History in Chinese Culture: Some Comparative Reflections

This article explores the differences and similarities between China and the West in terms of history. While the term itself is of ancient Greek origin, the "semantic field" of history resonates in many ways with the semantic field covered by the word shi in China. The original Greek usage, derived from Herodotus, means an inquiry into human affairs. The inquiry involved narrative (as well as what we might call anthropological observation) over large stretches of time and space, but many of its main concerns were metahistorical in terms of nineteenth-century western historicism. This is true of Thucydides and later even of Machiavelli. History was a casebook and a "mirror" of metahistorical experiences which could be used in an entirely unhistorical way to shed light on many areas of human ethical, political, and other modes of thought and behavior. The nineteenth-century western "historicist" view of history as a "master narrative" reflecting an irreversible, inexorable process of development shaping the entire destiny of the human race may have some of its roots in the Heilsgeschichte of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in its "progressivist" version. Historicism also implied that human beings were basically formed by their loci within their historical epoch and raised serious questions concerning the role of human agency in human affairs. In China-in contrast to the West - we find particularly in the Confucian stream of thought the early emergence of the idea of a metahistorical ideal order which had been realized within the human sphere in the past. Here the historical problem was the fatal human capacity to fall away from the principles of this normative order (the dao). The problem became: why does humanity depart from the good order and to what extent can it be restored? Despite the vastly different framework, we can find in China (particularly in the "Spring and Autumn" tradition, and elsewhere) both the kind of "unhistorical" history which regards history as a reservoir of metahistorical experience in ethical, political, and other aspects of life, and a view which projects something like the image of an inexorable and impersonal historical process involving both the flourishing and decline of the normative order. Within the latter framework we find some dilemmas concerning the role of human agency that we find in post-Enlightenment, western "master narratives."