Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take, pp. 3 of 7

“history is a form of storytelling that has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with human self-understanding. The past is an infinitude of undigested happenings; human history, on the other hand, consists of the stories we choose to record in remembering what we care most about in ourselves and in our world…”[ii]


The main ideas bear repeating. History is a story or a narrative that leads one to self-knowledge and this knowledge is derived from stories that are remembered because they mean something to the people recording them. Yet, how often do we forget that history is fundamentally derived from stories that are significant in themselves and not simply as case studies where skills such as source analysis or comparative reading can be applied?  The Holocaust is remembered primarily because the people who survived the war felt it a necessity to record it for posterity to remember and learn lessons from. In short, history is not simply a catalogue of events from the past, as students tend to think, but it is about events and individuals, personal experiences and observations that people felt were significant enough to record at that point in time. A young girl recording her life in occupied Netherlands simply because she needed a source of comfort and support would not have imagined how her diary would become a classical work on life during the second world war came to be translated into 70 languages and read worldwide.[iii] Likewise, a British official sitting in his government office in Singapore of the 1950s probably had to, in his reports to the Colonial Office, be selective and strategic in making certain facts known to his superiors in line with the general policy at that time, perhaps at the expense of ignoring other pieces of information, now perhaps lost to posterity simply because they were not recorded. These pieces of information, selectively and perhaps even randomly recorded by people in the past, now serve as the historian’s materials to understand the past, and because the creators of these records serve as a filter, we can never truly know the past in the way we can perhaps understand history.

As a social historian of Ming China, I tend not to start my forays into primary documents with a hypothesis (that usually came much later), but rather with a simple question: “What’s the story here?” Whether the source was a letter, a piece of local history, a biography or even just a random jotting or what is known as biji in Chinese historiography, it would usually have a story that might interest me sufficiently to follow the clues. If the source recorded an event in the reign of a particular emperor, then I need to know what happened in that reign and about the emperor and his courtiers. If the source was a letter, then the letter writers, their backgrounds, their social circles and concerns become of interest. If it was a piece of local history, then the locality, its customs and traditions, its practices and place within the larger entity of China would become crucial information to know.

However, while these sources fall into the category of “undigested happenings”, they also represent vignettes of events and daily life that the people living in Ming China cared sufficiently about to put brush to paper. These records or observations of national or regional or local events, of social etiquette, cultural norms, practices and other aspects of daily life thus open for me windows into the world of Ming China. Through their lived and observed experiences, I am able, as a social historian, to understand the past as it was lived by these observers and to make sense of the past through these “undigested happenings”.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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