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History in Communist China

January 29, 2010

Albert Feuerwerker, ed. History in Communist China. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1968.

Gerry Iguchi (2000)

According to one of the essays in this volume, “[t]he label ‘history’ is conventionally used with at least two meanings: history-as-actuality and history as record” (Howard L. Boorman, “Mao-Tse-tung as Historian,” 306) On the whole this book (despite some remarkable heterogeneity) gives the impression that the scholars included were profoundly recognizing that these two senses of history were not one and the same. The interesting thing however was that this realization was, more-or-less, only with regard to Chinese Communist history, not history in general. Harold Kahn and Feuerwerker set the tone in the first chapter, more or less accusing Chinese historiography of being propaganda: “[i]deology is, rightly considered a datum of history. When it becomes the datum of history – the end of the scholar’s research as well as the means – the rules of the game change and historical inquiry becomes essentially a political exercise” (1).

Kahn and Feuerwerker were correct when stating that Maoism was not Confucianism by another name because in classical histories, bygone golden ages were looked to and used to measure the legitimacy or degeneracy of the present, while with Marxist-Leninist-Maoism, the measure of all things is progress. However, their argument became more problematic when they claimed that history in China was in danger of rigidity because of the calibration of progress’ dependency on the “revealed truths” of classical Marxism and the teachings of Mao. In fact, as Maurice Meisner demonstrated in (both his own book, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism and his contribution to History in Communist China, “Li Ta-chao and the Treatment of the Materialist Conception of History,” from the time of the very first Chinese Communist, Communism in China was extremely flexible. Despite lip-service to orthodox notions such as that “base” determines “superstructure,” for example, Li Ta-chao and later Chinese historians were willing and able to turn “Marx’s belief that ‘being determines consciousness’ . . . on its head” (304).

Accordingly, as Meisner pointed out Chinese Communist historians were not bound to think that historical change was driven by objective teleological forces separated from human agency. Rather, they derived from Marx the idea that “man makes history” (in the sense of actuality, and of course in the sense of record). For Meisner then, the Chinese faith in world revolution and the ultimate and inevitable arrival of socialism was not grounded in psuedo-religious “revealed truths,” but rather in the “ideas and will of men” and furthermore according to Meisner it was “the purpose of historical studies and historical theory to encourage these energies and reinforce this will” (305).

In other words, contra Kahn and Feurewerker, Meisner suggests that if Maoism has had its failings, they were not due to some degenerate (oriental?) brand of (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) idol worshipping. Indeed, Feurwerker asserts in another essay in the same volume (and he really does dominate the book, authoring three chapters and the preface and co-authoring the aforementioned first chapter), “China’s History in Marxian Dress,” that the “key to understanding China’s” Marxist version of Chinese history was “the problem of meaninglessness” (14). By this he meant that Chinese Communists attempted to interpret all of Chinese history in a Marxist way out of nostalgia for meaning precipitated by intellectuals’ rejection of “their Confucian heritage” (14). Meisner’s work suggests that the problem of history is that it, in itself, is meaningless without interpretation, and that all interpretation has some agenda, some end. The purpose of pre-modern, Confucian history was always likely to be conservative. The purpose of Chinese Communist historiography, on the other hand, was diametrically opposed to this. Its purpose was the forging of a completely unprecedented future, Chinese and global socialism. In attempting to do this, Chinese historians, as discussed in almost every essay in the book, were not responding to a lack of meaning. They were trying to create meaning and a new world through human agency and human will.

In sum, Kuo Ping-chia points out in his attached review the fact that some Chinese Communist historians were guilty of what he calls “the fetish of the class viewpoint” (370). Kou is furthermore correct in noting that Chinese historians were guilty of understanding the past through the lens of Marxist theory. However, this in itself is only problematic if one accepts the pretense, as most of this volume’s authors seem to do, that liberal historiography provides a disinterested and objective, theory-free way of approaching an understanding of Boorman’s “history-as-actuality.”

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