A Woman of No Significance
Now 60, Luo Xin has spent most of his life on Peking University’s campus, receiving his bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. from the school in the 1980s before immediately moving behind the lectern. A scholar of early medieval Chinese history, he had a reputation for bombarding students with the minutiae of life in the first millennium A.D.: the names of prominent northern clans, tomb records from the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420-589), and bamboo architecture.
Last year, however, Luo took a break from the academic publishing mill to release a book that ordinary readers could not only understand, but also enjoy. “The Long Remains of Life: A Northern Wei Palace Maid and Her Times” wound up a fixture on year-end book lists nationwide, including the “Top Ten Best Books of the Year” of a major Shenzhen book club, The Beijing News’ “Annual Recommendations” list, and social media site Douban’s 2022 “Annual Reading List.”
The subject of Luo’s book is Wang Zhong’er, a real woman born in A.D. 466 to a family of officials. After a largely uneventful childhood culminating in a happy marriage, her peaceful life was upended by one of the era’s many wars. At the age of 30, Wang was captured and enslaved in the palace of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-535). There, she served the Empress Dowager and helped raise two future emperors before becoming a nun and dying at the ripe old age of 86.
Much of the praise for “The Long Remains of Life” has focused on Luo’s microhistorical approach. Like most Chinese women in imperial China, Wang left little in the way of historical remains. The only concrete proof of her existence is a tombstone unearthed in 1923. It was only via a painstaking, word-by-word interpretation of the epitaph that Luo was able to recreate the conditions of her life — and by extension one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history.
Even then, the success of Luo’s book was far from preordained. When he first floated the idea of Chinese microhistory a decade ago, many of his peers criticized him for being overly beholden to Western methods. But for Luo, stories like Wang’s are a necessary antidote to Chinese historiography’s traditional focus on powerful men. As he writes in the book’s fifth chapter: “We should see the obscuring or disregarding of ordinary people as part of the systematic flaws of traditional historiography; that is, how it was determined by the strong and rigid system of inequality in ancient societies.”
Late last month, I interviewed Luo about his career, the importance of microhistory, and why he thinks “The Long Remains of Life” resonated with Chinese readers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wu Haiyun: Microhistory, which centers ordinary individuals and everyday life in historical practice, has become increasingly common in recent years. What drew you to this approach?
Luo Xin: Simply put, the rise of microhistory is because people’s understanding of history today is different from that of the past.
All traditional historiography, even that of the greats like Sima Qian, was written with a purpose in mind, and that purpose was to justify power. Only stories that conformed to this view of history were included, while others were systematically excluded.
But today we have a very different view of history and a very different set of values. People in the past did not believe in equality and would not recognize ordinary people as having rights. Today, we believe that people are, or at least should be, equal. This is perhaps the biggest difference between us and the people of the past. And this difference has led to a change in how historians think about the past. We are more willing to pay attention to ordinary people and understand their lives.
Wu: When did you first start wanting to write on these subjects?
Luo: It’s complicated. At the beginning of my career, I basically defended the idea that historians should write for academics and refused to write popular works or cater to trends. At the time, I took it as a sign of my professional status that people didn’t understand what I wrote.
But the interesting thing is that, even within the field of history, the direction of my research is relatively marginal. Instead of studying more popular subjects like institutions and political history, I studied things like the names of ancient minorities. So, I was studying marginal people using marginal materials and marginal methods for a long time, and I gradually got used to this marginal identity, marginal status, and marginal world. And what is microhistory if not a kind of concern for the margins?
So, about 10 years ago, I proposed at several academic conferences that Chinese historians should shift gears in our research and stop focusing only on traditional political history topics like the central government, the emperor, and the state. Some people agreed with me, but others were more critical. I actually found those criticisms quite interesting.
Wu: What did they say?
Luo: Some argued that a historiography focused on the margins is all well and good, but it’s not born from within Chinese history. Rather, it was transplanted directly from abroad. “You, Luo Xin,” they said, “have been influenced by Western scholars, read their books, and now want to replicate such things in China.”
Is this criticism justified? Of course. Am I influenced by Western scholars? Absolutely. But if you say that focusing on the margins and the lower classes in China is something wholly foreign, I don’t think that’s fair. The study of Chinese history has developed rapidly in recent decades, and now we want to build on this foundation and expand our research. Besides, weren’t all the important advances our historical research made in the past influenced by foreign countries? Historical materialism itself is also from abroad, right?
