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June 27, 2014

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To grasp history, look with heart at many sides and take the long view

THERE is a tale of the great scholar Wang Yangming (1472-1529) that says one day he tried to understand how a bamboo works. He gazed at a bamboo in his academy with such undeviating attention and energy that before he could arrive at any conclusion he collapsed after seven days of intensive effort.

Commenting on his failure in his later life, he pointed to the importance of methodology, citing the vital importance of the heart in the understanding of the external world.

When I was confronted with an English edition of Jürgen Osterhammel’s “The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century” (translated by Patrick Camiller), my curiosity was naturally aroused by the methodology used in organizing the enormous amount of material contained in this volume of 1,000 pages.

Although Osterhammel restricts his attention to the epic 19th century, he must look beyond that century of contacts, for the seeds of changes had been sowed long ago.

Take China as an example. We had come a long way before arriving at that humiliating century. Before that fatal encounter with the West, China had seen at least 3,400 years of solidly documented history, which enabled the Chinese to live very contentedly within the Middle Kingdom.

Informed by a culture that places high premium on self-sufficiency, the Chinese saw as their first task how to behave themselves so as not to incur heavenly wrath. The modern concept of conquering nature and tapping its resources could not be more incompatible with their concept of harmony.

In the standard narrative today, that self-sufficiency has been denigrated as isolationist, blamed on a national policy of biguan suoguo, or self-imposed lockup. All that changed in the 19th century, when the gates of China were forced open.

The Middle Kingdom learned, at a heavy cost, that in this brave new world her future survival would depend on her ability to master the barbarians’ skills to pulverize the neighbors. For this century, conventional modern Chinese historians prefer to engage in relentless self-flagellation, bemoaning the missed opportunities, conjecturing about the road not taken.


Our proximity to that era of changes and our changed outlook (with the West scholarship intuitively looked up to as the exemplary, archetypical and paradigmatic) deprives us the advantage of taking a long perspective, and that long view is probably the only thing that really matters in history.

In a 1992 book, Francis Fukuyama proudly declared the advent of Western liberal democracy may signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.

Today that end is more manifest in the wholesale environmental degradation, destructive human greed and human ingenuity at delivering willful destruction at each other. Such arrogant declamation of “The End of History” could only have been conceived of a near total lack of historical sense and long perspective.

Zhou Gucheng (1898-1996), a renowned Chinese historian whose “A General History of the World” was first published in 1949, was well aware of the challenges of attempting a global history. “Hitherto works on general history of the world are mostly a medley of odds and ends, which falls short of being an organic, holistic entity,” Zhou wrote in the 1980s.

One of the strengths of encyclopedic history is, Zhou observed, that when necessary, it is easier to look up specific information with the help of contents or and index. The drawback, equally obvious, is the difficulty of enabling readers to comprehend the world in its entirety.

“That explains the prevailing lack of interest in global history among history students today,” Zhou explained.

Therefore, for any work of history to be more than simple overgrowth of the tremendous scholarship already available, there must be a clear statement of methodology and purpose.

Osterhammal does prove peculiar in this aspect. Rather than adopting a chronological and Eurocentric approach, he unconventionally views the century from multiple perspectives of approaches, panoramas and themes. In approaches, the issues at hand are examined from temporal, spatial and other dimensions.

There is no lack of material regarding this century. The challenge is what to make of it.

As Osterhammel agrees, “Only a centralized organization of issues and viewpoints, of material and interpretations, can hope to meet the constructive requirements of the writing of world history.”

Web of connections

For work of this pretension, it is vital to describe the complex forces that drove the global change during the “long nineteenth century”, a century that “confronts the basic fact of a densely knit web of global connections.” Reducing these complex forces into a few neat technical parameters would be tempting, but that view can only be substantiated by some unexamined assumptions, among which technology being automatically progressive. This cannot but lead to another brand of Eurocentrism.

Sticking to technically definable factors might give the often chaotic historical studies the deceptive appearance of descriptive rigors and neatness any modern historian craves, but as Wang Yangming found after many pains, the key to understanding human affairs lies within our heart.

Here it might be profitable for the author to revisit his claim that “the danger of superficiality never looms larger than when the historian is confronted with works of art and philosophy that require careful and elaborate interpretation.”

If we have to single out discrete factors catalyzing the changes, we might as well settle for modern obsession with “speed.” In agrarian society, speed is much less a virtue than in a commercial society. A Qing Dynasty emperor reigning from 1862-1875 once saw a prince adorned with a timepiece. On being told what it was, he demanded sarcastically, “Will you end up not being able to tell the time without that gadget?”

Racket of progress

As Osterhammel observes, “the fully developed Qing Dynasty had no interest in the spatial form of the world beyond its own borderlands.”

What a wonderful world it would be if the Western powers had directed more attention to their own home. The Western eagerness to “discover” so many lands — in Americas, Asia and Africa — and their eagerness to civilize so many barbarians, is motivated by the capital’s native craving for profits and markets, as Marx observed long ago.

That’s the first episode of globalization, and the rise of the Internet does not represent a paradigm shift. It just means the picking up of speed.

Given our standardized pity for “those billions of people living in narrowly local conditions from which they can escape neither in reality nor in their imagination,” as Osterhammel says in the book, the gospel of progress must be spread apace. As a matter of fact, today progress is more a result of self-civilization, born of self-discipline, and part of conscious behavior.

Speaking at the Institute of Studies in Modern History under the Academy of Social Sciences, a senior official recently accused the academy of having been infiltrated by Western influences in a point-to-point manner.

In fact, that infiltration has started a long time ago.


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