Comments on Wang Xianhua: How to Write History for the People? A Review of the Great Ancient Greece

2020-06-08 | By Historian | Filed in: Character.

Dr. Donnie is my colleague, although strictly speaking, her field and mine are not particularly close to each other.Just because our fields are classified as ancient, in a broad sense, there is barely some friendship among peers.But more importantly, I think Dr. Donnie is also my colleague.This is, of course, a subjective feeling, but precisely because it is a subjective feeling, I think I should write a few words for Dr. Donnie’s new book “The Great Ancient Greece” without saying anything unpleasant, instead of looking like an official colleague with a straight face.

The first time I knew that Dr. Dongni was two years ago, when I searched the Internet for research works on ancient economy, I found a newly published book with a signature like a Chinese, so I looked at it twice more. This is Dr. Donnie’s doctoral thesis “Before the Market: Olympian Political Economy” at Stanford, which was just published at that time. What I didn’t expect was that I met the author himself at a small meeting soon afterwards. Since I have always been very interested in the ancient economy, I quickly seized the opportunity to get an electronic version of the full book to read.

This is not the place to give a long speech on the academic book “Before the Market”, including the new ideas of its methodology. Strictly speaking, this is beyond my own professional scope. But the impression left by reading it is deep enough. Unlike most doctoral theses, The author is obviously not satisfied with complicated argumentation on specific issues defined clearly enough by the academic community, but devotes himself to grasping the general trend of ancient Greek economic and social life from the overall situation and making bold but logical theorization based on such observation, so as to echo the problems of our own time.

Unless intentionally ignored, anyone who has written a doctoral thesis in the field of ancient research should be able to recognize that writing a doctoral thesis in this way requires wisdom and spiritual courage. Although my own doctoral thesis basically adopted the complicated argumentation method accepted by everyone in the end, I still quoted theorists such as Giddens and Latour for some kind of care that could not be abandoned, which made me quite uneasy for a long time at that time. Therefore, I can somewhat realize the importance of ideological courage to researchers. This is also the reason why I boldly cited Dr. Donnie as my colleague.

Therefore, I am not particularly surprised to see Dr. Donnie’s new book “The Great Ancient Greece”. “I am an interesting person”. The “introduction” of this book begins with such a sentence. I don’t know how the gentlemen who are sitting tight will react. When I see this sentence, I think it is a factual judgment. Dr. Dongni also thinks so, “In line with the attitude of seeking truth from facts, this is indeed my most outstanding quality”. Interesting is not a spoof, even the opposite of a spoof. Because parody is often the most courageous coward act, and fun can only be the game of the brave.

The title page of the book indicates that it is “a history of ancient Greece written for Chinese readers in the 21st century”. This is another announcement that is easy to cause “peers” to frown. Writing history for Chinese readers in the 21st century has appeared many times in the claims of Chinese scholars in the future, but it is not often implemented. However, the history of ancient Greece written by Chinese readers for 21st century readers is likely to be the first public appearance and will be put on the table at once. This is really not the rhythm we are used to. However, I think there are good reasons not to doubt the sincerity of this sentence.

It took me about three hours to read “The Great Ancient Greece” for the first time. Except for the occasional places where Chinese expression seems to be not skilled enough, the whole book is completed in one go. Still as a non-professional reader in the strict sense, I am unable to make further examination or refutation on the details of the knowledge in the book. However, as a fellow student who has some experience in Dr. Dongni’s education and courage, and as a member who is often worried because obscure professional research is too far away from reality, I would like to say a few words from my point of view. This is the origin of the title: How should we write history for the people?

For a terrible formalist (the number of words in each paragraph of this article is roughly equal), the problem itself carries the risk of getting out of control. Fortunately, Dr. Dongni has already mentioned the term “citizen history” in a recently published voice version of his self-introduction, which is to legalize my understanding by encouraging. Dr. Dongni’s position on readers seems to be quite young and will become a citizen in the future. My use of “writing history for the people” is somewhat trite, but the general direction of understanding should still be correct. The difference lies in “our citizens” and “my people”.

First of all, of course, there must be sufficient research as the basis. What is not easy to recognize is that the Great Ancient Greece is actually an academic book. Although the book adopts the way of telling stories, from the past narration in myths and legends to the Greek classical era, there have been few common large quotations in academic works, but the lines of the story are interspersed with comments that the author cannot reach without special research and thinking. The difference is that these comments, which actually come from professional research, are natural in the context, so that readers forget that the acquisition of such comments is not “natural”.

There are many such places. One of the places I marked was the author’s comment comparing Greece with Persia: “As a Spartan, Heros is not necessarily better than Persian subjects, and Persian aristocrats may not have a voice as a farmer in Athens. How to evaluate these two political systems and cultural values deserves our serious consideration.” This may be an eternal topic, and it may even be the most important question that historical research wants to answer. A work that tells stories just for the sake of telling stories will not remind readers so much.

Secondly, look at the ancient world from the eyes of the ancients. I have not seriously studied the theory of “fusion of horizons”, but according to limited experience, the understanding of the historical world and the understanding of historical preservation (including documents) are quite different jobs. In fact, the former finally looks at and feels the living ancient world through various evidences and methods, while the latter only goes around in the complicated semiotic cycle, studying “historical materials” rather than “history”. Only when we see and feel the ancient world can we enter the minds of the ancients and adopt their eyes.

The Great Ancient Greece devotes considerable space to retelling myths and the past in Homer’s Epic. For some so-called “evidence-based historiography” characterized by rigid analysis, this violates the most basic principle of historical materials. However, what needs to be known is that Homer’s Epic and fairy tales are exactly the way the early Greeks told the past. The difference is not whether to use them critically, but the ability to grasp the way these stories left their marks on the minds of the ancient Greeks. It is dramatic, interesting and close to real life, as the author of this book retells.

Third, language close to daily life. As mentioned earlier, in my reading experience, the Chinese expression of “Great Ancient Greece” sometimes seems not sophisticated enough, and sometimes it is a bit too straightforward and friendly to the people. For example, when the author mentioned the “lotus root eater” they met in Odysseus (Odysseus for short), he added a passage in brackets to explain that eating lotus root is not ugly. I paused before I realized that there is actually a stem from Chinese pronunciation. I am not sure whether this means that I have not kept pace with the times, but the efforts made by the author can be seen.

When a book comes out, the author often has to retire. This is not an exaggerated post-modern invention, but a fact in market behavior: the author cannot decide whether the reader will accept or not to accept a book because of what. However, truly symbolic works can stand the test of time: This “Great Ancient Greece”, as a small book for scholars directly facing the people, may start a genre of historical works, that is, the history of citizens or the people, not only because of its interesting content, but also because of careful consideration in style and narrative methods.

Finally, I would like to discuss a specific wording problem. In a dialogue among friends, Dr. Dongni summed up the praise and encouragement of friends after the publication of the new book, which was called “Rainbow Fart”. In the specific context, this is undoubtedly a positive description, but when I saw that there were some mixed feelings, I had to reply and praise that Dr. Dongni really used the word “rainbow fart” with great charm and grace. I don’t know whether this shameful reading will also be included in the scope of Fengshen Junlang. Sure enough, I will still be a little embarrassed.

Originally published in:Today’s Headline (Boiled Forum)

Reprinted from Public Number: Common Domain Historiography


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