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Author: Axel Schneider


This article interprets the historiography of two modern Chinese historians, Fu Sinian and Chen Yinke, who both have been labeled the Chinese Ranke. Both historians have in recent years attracted a lot of attention in China, due to their prominent and very different concepts of national history.

In this article Axel Schneider brings out the characteristics of their approaches to history by, first, situating modern historiography within the context of the philosophical crisis of modernity. By "modernity" he refers to the process of historicization and, hence, relativization of norms and values once conceived as timeless and universal. In Europe, this process has been characterized by a decline of metaphysical and theological assumptions on the structure of the world and a concomitant decline of traditional assertions of ontological and epistemological coherence. In China, this process challenged the inherited, very prominent status of traditional historiography as a core field for political and philosophical debates.

Second, he interprets Chen Yinke's and Fu Sinian's writings against the background of an understanding of Ranke's historiography that acknowledges the dual nature of Ranke's approach as consisting of both, the widely known text-critical, objectivist methodology and a less known, hermeneutic methodology of empathetic understanding that is based on Ranke's belief in divine providence underlying the particular manifestations of history.

Axel Schneider comes to the conclusion that neither Fu nor Chen can be labeled the Chinese Ranke. Fu was mainly oriented towards the positivist sciences. He advocated a view of history as determined by factors comparable to laws in the sciences. He envisions history as characterized by universal progress towards a rational, scientific mode of thought. He argues against any kind of interpretation, and formulates the task of the historian as consisting of the verification and organization of the material, allowing the bare facts contained in the material to speak for themselves. He thus subordinates China's history to universal laws and tries to establish a Chinese identity by fitting China into world history as determined by characteristics that are universal, but in fact are of Western origin.

Given this methodology, it is not unlikely that in spite of the fact that Fu only referred once to Ranke, he equated his approach with that of Ranke. However, his Ranke clearly was the empiricist Ranke.

Chen Yinke, in contrast to Fu, stressed cultural particularity assuming that all cultures are of equal status, thus implying a universalist perspective. His research was based on the assumption that Chinese history is characterized by the gradual development of its particular "national spirit". What guarded him against relativism was the notion of "the universality of abstract ideals". He recovers the lost universal by assuming the formal universality of human attachment to "abstract ideals" that do vary from culture to culture, but have to be protected in order to safeguard the identity of the respective cultures. The ideals and their corresponding cultures can not be integrated into world history by general schemes of evolution or by means of universal norms. It is Chinese history that speaks to Chen who thereby wants to establish an identity that can only be integrated into the larger world through respect for each culture's commitment to its specific ideals. Accordingly, the historian has to adopt a historicist, hermeneutic methodology. His research should aim at the "empathetic understanding" of the historical manifestations of the national spirit.

Although Chen never referred to Ranke, later historians claimed to know of such an influence. Chen's position surely was closer to the hermeneutic Ranke who struggled with the problem of the relationship between the individual and the universal and who opposed any notion of teleological progress. However, while Ranke had lived in a Christian world still comparatively at peace with its theological assumption of a divine providence, Chen could not fall back on a Christian God for solace. He was - far more than Ranke - confronted with far-reaching changes, bringing about the rapid decline of his Confucian world.

In: Historiography East and West
In: The Challenge of Linear Time
In: The Challenge of Linear Time
Author: Axel Schneider


This chapter analyzes critiques of progress in the context of a conservative rejection of modernity. It differentiates between conservative critiques of modernity and nationalist rejections of Western pretensions of universal progress and introduces two types of conservatism: classicist and historicist. Subsequently, it maintains that four types of critiques of progress can be identified: The first is a critique of progressivism based on universal patterns of development that are in fact of Western origin. The second, put forward e.g. by Liang Qichao and by Liu Yizheng in their early phase, doubts progress on a factual basis referring to historical cases of stagnation or regress. The third constitutes a systematic ethical critique of progressivism in the context of Buddhist philosophy (Jing Changji), or Confucianism (Liu Yizheng) contending that a view of change based on competition and strength must be rejected on moral, not factual, grounds. The last, from a philosophical perspective most comprehensive type is represented by Zhang Taiyan’s Buddhist and Daoist-inspired critique of progressive history and Liu Xianxin’s Confucian-Daoist critique of modern views of history as prominent examples.

In: Chinese Visions of Progress, 1895 to 1949
Author: Axel Schneider


Since the mid-1990s the discourse on modernity has focused on the question of alternative or multiple modernities. This development is inspired by the rise of East Asia to economic affluence in ways different from the Western example. It is also triggered by the awareness of the fact that the West itself did not follow the same path. The differences in economic and political development in e.g. Western Europe are substantial, not to mention Southern European nations or the US. In my presentation I will present a vision of modernity that attempts to be more universal than the old models trying to counter the trend to focus on historical particularities too much at the cost of theoretical reflection on universal characteristics. I will then develop an understanding of conservative opposition against modernity that is less determined by the unavoidable historical and cultural differences, rather paying more attention to the universal core of conservatism thus paving the way for transregional comparison. In doing so I will also highlight that there are at least two generic types of conservatism, one based on historically grown traditions (the hitherto dominant type), and one based on an understanding of the human condition that is universal.

In: Cosmopolitan Conservatisms
Nationhood and the Politics of History in East Asia
Volume Editors: Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider
The papers collected in this volume congeal around a debate about the ways and extent of the dominance of linear time and progressive history and the concomitant delineation of the nation in Chinese and Japanese historiography. As China and Japan entered the global capitalist system of nation states, the Chinese and Japanese regimes implemented a number of reforms, which resulted in transformations that affected everyday experience. In the face of imperialism and the perceived threat of being split up, the Meiji and late Qing governments radically reoriented policies in order to become wealthy and powerful in the global arena. People not only began to experience time and space in new ways, but elites also were increasingly exposed to Western theories of history and concepts of nationhood, which became dominant. These changes contributed to the production of new types of historical consciousness and collective identity. The essays in this volume each provide a perspective on the complex ways in which imagining national and regional identity in East Asia were and continue to be enmeshed with visions of time and history. This book should be of interest to all those who are interested in nationalism, modernity in China and Japan, global capitalism and the politics of time.
Chinese Visions of Progress, 1895 to 1949 offers a panoramic view of reflections on progress in modern China. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the discourses on progress shape Chinese understandings of modernity and its pitfalls. As this in-depth study shows, these discourses play a pivotal role in the fields of politics, society, culture, as well as philosophy, history, and literature. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the Chinese ideas of progress, their often highly optimistic implications, but also the criticism of modernity they offered, opened the gateway for reflections on China’s past, its position in the present world, and its future course.
In: The Challenge of Linear Time