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A New Model of History in China

China is the archetype of Civilization I society. It is one of the last nations to use ideographic writing on a broad scale. Its society is dominated by centralized government. The original model of history, based on chronicles of royal dynasties, would be appropriate for this type of society. Even after the communists brought in a government ruled by a political party rather than hereditary monarchs, centralized government remained.

In the past several decades, however, Chinese society has been transformed by economic and cultural forces originating in the west. Gone is the monolithic culture that once gripped this society. Today’s Chinese are as obsessed with money-making and entertainment-centered interests as peoples in North America or Europe. To an unusual degree, this people is willing to abandon traditional practices and instead pursue the latest ideas and trends. Once xenophobic, modern China is unusually open to outside influences. Inevitably, this new orientation will affect its outlook on history.

An article in the New York Times, published September 1, 2006, reports that a number of elite schools in Shanghai are using a new history textbook that downplays political history in favor of “colorful tutorials on economics, technology, social customs and globalization.” Socialism is covered in a single chapter and chairman Mao in mentioned only once - in a chapter on etiquette. Instead, coverage is given to Bill Gates, J. P. Morgan, the New York Stock Exchange, the space shuttle, Japan’s bullet trains, and even how neckties became fashionable.

Zhu Xueqin, a historian at Shanghai University, explains: “Our traditional version of history was focused on ideology and national identity. The new history is less ideological, and that suits the political goals of today.” The Chinese government’s goal is to bring China quickly into the 21st century and integrate it into the world community as an economically, politically, militarily and culturally strong nation. To meet that goal, its young people will need to understand free-market economies, the role of media in society, and other fixtures of the modern world.

Zhou Chungshen, who teaches at Shanghai Normal University, said that the authors of the textbook wanted to “rescue history from its traditional emphasis on leaders and wars and to make peoples and societies the central theme,” according to the article. “History does not belong to emperors or generals,” he said. It belongs to the people. It may take some time for others to accept this, naturally, but a similar process has long been under way in Europe and the United States.” He said that this approach followed the ideas of Fernand Braudel, a French historian, who wanted to include culture, religion, social customs, economics, and ideology in what is called “a total history”.

Five Epochs of Civilization, which has been translated into Chinese, looks at world history in terms of the evolution of human civilizations from simple, small-scale communities to the type of large, pluralistic society that we have today. The societies that were totally dominated by government belong to the first civilization. Subsequent civilizations reflect the addition of other institutions to society’s power base: religion, commerce, education, media and entertainment. This process of institutional pluralization parallels the arrival of new media of communication. According to this scheme, world history would be told in the form of a creation story - the progressive creation of human society and culture - rather than of the rise and fall of political dynasties, reflecting the relative prominence of particular peoples.

The Chinese and others object to world histories that glorify western progress while suggesting that other peoples are backward. If we can describe the growth of societies in an objective, dispassionate way, it might be possible to create a world history which gives all nations and peoples a dignified place in our collective memory. The innovations in the teaching of history, begun in Shanghai, further the aims of such a history.

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