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

The Theory of Social Evolution and the Development of the Linear Model of History in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century China

Fan-sen Wang

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese traditional historiography as a field changed in dramatic and far-reaching ways.  The military defeats of Qing China by the Western powers and Japan created a fertile ground for the absorption of the Western linear view of history.  A new generation of Chinese historians began to apply this linear model in historical writing. Yan Fu’s translation of Edward Jenks’ A Short History of Politics (translated by Yan as “Shehui tongquan” 社會通詮) was particularly influential because it gave intellectuals a structural framework, a model of linear historical progression that could be copied and applied, much like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, to the analysis of Chinese history.  This new generation of Chinese intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came to view the linear model of history as a universal scientific truth or a general convention (gongli 公理/gongli 公例) which could be applied in historical scholarship and contemporary criticism.

According to this linear model, the course of historical progression could be likened to a ruler with clear, graduated markings, each of which signified a stage of historical development, from the most primitive forms of existence to that of highly advanced nations.  The evolution of human society could be divided into stages, and the passage through each historical stage was the ineluctable destiny of all nations. The absorption and application of the linear view of history transformed the traditional Chinese perception of ancient history and created a new perception of time. Chinese history was drastically elongated, and Chinese antiquity was perceived as part of an extremely remote past. Now, according to the new linear view of history, the Golden Age of ancient China was nothing more than a primitive, transitional stage in historical progression. 

The linear model of history also gave rise to what I term the “dual evaluation of ethical meaning” (daodeshang de eryixing 道德上的二義性).  War, military clashes, violence, and selfishness – while hateful in and of themselves – now began to carry a positive meaning because they served to spur the advancement of history.  The linear view of history also redefined the duty of historians.  Historians now served as pioneers who delineated the genealogy of the past and future according to the linear model and became advocates of progress endowed with the mission of serving as spiritual guides of a nation undergoing historical transition. In the 1920s, as socialism and anarchism became more popular, the five stages of historical development theorized by Marx and Engels (primitive commune – slave society – feudal society– capitalist society– socialist society) gradually became the predominant linear historical model, and would dominate Chinese historiography and politics for decades to come.


Keywords: Chinese historiography, Chinese antiquity, Edward Jenks, Yan Fu, Qian Mu, social evolution, historical progress, linear model of history, Chinese intellectuals, dual evaluation of ethical meaning, Marxism