East Meets West: Historians of China and Japan

Rebecca Agee

East Meets West:

Historians of China and Japan

In Historians of China and Japan, Eastern and Asian studies professors W.G. Beasley and  E.G. Pulleyblank (of the University of London and the University of British Columbia, respectively) bring together a compilation of scholarly, international perspectives on the historiographies of China and Japan.  A very detailed, comprehensive work, it is the book-form of eighteen papers presented at the July 1956 conference of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The chronological structure of the book adds much to the organization and ease of reading of what could have been an arduous task—especially  those sections regarding China’s long and exhaustive dynastical history.
Beasley and Pulleyblank set the scene, as it were, in the introduction with a synopsis and commentary of the well-researched and documented chapters that follow. Beginning with van der Loon’s work on ancient Chinese chronicles and historical ideals, through Gray’s notes on its pivotal twentieth century political and economical metamorphosis—readers quickly come to realize the great solemnity and reverence the Chinese hold for their extensive history.
The initial chapters of the work delve into specific periods and angles of Chinese historiography—with the later installments probing into that of Japan.  Some other topics  include Chinese biographical writing (D. C. Twitchett), eminent aboriginal historical criticisms (Pulleyblank/ P. Demieville), as well as Owen Lattimore’s treatise on the sociological ‘nomadism’ of the Mongols (an intriguing piece with its discourse comparing/contrasting the Asian barbaric tribes with that of the European—as well as Lattimore’s reflections on the groundbreaking studies of  Edward Gibbon.
As the book progresses, common practices and standards pertaining to the recording and storage of primary source material becomes evident. One of the oldest practices—dating back to China’s ancient age—is the keeping of the Diary of Activity and Repose (of the emperor). Its continuation is validation of the ongoing chain of unbroken Chinese historical tradition. Other source materials include the Standard History; the Spring/Autumn Annuals; the Biographies; and the Veritable Records. Further, each period was not without its contemporary critics as to the veracity, objectivity and methodologies of its recordkeeping; however, those of the Ming dynasty are often cited as having more than its share of inaccuracies. In contrast, a particular reverence is paid to the histories of the Han dynasty—which is often credited with achieving great advances in both the quality, as well as the quantity, of its historical accounts.
Continuing, the precepts of the philosopher Confucius that pervade Chinese culture have an extensive influence of the purposes and goals of indigenous history—that of the edification of its future generations. By recording commendable acts emphasizing the Confucian tenets of morality, ethics and servitude—the native history of China fulfilled the dual role of ‘guide for living’ and propaganda.  Also, in China, role of the individual has a particular effect on how it defines–and interprets–its history; this is reflected in the fairly impersonal biographies, which de-emphasize individual attributes while emphasizing those which establish place for a person in context to his/her family and social structure.
In addition, other observances reiterated throughout the book consist of the tradition of newly established dynasties serving as the compilers/recorders of the histories of their predecessors; the aboriginal practice of selecting historians from the ranks of the upper gentry and the obligatory conveying of ‘praise and blame’—however, as P. van der Loon succinctly observes, they weren’t alone: “….after all, the tension between ‘praise and blame’ and objective truth was not confined to China.  It is still with us” (30).
Further, particularly striking is the section contributed by Harvard University’s Lien-sheng Yang –who literally asks the all-important ‘how and why’ in his studies of the principles embodied in the Standard Histories ranging from the T’ang to the Ming Dynasty.  Yang endeavors to find answers in his text, clarifying and simplifying the information:
Another principle related to the question Why is that of useful reference. The
concept of using history as a mirror and a source of lessons goes back to antiquity,
and this utilitarian view remained throughout the centuries, as evidenced in the
words of Ming T’ ai-tsu quoted above (48).

Relative to the question How, most significant are two pairs of conflicting
principles: the principle of truthful recording versus that of ethical partiality or
appropriate concealment (hui), and the principle of praise and blame (pao-pien)
versus that of collective judgement (49).

