Selected Works | Holistic View of History: The Core Theory of China’s Academic System of World History

2020-07-11 | By Historian | Filed in: Character.

  Moderator’s Speech (Chen Feng): The study of history cannot be separated from theories and methods. Historical theories and methods have always been a concern of historians. This issue of written talks is due to a lecture on historical theories and methods at Wuhan University, and Mr. Yu Pei and others are the keynote speakers of the lecture. Mr. Sun Jiulong, editor of the Historical Journal, was sharp in learning and thinking. During the lecture, he asked me to solicit contributions and got the promise of all of you. Mr. Pei Yu has been editor-in-chief of “Historical Theory” and “Research on Historical Theory” for a long time. He is a well-known expert in studying historical theories and methods. Other authors who participate in writing talks, although specializing in skills, are not “Tao” middlemen in historical theories and methods. In a certain sense, this issue of pen talk is a combination of “inside” and “outside”. Perhaps this combination has brought some new atmosphere and will not become “vague”. From the perspective of the world’s overall history, Mr. Pei Yu talked about “the core theory of China’s academic system of world history”, which is worth studying carefully. In fact, this topic is not only a matter for the discipline of world history, More than 20 years ago, I pointed out in an exercise entitled “Marxist Overall View of World History and Research on China’s Economic History”: “As a theory and methodology, the overall view of world history is not only of great significance to re-examine world history, but also enlightening to the research in related fields.” Mr. He Zhiqing reiterated that “historical materialism is the basic theory and method of historical research”, which is based on his own research practice and has considerable persuasive and referential significance. Professor Ni Yuping’s masterpiece and the author’s essay are also based on research practice. I hope it will be helpful to the readers, and of course I also hope to get their comments.


Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, profound historical changes have taken place in the cause of the Party and the state, and socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. The new era calls for a new history, and the construction of an academic system for the study of Chinese world history is on the agenda. The so-called “academic system for the study of Chinese world history” refers to the theoretical framework of world history based on China, facing the world and paying attention to human beings through original and critical research practice under the theoretical guidance of historical materialism. Its purpose is to understand the complicated human history with the sinicized Marxist historical theory, scientifically explain the general and special laws of the development of world history, and obtain historical enlightenment and wisdom, so as to grasp the reality more clearly and create the future.

After the founding of New China, the study of China’s world history has developed rapidly and achieved remarkable results. The main reason is that historical materialism is widely spread in Chinese academic and ideological circles. More and more world history scholars consciously insist on using historical materialism to study all human history. In 1962, Zhou Yiliang and Wu Yujin edited “General History of the World” in 3 volumes and 4 volumes, which was published by the People’s Publishing House. The editor stressed that the book starts from Marx’s basic principles and “tries to clarify the main clues and basic laws of the development of world history through the historical events, figures and systems of eastern and western countries.” While describing the general process of world history in stages, it also reveals the clues of some countries’ own historical development respectively. This is the first comprehensive book on world history after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which reflects the understanding and research level of Chinese scholars on world history at that time.

Following the “General History of the World” edited by Zhou Yiliang and Wu Yujin in 1962, many world histories have been published one after another. Although these works have different styles and characteristics, they all have one thing in common, that is, when re-studying all human history with historical materialism, they consciously pay attention to the construction of China’s academic system of world history. This is mainly reflected in the fact that the study of world history pays close attention to reality and “uses correct theories and methods to conduct a global rather than fragmented, materialist rather than idealist investigation of the development of world history”. [2] China, which has undergone extensive and profound social changes in its reform and opening up, is carrying out the most grand and unique practical innovation in human history, providing a strong impetus and broad space for the construction of China’s academic system of world history.

From 1992 to 1994, Wu Yujin and Qi Shirong edited 6 volumes of World History, which was published by Higher Education Press. In 2006, Higher Education Press successively published 4 volumes of World History edited by Qi Shirong. Compared with the 1962 “General History of the World”, these two works on world history not only have richer contents and broader horizons, but also have clearly answered some basic theoretical questions raised by the severe challenges to historical materialism after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, such as social forms and the historical fate of scientific socialism. In January 1859, Marx pointed out in the Preface to Critique of Political Economy: “Generally speaking, Asian, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production can be regarded as several times of the evolution of economic and social forms. Bourgeois relations of production are the last form of confrontation in the process of social production… The prehistoric period of human society ended in this social form. “[3] These in the above two kinds of” world history “, all have in-depth explanations based on empirical research, from theory to practice.

