2012 New History
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The Creation and Transformation of “Chinese National History” in the Twentieth Century

Su-san Lee

Department of Social Study Education, Taipei Municipal University of Education

The emergence of “Chinese national history” writings in the twentieth century is a phenomenon provoked by the national crises of the late Qing. As Liang Qichao stated, the moral and biographical approach of traditional Chinese historiography could no longer satisfy patriotic modern readers; China needed a new kind of narrative inspiring the country with nationalism through re-interpretation of the past. Among over 70 books of “Chinese national history” published in Chinese in the twentieth century, the works by Liu Yizheng, Qian Mu, Lü Simian, Fan Wenlan, Bo Yang, and Ray Huang are particularly distinguished for their unique worldviews, scholarly originality, or wide popularity.  This essay examines their national history discourses in terms of ten themes: historiographical goal, implied readers, definition of “China,” racial stand, historical periodization, alleged momentum of Chinese history, evaluation of the Confucian tradition, human as agency of history, source of modern chaos, and predictions of China’s future.

Stemming from the author’s conservatism, socialism, or liberalism, these historians have different views of China’s past.  Paradoxically, despite diverse social, political, and cultural stands, the deficiencies of their works are virtually identical: they support military expansion, defend the interests of a certain class, neglect ethnic minorities, and tend to exclude women from their grand narratives. All of these propensities are similar to those of Western national historians. 

Several factors challenge the legitimacy of national history writings today. As specialization and compartmentalization permeate academia, the sweeping enterprise of general history writing becomes obsolete. “Shaping new citizens of the state,” the primary goal of national history writings, appears provincial in the face of globalization and multiculturalism. All that said, this genre of historiography still merits our attention. Although the national historians abandoned the moralist ideals of traditional Chinese historiography, they continued its panoramic and engaging approaches by drawing road-maps for their people in times of chaos.  Their conclusions may appear ephemeral, yet their devotion to their craft will continue to inspire future generations.


Keywords: discourse of national history, nationalism, conservatism, socialism, liberalism, Liang Qichao, Liu Yizheng, Qian Mu, Lü Simian, Fan Wenlan, Bo Yang, Ray Huang