In the opinion of this author, Yang’s straightforward approach is easily the most comprehensible of the book. From reading his section one can imagine the awesome power he must have had as a teacher.
The treatment of Japan’s historiography is somewhat shorter than that of China. Confined to six chapters at the end of the text, much of its streamlining is due to the fact that much of (especially) early Japanese history is connected with that of China; indeed, the depth of Japan’s early dependence on Chinese history—and its overall ‘China-centered’ culture is a revelation to this author. A prime example of Japan’s dependence is the intriguing fact that all of early Japanese history/records were written in Chinese.
There are some pertinent specifics worth acknowledging in the Japanese sections, such as the Six National Histories, the ‘mirrors’ sources, the Meiji period and twentieth century Japan’s particular focus on (and ensuing conflict of) its economic history and development.
Continuing, although the language and logic is fairly clear and uncomplicated throughout the entirety of the book—a good, serviceable knowledge of both Confucianism and general Asian dynastical history is helpful.  In addition, evidence is liberally offered to support the analysis and interpretations within all of the sections—with relevant footnotes and suggested further readings—including research and opinions of other notable historians, such as Leopold von Ranke and  Giambattista Vico. Further, the authors used several revised papers in order to present information that was ‘cutting-edge;’ however, it is to be remembered that the original publication was over 40 years ago—and to attend to what Beasley and Pulleyblank accurately state, “The investigation of Asian history is ongoing” (4).
Continuing at the time of the conference and the writing/preparation of this text, many of the established cultural and societal practices of the East were quite unorthodox and contrary to those living within—and therefore influenced by—Western standards.  The attitude and independence of the ‘rugged individualist’ (especially in terms of Americanism) so fundamental to Western ideals had no precedence and very little value in the Eastern world. The ‘individual’ in Eastern thought is relevant only as its role as an interdependent part to the framework of  its familial structure, then that of its village–then consequently those of its region, state, nation. Any notoriety or acclaim one achieves in an Asian culture has as much to do with one’s socially-constructed image and how it either denigrates or elevates their (along with their family’s) societal or cultural position.
Further still, the observance of and emphasis on the intrinsically opposing natures of Western and Eastern cultures are realized throughout the book—and are instrumental for understanding the context from which the various contributors are both approaching their research as well as interpreting their source material.
In addition, noticeably missing is a female historiographical perspective or feminine voice. (Research reveals the genders of both editors and all of the contributors to be exclusively male)  A feminine interpretation—with its unique insight and perception—would have been a dynamic addition to the myriad of educated and experienced voices heard throughout the text.  The ancient patriarchy deeply inherent in Asian culture—especially that of China—logically dictates that its legacy of historians are male. Furthermore, perhaps the time and place this particular work was engendered (the mid-century of Western twentieth century) the study of history had not entertained female authorities on the topic; indeed, this text would offer an even more complete and inclusive account had all voices and theories been explored. Surely, an update of this particular work would be extremely beneficial to the ongoing study of Asian history.
Additionally, it is a testament to the intellectual integrity of all contributors– starting with Professors Beasley and Pulleyblank—that the statement (or something similar) of ‘This paper/book does not and cannot represent the entirety of Asian historiographical thought…’ appears frequently throughout the text (Italics mine). Beasley, Pulleyblank and associates have created a valuable historical  asset—suitable for meeting both the research/intellectual needs of  higher education students, or for simply gratifying the appetite of Asian culture fans.
Finally, it is crucial to reiterate that the conference for which these papers were written occurred in the late Fifties—at the height of the Cold War; while the book’s original publication was 1961, a full decade before Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China. The relatively isolated nature and (lack of) diplomatic relations China had with the outside world was bound to have some impact on not only the amount, but the objectivity and validity of even the best-researched information.  The following statement by Beasley and Pulleyblank is, therefore, particularly apt:

…there is comparatively little impulse among Western historians to recognize the
past achievements of Chinese historiography or to consider the relevance of its
very different tradition for comparison with their own (Italics mine) (2).


Beasley, W.G., and E.G. Pulleyblank. “Western  Historical Writing on China and
Japan.” Historians of China and Japan.  Ed.s W.G. Beasley and E.G.
Pulleyblank.London: Oxford UP. 1961. 1-4.

Van der Loon, P. “The Ancient Chinese Chronicles and the Growth of Historical Ideals.”
Beasley and Pulleyblank 30.

Yang, Lien-sheng. “The Organization of Chinese Official Historiography: Principles
And Methods of the Standard Histories From the T’Ang Through the Ming Dynasty.”
Beasley and Pulleyblank 48-9.



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