In 2010, Wu Yin presided over the “World History” of the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which was published by Jiangxi People’s Publishing House in 8 volumes and 39 volumes. The author pointed out in the “General Preface” of the book: “This book is an independent understanding of world history by contemporary Chinese world history scholars at the turn of the century and proposes a brand-new system of understanding world history with Chinese characteristics. If a historian living in the contemporary era cannot ‘melt’ history into the contemporary era, then he cannot understand history and write a history that combines the sense of history with the sense of the times. “World History” does not evade the major theoretical and practical problems raised in the development of contemporary society, making the study of world history embody a distinct spirit of the times. Chinese history is an indispensable part of world history, and “China and the World” will be independently volumes in this book, focusing on the collision, blending and interaction between China and world civilization “. [4] The above is not a vague discussion at will, but is based on empirical research. The conclusion of “On Coming from History” is convincing. The study of China’s world history has achieved fruitful results and laid a solid foundation for the construction of China’s academic system of world history.

The academic system of world history in New China is not only the unity of logic and historical demonstration, but also the unity of criticism and construction. In order to construct the academic system of China’s world history, we must first eliminate the distortion of human history by bourgeois ideology, explain the development process of human society and history with historical materialism, completely abandon the “Eurocentrism” that advocates racism, and thoroughly criticize and eliminate its deep-rooted influence in the study of China’s world history.

In the middle of the 18th century, some historians of the German Gottingen School first put forward the “Eurocentrism” that advocated racial superiority. Later, German philosopher Hegel and historian Ranke helped to become the core concept of colonial historiography in the 19th century and dominated western historiography for a long time. Hegel tried his best to highlight the “highest level” of Western Europe and Germanic nations, dividing the world nations into “world historical nations” and “non-world historical nations”. Hegel believed that although world history began in the East, the East and China “lacked awareness of freedom” and were not nations in world history. In his view, Chinese civilization is like “air”, static and without depth. Western civilization, on the other hand, is “fire”. Fire transcends itself in the unity of opposites and continues to be perfect. He also believes that “the Mediterranean is the center of world history… without the Mediterranean, world history would not have been imagined”. [5] Vigorously Promote “Eurocentrism”.

“Eurocentrism” uses the history of Western Europe to cut the history of various countries and nationalities in the world at will. Long before the founding of New China, some scholars, such as Zhang Wentian and Lei Haizong, severely criticized the “Eurocentrism”. [6] In September 1949, Chinese historian Zhou Gucheng wrote 3 volumes of “General History of the World”, which was published by the Commercial Press. This book completely abandons the fallacy of “Eurocentrism” and emphasizes that world history should be about the history of the world as a whole and should be cosmopolitan rather than centered on Europe. The author tries to highlight the characteristics of different civilizations and their connections through in-depth exposition of the six ancient cultural regions of Nile River Basin, West Asia, Aegean, China, India and Central America. He emphasizes that China and the world in history are one of the important contents of world history. Zhou Gucheng’s “General History of the World” is not only a summary of the compilation of China’s world history for more than 100 years from around the Opium War to the middle of the 20th century. It is also a new symbol to welcome the climax of China’s world history research on the eve of the birth of New China.

In 1964, Wu Yujin began to put forward the idea of “overall historical view” when criticizing the “Eurocentrism” to divide the world into “civilized Europe and backward non-Europe” and measuring the world with European values. He said: “A real world history must undoubtedly reflect the world’s views. The so-called world view is aimed at the regional or ethnic view. It should eliminate the prejudice of regional or ethnic views and comprehensively and truthfully examine the history of various regions, countries and nationalities in the world. But until now, it seems that there has never been a complete world history written from a world perspective. ” He believed that the common limitation of seeing world historians in the past “lies in the lack of a world view that a world historian must have”. [7] Shortly after the article was published, the “Cultural Revolution” began. Chinese historical science was severely damaged, the study of world history was destroyed, and Wu Yujin’s study was forced to stop.

