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

Chen Yuan as a Renovating Historian

Ch’i-ch’ing Hsiao

Honorary Chair Professor, Institute of History, National Tsing Hua University

Chen Yuan (1880-1971) was a preeminent historian in the early 20th century when the foundation of modern Chinese historical research was laid. This paper examines the main developments in his scholarship to assess his contribution to modern Chinese historiography. He is termed a “renovating historian” in this paper for two reasons. First, among the important historians in his generation he received very little influence from foreign scholarship and inherited the tradition of Chinese historiography in a most direct way. He played a leading role in modernizing the methodology of the evidential historical scholarship of the Qianlong and Jiaqing periods. Second, his historical scholarship was not static but actually went through three stages of development in terms of methodology and ideology, closely relating to the changes in political environment, as follows: (1) Evidential historical research: before the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 he devoted himself to the modernization of traditional Chinese historiography and applied the modernized evidential methods to his research. He fruitfully pioneered several new areas of research. (2) “Resistance War historiography”: during the eight years of War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945) he completed several books to promote patriotism in the spirit of the Chinese traditional historiography of statecraft. Although all these books were based on solid research, they were less objective than his earlier works because of the strong influence of nationalistic sentiment on his writings. (3) Marxist historiographyAfter the Communists’ capture of Beijing in 1949 Chen immediately and publicly renounced the evidential method of research and embraced Marxist historiography, intending to use his historical writing as a tool to “reform society and serving the people.” However, since Marxist historiography was incompatible with the Chinese tradition, Chen’s conversion to Marxist historiography was no more than a political gesture that produced no practical results. In sum, in spite of these vicissitudes, Chen Yuan made his greatest contribution to the development of modern Chinese historiography as a modernizer of evidential scholarship in his early years. Because of the decline of Marxist influence in Chinese academic circles and the reestablishment of the evidential school in the mainstream of mainland Chinese historical research in recent years, Chen Yuan, with other pioneering modern evidential masters, will continue to exert much influence on the development of Chinese historical studies.


Keywords: Chen Yuan, evidential scholarship of Qianlong and Jiaqing periods, statecraft historiography, historiography of evidential research, “War of Resistance” historiography, Marxist historiography