2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

New Perspectives on the Study of Modern Chinese Intellectual History: Reflecting on Directions for Future Research

Fan-sen Wang

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

Regarding the use of historical materials, I would like to emphasize three things: first, historians in this field should make better use of private documents, including numerous newly available diaries and personal correspondence. Second, we should pay more attention to materials relating to modern cultural conservatives. And third, we should pay more attention to materials concerning the local worlds of readers.

As for methodology, I would like more reflection on the social function of thought. On one level, one might ask of any document what it is overtly about. But might also consider the numerous uses of these thoughts on various occasions. For example, one might look at the numerous uses of the classics; Confucian classics were sometimes used as social texts and sometimes as mystical ones. It is not only a question of how the literati interpreted these texts; in fact, everyone was using them. For example, even though Confucius claimed to have no interest in religious matters, his texts were used to exorcize spirits, etc. More attention should be paid to the interdependence among thought, everyday life, politics, economics, etc.  On the topic of methodology, I want to remind my colleagues that we are always trapped by a certain historical logic. The logic of the historical actors who are the objects of our study is necessarily quite different from our own, yet we tend to confound them as one. Specifically, we tend to think from the perspective of knowing everything that has happened since, even while the historical actors we study could not possibly know such things. They progressed from A, to B, and to C, while we start from Z and work backwards. Knowing the consequences of all historical events is actually the opposite of how history truly evolved. There are many dangers embedded in this situation, as we neglect those streams of events or ideas that did not bear fruit, although they may have been very important at the time. We confuse A-Z and Z-A logic, assuming they are the same, and thereby we miss an abundance of historical development and detail, obscuring what really happened.

As for research topics, I propose focusing on several things. First, I believe we must pay more attention to the study of small, local intellectuals. We pay too much attention to the nationally renowned elite and to the grass roots of peasants and merchants, forgetting that there is a history in between these two. Local intellectuals are in fact agents who played very complicated roles in modern intellectual history. This topic deserves further inquiry. Secondly, I believe we have far too little knowledge about modern cultural conservatives, as we are always focusing on new, radical thinkers, leaving others aside. We thereby neglect to observe the cultural creativity and complexity of conservative thinkers. Third, the new press, including newspapers and journals, constituted a new network of communication that transformed the intellectual climate quite dramatically, especially as regards the formation of public opinion, the public sphere, and the relation of these to official policy, the rise of new social elites and various other phenomena. These should be looked into more closely. A fourth topic deserving of further research is the study of the structure of feeling. This is something beyond the strictly intellectual that profoundly shaped people’s actions.

Additionally, I would to promote a comparative approach to intellectual history. That has been done before, but always under the framework of modernization theory, so now a new type of comparison should be possible. In particular, we should compare the intellectual history of places with somewhat similar experiences, such as Eastern Europe, Russia, India, China, and Japan. They have in common their experience of contact with an expanding and hegemonic “West”. Finally, the intellectual history of the 1950s on either side of the Taiwan straits has hardly been explored.


Keywords: intellectual history, cultural history