The Historian Rewriting China’s Understanding of the World
Qian Chengdan might be the Platonic ideal of an ivory tower academic. The director of both Peking University’s Center for World History Research and its Institute of Area Studies, Qian occupies a prestigious perch at one of China’s top universities, but unlike many of his peers, he seems to have little interest in fame or attention: He rarely participates in public forums or sits for interviews, and he avoids all social media — even WeChat.
On the rare occasion Qian does descend from the ivory tower, however, he almost always leaves a mark. In 2006, Qian served as a key consultant on the acclaimed CCTV-produced documentary series “The Rise of the Great Powers,” which told the story of nine world-historical empires, from Portugal and Spain to Japan and the United States. It was one of the first extended introductions to world history aired on Chinese television — and a significant departure from past programming focused on China’s own history.
After the series aired, Qian quietly returned to academic life, eventually publishing a number of well-received monographs on world and English history while pursuing his passion project: translating “The Cambridge Introduction to the History of Art” in its entirety.
But China’s growing engagement with the outside world ensured he was never too far from the spotlight. In 2011, China upgraded world history to a “top-level” academic discipline, bringing new funding and attention to a long-neglected field. For years, Chinese scholars of world history had labored in relative obscurity while relying on approaches borrowed from either the West, where many current academics were trained, or the Soviet Union, which helped introduce the field to China in the 1950s. Now, armed with new funds and increased state support, academics began to push for a new, distinctly Chinese perspective on world history.
Given his position and research acumen, Qian was a natural choice to lead this effort. Working with a team of scholars and funded by a government grant, he spent three years drafting and revising “An Outline of World History,” published this June by Peking University Press. At its launch event, PUP called it “the first attempt by Chinese scholars to create a new system of knowledge for world history, and to use that system to write a history of the world.”
Unsurprisingly, “An Outline of World History” draws heavily from the work of Karl Marx, though Qian has taken pains to distance the work from that of earlier Soviet scholars, whom he believes were overly dogmatic and overlooked key aspects of Marx’s ideas — namely, on the importance of “intercourse” between nations.
Last month, Qian sat down for a telephone interview with Sixth Tone about his new book, the relative merits of Western and Soviet historiography, and the challenge of grounding Marx’s theories in empirical evidence. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sixth Tone: To start off, could you please provide an overview of how the discipline of world history evolved in China?
Qian Chengdan: China has a rich tradition of historiography, but the emergence of world history as a distinct academic discipline is a relatively recent development here.
In the traditional context of Chinese historiography, the notion of the “world” was conspicuously absent. While works like the “Records of the Grand Historian” and the “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance” contained references to foreign lands, they were not rigorous scholarly studies but rather anecdotal observations.
It was only in the mid-19th century that Chinese intellectuals began to develop greater global awareness — a process the Qing dynasty scholar and historian Wei Yuan (1794-1857) once termed “opening one’s eyes to the world.”
Over the subsequent half-century or so, China’s perception of the outside world was primarily focused on major Western powers such as Britain, France, and the United States. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that a cohort of Chinese students abroad began comprehensively studying the history of foreign countries. My own mentor, Jiang Mengyin, was a member of this group.
Interestingly, though these scholars immersed themselves in the study of foreign history during their time overseas, upon returning to China, they largely concentrated on Chinese history. At that time, China did not officially recognize “world history” as an academic discipline, and it was challenging to secure academic positions in fields other than Chinese history.
It was only in the 1950s, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, that world history was formally established as an academic discipline. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the field was upgraded to a top-level discipline.
Consequently, the development of world history as an academic field in China got off to a comparatively late start. And those scholars who did specialize in world history were influenced by foreign historiographical traditions, whether it was the approach found in Europe, the United States, and Japan or that of the Soviet Union.
Sixth Tone: Could you provide a brief overview of these two approaches? How did Chinese scholars who were trained in the West approach world history?
Qian: To understand mainstream Western historiography, we need to start in the 19th century with the renowned historian Leopold von Ranke. Rankean historiography inherited Hegel’s philosophy of history and focused on the history of nation-states. Ranke himself was a Prussian, and he regarded Prussia as either the center of, or at least representative of, human history. His description — starting from its most primitive state, a nation-state gradually grows and develops before eventually reaching maturity — resembled an ascending staircase. It could be called a vertical approach to history. Rankean historiography made the history of nation-states central to Western historiography, with the histories of major Western powers being portrayed as representative of the history of the entire world.
In the 1960s, Western historiography began to question and doubt the Rankean system. Scholars believed that Ranke’s emphasis on vertical development was problematic, in part because it overlooked horizontal connections. This gave rise to more global perspectives, which stressed interactions and mutual influences between nations, regions, and ethnic groups.
