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Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Well, as I said before, I am extremely ignorant of history and should really shut the hell up about it. It is extremely dangerous to comment on someone's work based on skimming a few pages on Google Books and a little background stuff learned from Wikipedia. But, this is my blog and I can do whatever I want, so I might as well make a fool of myself here.

History is primarily about collecting facts. The rest is interpretation. It is both impossible and inevitable that historians should guess at the undercurrent of historical events --- Why? How? Why did things happen this way but not that way, in this moment but not that? Why did key figures (kings, emperors, generals) choose this road but not that road? What if?

From the little bit of stuff I skimmed, it seems that Ray Huang and his colleague/mentor Joseph Needham took an approach to studying Chinese history that is dispassionate and detached, quite the opposite of the traditionally moralistic tone that has dominated Chinese history since the days of 司马迁. Which is fine. The human history, especially a massive and massively complex one like Chinese history, is impossible to be thoroughly understood from all possible angles. One can use the macro-history or the micro-history approach to study it. Neither is righter than the other as long as the limitations are clearly drawn. There is no absolute truth.

Anyway, what the hell was I trying to say? Oh, yeah, it is extremely valuable to introduce an non-moralistic and macro approach to studying history. However, it seems to me that Huang and Needham might be a little too deterministic and a little too ambitious in trying to quantify and explain why things happened the way they did. I can't completely agree that the current history is completely inevitable and that China (or whatever) is this way because it has to be because its geography or scientific progress have forced it to go this way and none other was possible. Nor do I believe that it would have been drastically different if someone went back in time and stepped on a butterfly or shot Hitler dead.

OK, sorry, actually the puny amount of knowledge I have about history has been largely derived from the alternative history genre in science fiction. Anyway, my feeling is somewhere in between. On the one hand, it is obvious that geography, including connections and exchanges with neighboring civilizations, and agriculture and technology can play a key role in shaping history of a particular region or tribe. On the other hand, one must (well, there is no such thing as "must" in history, but that's what I believe) concede that random occurrences and coincidences have important effects in pushing the underlying tendencies in one direction or another. An innate propensity (deterministic elements such as geography or climate, or a family-centric hierarchical philosophy) is amplified or suppressed by fairly limited local circumstances, either spatial or temporal.

In my opinion (which of course nobody gives a ****), the most significant force in history is neither deterministic factors (ie, destiny) nor random events, but rather the cumulative weight of the past. A people with a history cannot one day wake up and make a U-turn from their long-held trajectory. If we really want to understand why something happens at a given time, we might have to take in account the few thousand years before it, as well as the fog, drizzle, and wind on that day. And we cannot predict what a people will do in the next year without considering where they and their ancestors have meandered on the road leading all the way to now. That's crazy, but somehow that is the way of human behavior.

Even an individual human is unable, in 100 years of his life, to veer too far from his life trajectory drawn before and immediately after his birth, how could a gigantic group of them, carrying enormous baggage of thousands of years through language, folklore, memes, morality, social structures, and value system --- known as collective unconsciousness --- do anything change drastically? Birds fly the same route year after year, generation after generation. Salmon swim to the same upstream place.

Nevertheless, accidents happen. One could be destined to live a long life thanks to his indestructible genes, but he might go out and get hit by a bus. A tribe might be great and stable, but the deterministic forces of geography and cultural characteristics cannot anticipate the rapid rise of a power who discovers a superweapon, or has such amoral advantage as carrying some resistance to smallpox or the plague, that crushes the great, stable, and virtuous tribe nevertheless. Historians are pretty good at delineating the past, but the future is anybody's guess.

One thing that bothers me is the role of history studies as a key tool in politics. Politicians frequently seek solutions to their current problems in history books, and historians write history books with the intention of advising and influencing current and future policies. I guess this tradition is good sometimes and bad other times. It helps the powerful rule effectively if they understand the patterns of people and events --- perhaps this is why Chinese politics is so sophisticated and labyrinthine. Nevertheless, it may be a mirage to hope that, because you know exactly what mistakes (?) were made to cause (?) the decline of the Ming Dynasty, somehow you can prevent your own dynasty's decline by avoiding these mistakes through policies and politics. A rationalized, macro-history view carries the risk of oversimplification, which may convince some that, if only we make our fellow tribesmen change and behave this way or that, we could avoid a repetition of another fall of the empire, the glory of the tribe will burn brightly forever, and somehow studying history can and should do all this. I think that's crap, but then what do I know?


好吧,我也就是偶尔撒撒野,其实对这种学术话题既无知识也无兴趣。李约瑟这种学者我觉得副作用太大---虽然他不是故意的。真喜欢中国历史和文化,象 Robert van Gulik 那样最好,研究下古代闺房秘技,写写侦探小说,有益无害。


Barbara said...



从目前看了半拉的《万历十五年》看,黄正印证了你感到的“The human history, especially a massive and massively complex one like Chinese history, is impossible to be thoroughly understood from all possible angles.”比如万历是不是如一般史学家认为的昏聩,为什么不是,为什么是,他的个性起了什么作用、他的前辈起了什么作用,当时的文官集团又起了什么作用,必然性和偶然性交错得非常“科学”,对我就非常有说服力。





Barbara said...



Jun said...


From Wikipedia: Needham's Grand Question", also known as "The Needham Question", is why China had been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes.

Academically, the question is fine. In the real world, the question is too psychologically and emotionally seductive for some influential Chinese people and consequently left an unfortunate and lasting legacy.

Jun said...

您啥时候回家?我要看普拉多感想!我也喜欢Prado,不过它俩不方便比较,一个是收集古典派作品的,,范围广大; 一个是集中于印象派作品的。

Barbara said...

我后天回。普拉多,我实在太喜欢El Greco了,大画效果震撼。印象派越看越觉得就是那么回事儿(大概看了三四家美术馆),尤其讨厌毕加索(不错只看了巴塞罗那一家)。这回没时间去橘园美术馆多看一些印象派有点遗憾,下次一定找时间。明天要早起,回头慢慢说。

Jun said...

啊,你这么喜欢 El Greco,没去 Toledo 太可惜了,那里才是他的大本营,里马德里又挺近的。

Barbara said...


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