

The most recent issue of The Journal of Modern Chinese History contains a special forum on the history of the PRC, as well as an interview with eminent historian Yang Kuisong (杨奎松) on researching the history of the CCP.

I don’t read this journal particularly often. It is published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and mostly features English translations of academic Chinese articles. But if they keep producing special issues like this I may need to start checking back more frequently.

The forum is built around a discussion of Zhang Jishun’s most recent book, 《远去的都市: 1950年代的上海》 Yuanqu de dushi: 1950 niandai de Shanghai (A City Displayed: Shanghai in the 1950s). Zhang, fittingly born in 1949 in Shanghai, now teaches at East China Normal University. She has helped to establish ECNU as one of the premier schools in the country for historical studies.

One essay, written by Zhang, introduces the new book and its themes, while subsequent pieces by Gail Hershatter, Elizabeth Perry, and Xiaobing Tang are reflections on the book as well as on the fields of Shanghai history and PRC history.

(I suspect the articles came out of a discussion about Zhang’s book which took place in Shanghai in October 2015. I was in Shanghai at the time but decided to stay in the archives that day; now I’m a little dissapointed I didn’t head over to Fudan.)

I learned a lot from these articles as well as the interview with Yang, including that I have been misprouncing (in my head) a basic neighborhood unit in Shanghai–里弄, or  alleyway–as linong, not lilong.

This self-criticism aside, the articles kindled some larger reflections.

Elizabeth Perry’s essay felt like a response to the introduction in Jeremy Brown and Matthew Johnson’s Maoism at the Grassrootsin which the latter two plotted out the differences between historical and social science approaches to the PRC. While supportive of the archival turn which has enabled the PRC to become “history,” Perry finds fault with historians on one major account. She writes that there is a:

“reticence on the part of the current generation of historians to advance overarching historical arguments about the enduring influence of that period” (114), which is an outgrowth of being “intoxicated by the wealth of newly discovered sources” (116)

Perry is talking about Western academics (Chinese get a pass “in light of political constraints”), but Yang Kuisong had something similar to say about his own students in the PRC. He told his interviewer that:

“The field of contemporary Chinese history has some trouble here, because now the primary sources are almost overwhelming, and studies of social history and cultural history are getting so popular. No matter how small the topic is, a student can write a paper about it. Our biggest fear now is that it is so easy for students to find materials, but they do not ponder and have a prior concern with larger issues.” (83)

I sometimes make the criticism of Cold War history that it is too obsessed with “new evidence.” Documentation is incredibly important, but the value of a work of history needs to be more than a sum of its sources. The sources will one day be “old,” they will be accessed by others, and other “new” documents will inevitably become available. Cold War historians often undersell themselves by putting evidence, not arguments, first.

Keep in this is coming from someone who works at the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and whose day-to-day work involves getting “new evidence”!

Perry and Yang are making a similar point about PRC history: the emphasis on sources leads one to be overly content with producing small and unique case studies which stress difference rather than uniformity. I’ve collected hundreds if not thousands of documents from something like 25 archives in China. I also encourage “thick” archival work for PRC history. But what does all of the new data mean? Can I draw conclusions which are revealing of more than just a unique episode in the history of socialist China?

The criticisms of Perry and Yang are generalizations which could be taken apart fairly easily. (As I read Perry’s complaint that historians are not concerned with the present, I immediately asked, does not Jeremy Brown’s City versus Countryside in Mao’s China show an enduring legacy of the Mao era?). But they are nonetheless helpful reminders to not lose sight of the big picture in our deep archival dives.


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