Basically, mainstream Western historical writing can be divided into two categories: the vertical, Rankean historiography, and the horizontal, global approach.
Sixth Tone: What about the Soviet world history system?
Qian: The Soviet system boils down to two elements: the “five modes” and class struggle. The importance of class struggle to Marxism is well known, but many Chinese also learn about the five modes of production, which refer to the progression of human society from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and ultimately a future communist society.
The problem with the Soviet system was its absolutism. It rejected the idea of cultural diversity and posited that all regions and countries worldwide underwent the same process. This does not align with historical reality. While there is indeed a trend of human societies evolving from lower to higher stages of development, the specific circumstances in each region or country can vary greatly. In the Soviet system, there was only vertical development without horizontal development.
Sixth Tone: What you described as the two key points of the Soviet system are fundamental concepts that every Chinese person learns from an early age. Isn’t that standard Marxism? How exactly does your approach differ from the Soviet one?
Qian: In his book “The German Ideology,” Karl Marx provided a clear description of the formation of world history. He wrote, “the more the original isolation of the separate nationalities is destroyed by the developed mode of production and intercourse and the division of labor between various nations naturally brought forth by these, the more history becomes world history.” This is Marx’s own understanding of the formation of world history. Regrettably, his words were largely ignored by Soviet historians.
Marx’s meaning is quite explicit: First, the “world” did not exist from the very beginning but gradually evolved. Second, the mechanism for the formation of the world was twofold, involving both the continuous improvement of productive forces and the expansion of interaction among different regions, countries, and nations. This implies that human society is not only characterized by the progression from lower to higher stages but also by the transition from fragmentation to unity. From this perspective, we can see the superiority of Marx’s theory of world history.
Marx’s exposition aligns closely with the thinking of one of the pioneers of Chinese world history, the mid-20th century scholar Wu Yuqin. Wu advocated for a holistic approach to world history, emphasizing that human history involves not only progression from lower to higher stages but also a shift from fragmentation to integration.
Sixth Tone: When studying world history, it’s not just about emphasizing both the vertical and horizontal dimensions but also recognizing their simultaneous progression?
Qian: Precisely. This was our fundamental goal in producing “A New Outline of World History.” Our objective was to highlight the deficiencies in both the Western and Soviet systems. Why did we want to do this? Because these two systems are flawed and fail to capture the true essence of history. We aim to restore history to its authentic form, preserving its most genuine characteristics. In my view, Marx’s theory of “world history” comes closest to grasping the essence of history. Sadly, his theory has long been overlooked.
The primary challenge we faced in writing this book was to illustrate the vertical and horizontal development of human societies using historical evidence, thereby creating a comprehensive historical narrative. Marx proposed a philosophical concept that required concrete historical proof for validation. History is an empirical discipline; it relies on evidence and cannot be based on imagination or speculation.
Sixth Tone: So, you believe the empirical evidence supports this theory?
Qian: Absolutely. For instance, the second chapter of the book discusses the “ancient world,” while the third chapter delves into the “medieval world.” The dividing line between these two periods falls around the 5th century AD. During that era, both the East and West underwent significant transformations sparked by “barbarian” incursions; In the West, there were the “barbarian invasions” that brought down Rome, while in the East, there was the “Upheaval of the Five Barbarians.” This is essentially a form of “horizontal” interaction among different civilizations at a specific stage of their vertical development. Following this horizontal interaction, classical civilizations in the two regions were disrupted, and each civilization would eventually recommence vertical development from a new starting point.
In reality, vertical development is often driven, to a large extent, by horizontal contact and exchange. We can observe that in Australia and the Americas, relative isolation resulted in limited external influences, leading to cultural continuity for extended periods. In contrast, on the Eurasian continent, frequent contact between different civilizations led to more substantial changes and mutual influences, increasing the likelihood of variation due to contact.
Sixth Tone: Based on this theory, how would you interpret the current historical moment?
Qian: From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, the Western world, bolstered by capital and war, essentially gained control over the entire globe, leaving almost no room for the survival of non-Western civilizations. This was a comprehensive “horizontal” shift. However, from that point onward, history has begun to reverse course, and the world today is markedly different from a century ago. Various regions are pursuing their unique development paths, and differences are becoming increasingly pronounced and apparent.
Modernization in individual countries constitutes vertical development, while global modernization represents horizontal development resulting from mutual influences across the world, ultimately leading to interdependence among all of humanity. What does this tell us? It underscores the interplay between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human history. It also tells us that horizontal development does not entail one civilization replacing all others; diversity in civilizations persists throughout history.
Translator: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: A view of the Yangzte River as it crosses the Hengduan Mountains. VCG)