In June 1978 after the “Cultural Revolution”, Wu Yujin reiterated his thought of “overall historical view” at the “National Symposium on Liberal Arts Teaching in Colleges and Universities” convened by the Ministry of Education. He believes that in writing a new and distinctive world history, “we must establish a view that the world is the overall situation” and “in the discipline of world history, there are many important special topics beyond the scope of regional history and national history that need to be studied by us. Without studying such topics, I think it will be difficult to examine world history from a global perspective.” [8] In 1985, Wu Yujin explained why the 15th and 16th centuries should be taken as the research theme in the “Preface” of the “Beginners of Eastern and Western History in the 15th and 16th Centuries” edited by Wu Yujin. He believes that the changes that have taken place in the 15th and 16th centuries are of great significance to the overall investigation of world history, because these two centuries are major turning points in world history. It was during this period that “decisive breakthroughs began to appear based on the mutual isolation between various regions and ethnic groups in the agricultural economy. The scattered and isolated world has gradually become a world of connection. Human ‘history has become the history of the world to an increasing extent’. [9] Since then, Wu Yujin and others have successively edited the “Continuation” and “Three Edits” of “Beginners’ Collection”, [10] making a more comprehensive study of the history of East and West in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In order to construct the academic system of China’s world history, we must consciously adhere to historical materialism as the theoretical guidance, but this does not rule out that under this premise, we will gradually form its academic core theory in research practice and keep pace with the times with social development and scientific progress. The academic system of any discipline has its own core theory, as does the academic system of Chinese world history. The kind of discipline that thinks that China’s world history is “tracking” and “introducing” foreign historiography has no own academic system and no core theory. This is pure ignorance or prejudice. The core theory of China’s academic system of world history is Wu Yujin’s “holistic view of world history” (holistic view of history). It is the basic principle of Marxist historical materialism and the concrete application and embodiment in the understanding of world history. Its theoretical origin is Marx’s “world history” theory.

Marx’s theory of “world history” was formed in the process of establishing historical materialism. Although Marx’s “world history” is a concept of philosophical conception of history, it can be seen in “German Ideology”, “Communist Manifesto”, “Das Kapital”, as well as “Notes on History” and “Notes on Ancient Social History” that its content is closely combined with the elucidation of historical materialism. Marx insisted on the organic unity of the two methods of combining history and logic, and came to the classic conclusion that “world history does not always exist in the past, and history as world history is the result” [11]. He also believes that “the proletariat can only exist in the sense of world history, just as communism-its cause-can only be realized as a ‘world history’ existence”. [12] The degree of human liberation is consistent with the degree to which history has completely transformed into world history. Marx revealed the law of the development of human history and laid a solid theoretical foundation for the “overall historical view” of Chinese world history.

In order to elaborate the “overall historical view” in depth, Wu Yujin made arduous theoretical exploration on the “overall historical view” on the basis of empirical research, and a number of major academic achievements came out one after another. [13] In 1990, the Encyclopedia of China, Foreign History, was published, and Wu Yujin’s long introduction to the frontispiece, World History, can be regarded as a systematic expression of the “overall view of history”. Its theoretical points are:

-The content of world history is “to systematically discuss and elaborate the process of human history from primitive, isolated and scattered people to the whole world into a closely linked whole”. The main task of the discipline of world history is “to comprehensively examine the history of various regions, countries and ethnic groups from the perspective of the overall situation of the world, to study and clarify the evolution of human history and to reveal the laws and trends of evolution by using the achievements of relevant disciplines such as cultural anthropology and archaeology”. [14]

-Capitalist industries and world markets have eliminated the isolation and isolation of all ethnic groups and countries and increasingly linked the world into a whole economically, thus “creating world history for the first time because it makes the needs of every civilized country and everyone in these countries depend on the whole world”. [15] According to Marx’s view of world history, world history is not the accumulation of the history of various nationalities, countries, regions or civilizations according to the morphological school, but the result of its own regular development.

-“The development of human history into world history has gone through a long process. This process includes two aspects: vertical development and horizontal development”. “Vertical development” means that the five social forms form a vertical sequence of development from low level to high level, but it is not a mechanical procedure. “The diversity of different nationalities, countries or regions in history and the unity of world history are not incompatible contradictions.” “Horizontal development” refers to the development of history from mutual isolation to gradual opening, from mutual dispersion to gradual close ties, and finally into the whole world history “. [16] As Marx and Engels pointed out: “The scope of activities that influence each other has expanded more and more in this process of development. The primitive isolation of all ethnic groups has been eliminated more and more completely due to the increasingly perfect mode of production, communication and the division of labor among ethnic groups that has thus developed spontaneously. History has become the history of the world to an increasing extent.” [17]

-In the pre-capitalist period, the agricultural economy in the class society was bound to be “closed” and the closed state was widespread. History cannot develop into world history without breaking the widespread isolation. The breaking of the blocking state needs to increase exchanges between different regions and different nationalities. The level of social and economic development is the decisive factor for the increase in exchanges.

