Historiography is meta-history, that is, the historical study of historical studies in the past. It is useful and valuable to historical research as ongoing quality control and provides a kind of user’s manuals for those who wish to use old literature in new studies of the past. Also, it can often help explain political ideas, movements and propaganda in the past, as that field in society often attempts to use and manipulate history. I am, however, of the firm opinion that if you are interested in, say, the High Middle Ages, you have no reason to delve into Victorian ideas about that period. You need to hit the Medieval sources. Meta-studies should always be an adjunct to the real thing. If a subject is abstruse, then its meta-subject is of even less interest to humanity at large.
Chinese history and historiography are the themes of the current issue of Kinarapport (2010:4), the quarterly of the Swedish-Chinese Association. Reading it left me annoyed, because some of the historiography here is of the post-modernist kind marked by knowledge relativism. A relativist historiographer will not criticise the historians of yesteryear on points of fact and suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources. Instead he will pick apart the arguments of earlier generations and simply leave them disassembled, saying more or less explicitly that any attempt to establish objectively true knowledge about the past is futile.
There’s a fatal inconsistency built into relativist historiography. A relativist present-day writer will not allow for a Victorian writer to have found out any objective knowledge about the High Middle Ages. But he will himself unproblematically claim objective knowledge about the Victorian writer’s views and surrounding world. And so he must, because if he were a consistent knowledge relativist he would have no basis for imposing his own views on a reader and expect to be taken seriously. He would on first principles be unable to say “Victorian scholar so-and-so believed this-and-that about the High Middle Ages”.
Perry Johansson’s contribution to Kinarapport titled “A war over sources, interpretations and territory” is an example of this inconsistent attitude. Already in the third paragraph we run into a couple of revealing scare quotes (and I translate):
Wars are fought over territory, wealth and legitimacy. A central issue in establishing legitimacy is the control over culture and memory. That is why we find among the casualties of war historical remains, symbols, archives, libraries art and also “the truth”.
And he goes on, having name-dropped Edward Said, in a fine 90s “post-colonial” tradition:
The importance of sources to historians is usually described only in heuristic terms with source criticism as the mainstay of scientific objectivist historical research. But since the modern Western humanities arise at the same time as imperialism, it is difficult not to seek a connection to it. What role did racist imperialism play in the establishment of a modern Chinese historical discipline?
Actually, for someone who is primarily interested in pre-Opium War Chinese history, like me, it is not difficult at all to avoid seeking the academic connections with later Western imperialism that interest Johansson. And looking at those earlier millennia, I’m interested in history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Let’s find out what actually happened, in China just as everywhere else. That’s the job of an historian. “Scientific objectivist” history is the only kind I recognise as legitimate scholarship. And the funny thing is that Johansson shares this attitude – but only in regard to the birth of modern research into Chinese history. He makes truth claims about events in the early 20th century. The fact that some of the claims are historiographical in content does not place them outside the relativist loop.
Here are a few confident factual statements of Perry Johansson’s from the second page of the article.
“In the inter-war years, Western sinologists and orientalists searched China for source materials and new discoveries.”
“This article presents some concrete facts regarding the development of an historical praxis among a small number of Chinese historians. … [They] fully understood the link between history and the nation, and they saw how Westerners and Japanese began to investigate China’s history and origins, and noted their desire for Chinese antiquities to bring home to their museums.”
“In China, Western archaeology and collecting reached new heights after the fall of the empire and the subsequent three decades of civil and anti-imperialist war.”
Here, Perry Johansson happily tells us about things that happened decades before he was born and at the other end of the continent we inhabit. But he is not willing to grant scholars of that era the same ability to find out objectively about the past. And truth is a word he places in scare quotes.