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Reconciling history with the nation? Historicity, national particularity, and the question of universals

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This article interprets the historiography of two modern Chinese historians, Fu Sinian and Chen Yinke, who both have been labeled the Chinese Ranke. Both historians have in recent years attracted a lot of attention in China, due to their prominent and very different concepts of national history.

In this article Axel Schneider brings out the characteristics of their approaches to history by, first, situating modern historiography within the context of the philosophical crisis of modernity. By "modernity" he refers to the process of historicization and, hence, relativization of norms and values once conceived as timeless and universal. In Europe, this process has been characterized by a decline of metaphysical and theological assumptions on the structure of the world and a concomitant decline of traditional assertions of ontological and epistemological coherence. In China, this process challenged the inherited, very prominent status of traditional historiography as a core field for political and philosophical debates.

Second, he interprets Chen Yinke's and Fu Sinian's writings against the background of an understanding of Ranke's historiography that acknowledges the dual nature of Ranke's approach as consisting of both, the widely known text-critical, objectivist methodology and a less known, hermeneutic methodology of empathetic understanding that is based on Ranke's belief in divine providence underlying the particular manifestations of history.

Axel Schneider comes to the conclusion that neither Fu nor Chen can be labeled the Chinese Ranke. Fu was mainly oriented towards the positivist sciences. He advocated a view of history as determined by factors comparable to laws in the sciences. He envisions history as characterized by universal progress towards a rational, scientific mode of thought. He argues against any kind of interpretation, and formulates the task of the historian as consisting of the verification and organization of the material, allowing the bare facts contained in the material to speak for themselves. He thus subordinates China's history to universal laws and tries to establish a Chinese identity by fitting China into world history as determined by characteristics that are universal, but in fact are of Western origin.

Given this methodology, it is not unlikely that in spite of the fact that Fu only referred once to Ranke, he equated his approach with that of Ranke. However, his Ranke clearly was the empiricist Ranke.

Chen Yinke, in contrast to Fu, stressed cultural particularity assuming that all cultures are of equal status, thus implying a universalist perspective. His research was based on the assumption that Chinese history is characterized by the gradual development of its particular "national spirit". What guarded him against relativism was the notion of "the universality of abstract ideals". He recovers the lost universal by assuming the formal universality of human attachment to "abstract ideals" that do vary from culture to culture, but have to be protected in order to safeguard the identity of the respective cultures. The ideals and their corresponding cultures can not be integrated into world history by general schemes of evolution or by means of universal norms. It is Chinese history that speaks to Chen who thereby wants to establish an identity that can only be integrated into the larger world through respect for each culture's commitment to its specific ideals. Accordingly, the historian has to adopt a historicist, hermeneutic methodology. His research should aim at the "empathetic understanding" of the historical manifestations of the national spirit.

Although Chen never referred to Ranke, later historians claimed to know of such an influence. Chen's position surely was closer to the hermeneutic Ranke who struggled with the problem of the relationship between the individual and the universal and who opposed any notion of teleological progress. However, while Ranke had lived in a Christian world still comparatively at peace with its theological assumption of a divine providence, Chen could not fall back on a Christian God for solace. He was - far more than Ranke - confronted with far-reaching changes, bringing about the rapid decline of his Confucian world.


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