The China Beat blog, despite being completely outside my field, is one of my favorite history-themed blogs. The engaging mix of articles keeps me thinking and learning more about China than I ever knew I wanted to.
Of particular interest to MHP followers may be Susan Jakes’ review of Jonathan Spence’s Reith lectures at Yale University. I found her description of his narrative style to be particularly provocative as I’m currently struggling with the framing of a difficult chapter in my dissertation, and I’ll take his advice to heart, to “put individuals front and center”:
The lectures had the feel of finely crafted short stories, and at times full-length novels. They were beguilingly titled—“The View from Below,” “All in the Translation,” “Into the World,” “Bombs and Pianos”—and they built in intensity to end in startling revelations or quietly delivered lines of poetry. Often they played on the juxtapositions in their titles to explore social tensions: “Famine and Finance,” “Sects and the Social Fabric,” “Warlords and Bandits,” “Socialists and Revisionists.” Spence liked to put two biographical sketches side by side to capture different dimensions of a given moment, a technique he used to electrifying effect on Yuan Mei and Zhang Xuecheng in the “The Poet and the Historian,” and on writers Ding Ling and Xu Zhimo in a lecture called “Being Modern.”
Even in less experimental modes, he always put individuals front and center. No event worth mentioning was too large to be refracted through a single human life and no life was too minor to have its humanity summoned up from the past alongside the abstraction of its historical significance. Spence could manage this level of detail even in a 50 minute lecture because of his knack for drawing a profile out of a single image—the Kangxi Emperor advising a bondservant on his health, Ding Ling’s mother running around an athletic field on her newly unbound feet, a Boxer victim’s Steinway piano, Mao aboard his private train. He could “catch the essence,” as he sometimes describes it, of people and of historical moments so they lit up like lightning bugs in a jar.
The interview with historian Paul Cohen is another China Beat article that MHP listeners might find relevant. Cohen’s most recent book is Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China. On historical storytelling, Cohen says:
What does it mean for a story to “speak” to history? This question is, in the broadest sense, what my book is about. But before getting to that it might be helpful to briefly introduce an entirely different kind of relationship between story and history. Recently I started reading Barend ter Haar’s Telling Stories: Witchcraft and Scapegoating in Chinese History (Brill, 2006). The book is about the relationship between a certain kind of story (rumors and other forms of “local news,” often part of Chinese oral tradition and centering on popular fears) and collective action. Years ago I corresponded with ter Haar about some of his core ideas, some of which I later cited in the chapter on “Rumor and Rumor Panic” in History in Three Keys. I am intrigued now by the qualitative differences between the stories he deals with in his book and the Goujian and other stories I am concerned with in Speaking to History. My stories, unlike his, generally have a real historical basis and are widely known within the Chinese cultural realm. Although in many cases emerging out of Chinese oral tradition, they have often played an important part in the written history of Chinese literature as well. Another key point about my stories is that, unlike the ones ter Haar is concerned with, they are more important for their part in shaping the cognitive environment surrounding historical events than for directly giving rise to these events. And also, in this connection, the historical events they resonate with are in most cases national in scope rather than, as in ter Haar’s book, local or regional.
A central riddle that I am concerned with in my book has to do with the relationship between past story and present reality that in China, as elsewhere, has exerted such power. Why are peoples, at certain moments in their collective lives, especially drawn to narratives—commonly derived from the distant past—that resonate strongly with their present historical circumstances and speak to these circumstances in compelling ways? This mating of story to history, abundantly demonstrated in the career of the Goujian saga during China’s turbulent twentieth century, forms a stratum of veiled meaning the illumination of which is one of the main tasks I set for myself in the book. A larger point to be made about the connection between past story and present history is that it serves as a potent instrument for defining a culture’s boundaries, both objectively and subjectively. Narratives like the Goujian story that are widely known among a culture’s members constitute a form of symbolic sharing that is absolutely key both to the culture’s objective existence and to an individual’s subjective sense of belonging to that culture. Although missing from conventional historical accounts, such stories are important because of what they tell us about the interior world of a culture at particular moments in time, how those inhabiting this world felt—and how they talked and wrote—about the predicaments facing them, individually and collectively. What is so astonishing is that, in spite of their importance, Western students of twentieth-century China (including myself) have in the past shown little awareness of their existence. My hope is that, in Speaking to History, by focusing on one such story and the rich variety of ways in which it functioned over the past century, I have been able to convey some sense of what we have missed.
Given that I am always curious about the books that historians read for inspiration (and recreation), I particularly enjoyed this list from the Cohen interview:
Generally, when books I read that don’t have to do with China shape or reshape my understanding of Chinese history, it happens in the course of my research and writing when I’m actively looking for non-China perspectives. In thinking through some of the core themes in Speaking to History, for example, I found much stimulation in the work of people like Jerome Bruner (Making Stories), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory), Roger Schank (Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence), Avishai Margalit (The Ethics of Memory), and Yael Zerubavel (Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition). When I read other books not relating to China—recent examples are Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, David Lodge’s Home Truths, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Omer Bartov’s Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, and Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball—I’m mainly interested in nourishing the rest of me, not in coming up with new ways of understanding China (although this of course could—and sometimes does— happen).