4. IS THERE A CHINESE MODE OF HISTORICAL THINKING? A CROSS-CULTURAL ANALYSIS

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ABSTRACT

Taking Chun-chieh Huang's ruminations on the defining character of Chinese historical thinking as a starting point, this essay discusses the ways in which historical cultures and traditions are compared and contrasted and explores some new ways of thinking. It argues that cultural comparisons often constitute two-way traffic (one begins to examine itself after encountering the other) and that attempts to characterize one historical culture, such as that of China, are often made relationally and temporally. When the Chinese tradition of historiography is perceived and presented in the West, it has been regarded more or less as a counterexample against which the “unique” traits of Western historical thinking are thrown into relief. Given the hegemonic influence of Western scholarship in modern times, latter-day Chinese historians also valorize the East—West dichotomy. A closer look at this dichotomy, or the characterization of both cultures, reveals that it is not only relative but also relational and temporal. When the modern Chinese appeared impressed by the rigor of Rankean critical historiography, for example, they were essentially attempting to rediscover their own cultural past, for example, the eighteenth-century tradition of evidential learning, in adapting to the changing world. Our task today, the essay contends, is to historicize the specific context within which cultural comparisons are made and to go beyond readily accepted characterizations in order to reassess certain elements in a given culture, to apply historical wisdom, and to cope with the challenges we now face.

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