Wu: Yes, so foreign influence is not a fault on its own.
Luo: There was another type of criticism that was more interesting, however. They said that this focus on the margins is not very appropriate for China because China’s cultural tradition is different from other places. In the West, there has been a relatively strong emphasis on human autonomy, where individuals have certain rights and space to live. China, on the other hand, has for a long time been characterized by a high concentration of power and resources in the hands of few individuals, while ordinary people were just tools, slaves. If you emphasize individual dynamism and try to highlight the power of vulnerable groups in Chinese history, that is not very consistent with Chinese history itself.
Luo: Yeah, I have to admit there’s some truth to this. But it seems to me that even if the ordinary people in Chinese history were not in a place to help themselves, they still had their own moods. They still made their own choices. They had their emotional yearnings, right? So, there’s still room for microhistory.
Wu: Is that why you wrote “The Long Remains of Life”? To prove it could be done?
Luo: Well, when I came up with these ideas 10 years ago, I mainly wanted to encourage young scholars, because although I thought we should do something like this, I didn’t think I was particularly cut out to do it. First of all, I have no training in this field. Second, for the period of Chinese history that I study, that is, the era between the Han and Tang dynasties (roughly 220-618), there’s almost no material on ordinary people, marginalized people, or members of lower classes. For a historian, historical materials are everything. If you don’t have records, you can’t say much.
Wu: So, the tombstone of Wang Zhong’er must have been a wonderful surprise for you.
Luo: Indeed, it’s a very rare and precious source, though I didn’t write the book right away after seeing it. It wasn’t until early 2020, when I had to stay at home and could not go anywhere because of the COVID-19 prevention and control policy, that I sat down to start writing Wang’s story. When the pandemic prevention policy was loosened later that year, I cast the book manuscript aside and went back to work on other things. Basically, I wrote the book on and off over three years, whenever the prevention and control policy was at its tightest each year.
Wu: (Laughs) I’ve heard several authors say their latest book was something they always wanted to write but never got around to until the pandemic.
Luo: Yeah, this is probably a fairly common phenomenon.
Wu: So let’s talk specifically about the book. Wang Zhong’er doesn’t seem to be a typical “ordinary person.” After all, she served the empress and the emperor and was buried with great pomp and circumstance after her death.
Luo: This brings up the question of how to define “ordinary people.” You could also say that the emperors and generals are ordinary people: They all have to eat, drink, and shit; they all experience happiness and sorrow. But there is still a difference between a so-called major figure and everyone else. Official histories from the era do not record a single word about Wang Zhong’er; if not for the accidental unearthing of her tomb, no one would know her name.
Indeed, if her tombstone had been casually disposed of and no one had bothered to study and excavate it, she would have disappeared completely. That’s what historians did in the past, but today we want to re-center people like her. In the book, I made Wang Zhong’er the main character and the center of the story, while the emperors and events of her time faded into the background. I think this is a kind of justice.
Luo: Yes. I’ve always had this idea that those big figures enjoyed too much while they were alive. They enjoyed power. They enjoyed the pleasure of ruling. They enjoyed all sorts of material goods. History tells us that 1% of the people took up 99% of the wealth of mankind. After they died, however, they took up 100% of the wealth — that is, our collective memory.
I think that we who study history have the responsibility to get justice for everyone else. What is this justice? It is that the ruling class should not be allowed to monopolize everything, and there is no need to sing their praises hundreds of years after their death. If we can catch a glimpse of other people from archival materials, we should seize the opportunity to reveal them and tell their stories.
Wu: That’s a powerful idea. I was struck when reading your book by the empathy I felt for Wang. I felt like we weren’t so different. We both live in a time of great changes that we can hardly participate in, much less direct. I suspect this is why this book has been so popular with many readers: We are increasingly aware of the weight of the times and the powerlessness of the individual.
Luo: That’s quite possible. We can all feel uncertainty and insecurity strongly today. But let’s not forget that every era is like this. A sense of security and certainty is just a false surface, an illusion. That’s why it pays to read more books, more history. We can make connections to those extremely uncertain times in the past, and those connections can help us to find some peace and stability today.
Wu: Will you continue to write books like “The Long Remains of Life” in the future?
Luo: I don’t know, but one thing is for sure: I won’t write the exact same type of book again. I want each of my books to be very different from each other, both in form and in content.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visuals from the cover of “The Long Remains of Life,” reedited by Sixth Tone.)