Jiangnan History Study and Problem Awareness:A Reexaminationof Theories on Chine

Jiangnan History Study and Problem Awareness:A Reexaminationof Theories on Chine






The research on the regional history of Jiangnan has yielded fruitful achievements in the past half century, which is related to the ever-present problem awareness. The problem awareness is usually related to grand narratives,and is dominated by paradigms summarized from Western historical experience.So the research on Chinese socio-economic history,with a focus on Jiangnan,has always been influenced by Western experience as frame of reference,as in the discussion of the so-called?capitalist sprouts,?and the disputes over the early modernization and industrialization issues,and has been making progresses by overcoming one bottleneck after another. Jiangnan history study has been closely related to the discussion of the so-called capitalist sprouts as Jiangnan has been treated as the key testing site of the validity of the capitalist sprout discourse of late imperial China.This discussion started from the social history debate in the 1930s.It became one of the so-called?Five Golden Flowers?for historians in Mainland China since the 1950s,and attracted a great number of Marxist historians thereafter.In the late 1970s, the capitalist sprout discussion was in its heyday when it was unprecedentedly questioned, debated and challenged.In the meantime,non-Marxist paradigms such as rational capitalism and capitalist spirit by Max Weber spread widely,and some scholars even denied the existence of?capitalist sprouts?and the validity of the capitalist sprout discourse.Consequently the mid-1980s saw the decline of the capitalist sprout discussion and the rise of more concrete studies of regional history(Jiangnan history in particular).From then on,studies of Jiangnan regional history were no longer limited to socio-economic realms(such as the narrow vision of relations of production), and was comprehensively and intensively extended in terms of field,perspective,content,and spectrum. The core question of the capitalist sprout discussion is how capitalism came about.Theresearches of Gu Zhun and Ray Huang deserve special attention.In spite of the differences in academic background and life experience between these two scholars,they both turned their attention to the specific conditions and factors in Europe that incurred and nurtured substantial transformation which led up to capitalism.The conditions and factors of European style were lacking in late imperial China,even in Jiangnan where commercial economy was highly developed. Since 1990s,the research on premodern Chinese socio-economic history has laid particularstress on empirical approach. However, this trend has not overwhelmed the strength of theoretical explorations.For example,as early as in the mid-1980s,Yu Ying-shih started a heated controversy over Chinese citizen/townspeople culture in line with Max Weber's Protestant ethics.In the 1990s,the American hot topic of public sphere/civil society provoked strong reactions in Mainland China, which shows that ?grand narratives? only changed in conceptualization and paradigm. During more recent years, with the waning of ideological discourse such as class struggle,the capitalist sprout theory was replaced by modernization discourse.Accordingly,American scholars of Chinese history,with activists of the California School as their backbone,and anti-European centralism as their stronghold,are reevaluating Jiangnan's dynamic significance in the economic history of China and in the world from a global comparative and integral perspective. There is no doubt that empirical approach is the foundation of all historical research. However,Jiangnan history study has manifested that progresses in historical study must also rely on innovations of t problem awareness and improvements of theoretical thinking.


Research Institute for Premodern Chinese History, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310028, China

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