-For more than two centuries, capitalism, driven by the industrial revolution and modern science and technology, “has achieved unprecedented vertical and horizontal development in human history… but while it continues to expand and develop, it is facing intractable contradictions”. This is, first of all, the contradiction between the socialization of production inherent in capitalism and the private possession of the means of production. The decline and fall of capitalism and the expansion of socialism will bring the vertical and horizontal development of world history into a new era at a higher level. Socialism “expands and eventually spreads all over the world… is the general trend of the development of human history. The Yellow River will eventually flow back to the sea after nine bends.” [18]

The “holistic view of history” is the core theory of China’s academic system of world history. The proposal of this theory is of milestone and pioneering significance to the discipline construction of China’s world history. Later scholars will always remember the pioneers’ achievements. The academic system of Chinese world history is based on historical materialism. Its basic characteristics are distinct national spirit, strong sense of the times and profound sense of history. Seventy years ago, the Chinese stood up. The founding of the People’s Republic of China stood erect in the east of the world, opening up a broad practical road for the construction of China’s academic system of world history. Over the past 70 years, several generations of world history scholars have worked hard without complaint or regret. The excellent works on world history research have attracted the world’s attention and are the fertile soil for the growth of the academic system of world history. The construction of China’s academic system of world history will certainly make more and greater contributions to the Chinese people’s wisdom from the in-depth thinking of history and their confidence in the future.   

  Author’s brief introduction: Pei Yu is a researcher at the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His research direction is historical theory and history of history.


[1] Zhou Yiliang and Wu Yujin Editor-in-Chief: “Preface to the General History of the World”, People’s Publishing House, 1962.

[2] Wu Yujin: “World History”, China Encyclopedia Publishing House, 2010, p. 25.

[3] Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 2, People’s Publishing House, 1995, p. 33.

[4] Institute of World History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: World History, Volume 1, Jiangxi People’s Publishing House, 2010, p. 3.

[5] [De] Hegel, translated by Wang Zaoshi: Philosophy of History, Joint Publishing, 1956, pp. 131-132.

[6] See Zhang Wentian: Preface to Translation of Outline of Western History (January 1925), Zhang Wentian’s Early Collected Works (Revised Edition), CPC History Publishing House, 2010, pp. 488-491; Lei Haizong: “Comments on the Chinese Translation of Wells’ Outline of World History”, Current Affairs News, March 4, 1928.

[7] Wu Yujin: Selected Works of Wu Yujin, Wuhan University Press, 2007, pp. 3 and 4.

[8] Wu Yujin: Selected Works of Wu Yujin, pp. 19 and 20.

[9] Wu Yujin, Editor-in-Chief: “Beginners of Eastern and Western History in the 15th and 16th Centuries”, Wuhan University Press, 1985, p. 1.

[10] Wu Yujin, Editor-in-Chief: “Continuation of the Beginners of Eastern and Western History in the 15th and 16th Centuries”, Wuhan University Press, 2005; Xue Guozhong and an Changchun Editor-in-Chief: “Three Edits of Beginners of Eastern and Western History in the 15th and 16th Centuries”, Hunan Publishing House, 1993.

[11] The Complete Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 46 (I), People’s Publishing House, 1974, p. 48.

[12] Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 1, p. 87.

[13] These results include, inter alia: “Nomadic World and Nomadic Peoples in World History” (Yunnan Social Sciences, No.1, 1983), “Agriculture and Mercantilism in World History” (Historical Research, No.1, 1984), “Breeding of Industrial World by Agricultural World in History” (World History, No.2, 1987), “Reactions of Different Countries in Traditional Agricultural World in Asia and Europe under the Impact of Emerging Industrial World” (World History, No.1, 1993) and other four interrelated papers.

[14] Wu Yujin: World History, p. 2.

[15] The Complete Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 3, People’s Publishing House, 1960, p. 68.

[16] Wu Yujin: World History, pp. 27, 28 and 30.

[17] The Complete Works of Marx and Engels, Volume 3, p. 51.

[18] Wu Yujin: World History, p. 105.

Reprinted from: China Social Science Network


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