Perceptions of Past History
It might seem that the new picture of the Chinese classical period which emerges from the Project's researches, however interesting it may be as an antiquarian matter, should have no effect on the study of later Chinese history. The argument runs thus: "Whatever the facts may have been, the Empire viewed earlier history in a certain way, and students of the Empire will still have to regard that view as valid for those times. They will still have to learn what the Empire view was."
It is true that our conclusions do not change the mind of the Empire. The channel in which later Chinese history actually ran is not altered by a new discovery about earlier Chinese history. Later Chinese history remains what it was, including the idea of the classical past which was commonly held in those times.
Is not the Project view of the classical past then merely an annoying complication?
No. It may or may not be annoying; that's a matter of temperament. But it's not merely annoying. It is important. Because only a correct understanding of Chinese antiquity can give the proper context to later Chinese history, and the evidence suggests that the Project's view is a significant advance toward that correct understanding.
The Project's philological researches have clarified what actually happened in the Warring States. They have revealed the Warring States philosophical dialogue in greater detail than anyone had thought possible. As part of that dialogue, they show that, beginning already in the 04th century, there was an energetic effort to substitute for the remembered past a constructed and linearized past which could serve as the authority for the emerging theory of the unified Empire. That simplified and linear theory was one of many new ideas, but was not offered as a new idea. It was situated by its inventors in the remote past. It was represented not only as true, but as having always been true. This left no room for discussion, and the result of the emerging Imperial rhetoric was in fact to suppress discussion. It was thus not only under Han that a schematized view of earlier thought was imposed. That schematized view had already begun to be self-imposed in the classical period itself.
The chief late Warring States thinkers, all of whom were government employees rather than government critics, worked to construct syntheses from which some parts of contemporary thought were excluded, and in which the rest of contemporary thought was systematized. They achieved a certain breadth, but at the cost of the sort of internal vitality that only internal diversity can confer. The Han scholars were no longer free to compose Warring States texts, but in editing and commenting on those texts, they too tended to eliminate diversity in quest of uniformity. They established a linear pedigree for the unified Empire. But at the cost of denying or denigrating precisely the element of range and diversity in Warring States thought that had made Warring States thought so intensely vital in its time.
The classical commentaries from Han onward attempt to remove the traces of disagreement and inconsistency from the classical texts. They seek to present the classical heritage of China as uniform and self-consistent. The Sung commentators went beyond this to create a new metaphysical synthesis in which Chinese realities took their ordered place. All these efforts can best be understood - in our view, they can only be understood - as parts of a long process of reconfiguring the past to fit present agendas, and making a final synthesis which will include the past in a seamlessly self-consistent construction.
The process is one of the elimination of alternatives.
That process continues down to the present. The denial of the diverse China, and its replacement by a linear descent model, which has been the agenda of Chinese system-builders since the 04th century, is still going on. As a by-product of that denial, much that was of permanent interest and value in the real Warring States period simply gets lost. The more open world of the classical period was nevertheless still visible to the Ching Dynasty reformers, who hoped to revive that spirit in their own weary age. It is visible as well to modern readers, who often find it imaginatively attractive. But the commentarial and ideological framework in which these texts are usually approached has denatured the period, and deprived it of much of its cogency for governments and individuals alike. The classical period has been reduced, in that framework, to the status of something permanently remote, with power to validate the present, but no real power to affect the present.
It has become in large part a tourist past, and not an actionable past.
Despite which, something of the human energy of the Warring States continued to sparkle in the pages of the Warring States texts, and to attract readers and thinkers in later ages. The Project's researches have shown in much more detail what exactly it was, in that period, that is still so cogent in our own time. They also go far to explain what it is that the Imperializing commentaries have been so elaborately concerned to bury within a general synthesis. Those results define a tension between the texts and the commentaries. They remind readers that the commentaries, especially the later ones, are not primarily concerned to elucidate the original meaning of the texts, but to reshape that meaning, in a way which, whether or not so intended, is ultimately in support of an agenda of Imperial rule.
Against that homogenizing intent, the texts themselves, or such of them as still survive, stand in opposition. That opposition of text and commentary is a mirror of the opposition between people and rulers which runs in parallel to it, down through the centuries; a real-world counterpart in which participants stand to lose not just an argument, but their lives.
All the later syntheses claim to be based on the classical period. The classical period, once allowed to speak for itself, turns out to have a slightly different opinion. That opinion deserves to be heard simply as a matter of historical accuracy. As as a matter of justice to the richness and range of Chinese culture, which underlies all these arguments and differences of opinion.
If the social impulses of the 04th century, which were overlaid and interrupted by the Empire, ever find an outlet and a renewal, as later reformers have sometimes hoped they might, it will be in part through renewed attention to the human and intellectual reality of the classical past. It is this reality that the Project's researches have clarified. The lack of fit between that reality and the views of later ages is the Project's contribution to the understanding of those later ages. A more precise sense of the actual content of the Warring States reality is the Project's contribution to the future.
4 Jan 2001 / Contact The Project / Exit to Implications Page