Chinese historians and the West: The origins of modern Chinese historiography

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Norman Kutcher


History, European history, American history, Chinese historiography, China

Subject Categories



In the beginning of the twentieth century, following the call of Liang Qichao (1873-1929) for a "new history" and of Hu Shi (1891-1962) for a scientific method, Chinese historians such as Fu Sinian (1896-1951), Luo Jialun (1897-1969), He Bingsong (1890-1946), Yao Congwu (1894-1970), and Chen Yinke (1890-1969) began to reform Chinese historiography with their knowledge of Western historiography. Their effort initiated the course of modern Chinese historiography. Like most western historians who advocated scientific history, these Chinese historians deemed source collection and criticism the key to the work of the modern historian. During the 1930s and 1940s after their return from the West, they introduced Rankean principles and methods in source criticism to China, established modern historical research institutes, taught Western history at the university level, translated historical works, and, importantly, applied Western historical methods to their study of Chinese history.

With the Western model, they also examined the historiographical tradition in China and searched for elements to reinforce their research. They believed that the spirit of Qing evidential scholarship was essentially scientific. Their approach was thus syncretic. With their belief in liberalism, these historians comprised a unique group in modern China, distinct in approach from Marxist and traditional historians.

However, the accomplishment of these liberal historians was limited. A major reason was that when they were engaged in historical research, China was fighting with Japan in World War II. The war made serious scholarship extremely difficult. It also forced these intellectuals to seek linkages between scholarship and politics, as a way of preserving and defending China. However, while they made their voices heard in the political arena, their scholarship suffered. Some of them even forsook their former belief in the need to introduce Western historiography, and sought a completely China-oriented culture. For many of them, World War II thus became a turning point in their careers. Driven by the need for "national salvation," they regarded the preservation of China's cultural tradition as the most urgent task for the country. This in turn undid some of their previous work, and restrained them from making a sustained contribution to the modern Chinese historiography they began.


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