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History, Chinese theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

The beginnings of Chinese historical writing can be seen in the works of several early thinkers of the sixth through third centuries bc. The various features which we see in their nascent form in early classical sources were developed, synthesized and found their first mature expression in the composition of what came to be known as the Standard or Official Histories, notably the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Shiji (Records of the Historian) and the Hanshu (History of the Former Han Dynasty).

Much has been made of the purported ‘cyclical’ nature of Chinese views of time and the implications this has had on everything from Chinese views of history to the development of science. It is alleged that there was no notion of historical progress among the Chinese, who purportedly held a fatalistic view of infinitely repeating cycles of alternating political order and chaos, beyond human control. However, Chinese thinkers have held a wide range of different views about the pattern and flow of history.

While the amount of historical writing in China is truly staggering, Chinese thinkers have paid relatively little attention to the systematic study of the methodology and nature of history. However, there have been notable exceptions in both critical and speculative history. Critical historians at different times modified and made further suggestions regarding the form and content of the Official Histories. They also criticized the methods by which material for the Official Histories was gathered and controlled, and offered a variety of opinions regarding other forms of historical writing. Chinese philosophers of history developed elegant and sophisticated theories of history which purport to reveal the significance and structure of historical processes.

The nineteenth century marks the beginning of modern Chinese views of history, when Chinese intellectuals were first deeply influenced by Western views on the nature of history and historical method. This was also a time when Chinese society was shaken to its foundations by Western colonialism. Chinese historians of this period responded with impressive syntheses of traditional and western views. Traditional notions – for example the idea that history must fulfil a moral purpose – were recast in terms of the emerging phenomenon of Chinese nationalism. At the same time, new ideas about how objective factors, such as economic forces, shape historical events and the global scale on which these events take shape were incorporated into novel Chinese conceptions of history. This process continued into the early twentieth century when Marxist views became most influential. Early Chinese Marxist theories of history reveal a remarkable mixture of the strange and the familiar. However, Stalinist ideology quickly came to dominate more subtle forms of Marxism. As a result, Chinese Marxist views of history soon became ossified and uninspired. Little new or interesting can be found after the early 1950s.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. History, Chinese theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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