Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take, pp. 4 of 7

While the sources may be informative in themselves, it is also crucial that one reads the sources with knowledge of the historiography. Every type of historical source comes with its own unique characteristics. Records of the Imperial Court records, based on daily audiences with the emperor, and official histories tended to be heavily censored and conforming to styles and standards of writing acceptable to the imperial court[iv] The “wild histories” or unofficial histories usually were written for particular reasons, whether it was to provide alternative narratives or just as a catalogue of “interesting and off-tangent” titbits of information about significant personalities or events or epochs. While their authors often claimed eye-witness status, careful reading of the materials sometimes suggests otherwise. Local histories (or local gazetteers), usually compiled under sponsorship of local magistrates or families prominent in the locality, tend to tell the history of particular regions, provinces, counties, market towns or even significant monasteries or mountains through the lens of the local residents, though the narrative could be the result of negotiation among interested parties in the locality. Lineage genealogies are usually positioned as family histories and juxtaposed against national or state histories , though they often feature only the richest and most established branch that could afford to spearhead and underwrite the process of compilation.

Knowledge of the historiography of the sources I was reading would thus inform me of the purpose of the source and the kind of information therein, as well as the possible slant or positions they might take. Why were these sources written? Was it to justify one’s actions? Was it to establish a claim to landholdings or social prominence within a locality? The audience for which the writing was intended is also crucial. Who were these sources written for? In my research, I had to utilize lineage genealogies which are in themselves family archives. Often seen to be private collections of documents relating to wealthy local families including imperial edicts, household registration certificates, land transaction records, biographies, necrologies, burial grounds records and so forth, the genealogies are often presented as efforts to simply unite kinsmen and as acts of filial piety in ensuring the continuity of the lineage and clarity of descent lines. Yet, at the same time, it should be borne in mind that by the 16th century, when lineage genealogies were becoming the mark of social status, the existence of professional genealogists, the open acknowledgement of fudged ancestries, the insertion of laudatory prefaces by outsiders (suggesting therefore a certain external audience for the genealogies) and the fact that these genealogies often form the basis of information for compilers of local gazetteers suggest that the genealogy in itself played a more significant role in asserting group identity, social prestige and local power.

The multiple trajectories that began with a research question was what I experienced in my research on Japanese piracy in southeastern China in the 1540s and 1550s. When I first encountered the Japanese pirates or wokou in my undergraduate years, it seemed a simple and exciting story. Beginning in the 1540s, the wokou attacked towns and cities on the southeastern seaboard of China, venturing as far inland as the major metropolises of Hangzhou and Suzhou, and becoming a major security threat to the Ming court, then concurrently plagued by Mongolian incursions from the north. The security threat posed by the wokou to the financial health of the dynasty was in fact a recurrent theme in the court documents of the Jiajing reign (1522 – 1566) as the court deliberations recorded centered on the wokou problem. But from being simply a security issue in the 1520s, by the 1540s and 1550s, the wokou debate in the court documents had changed into one entwining foreign trade, tribute missions, international relations and ancestral traditions into a complex issue. No longer were fingers pointed at the Japanese for menacing the coast but instead blame was shifted onto Chinese merchants who had ventured overseas illegally to trade and returned, disguised as Japanese wokou and leading bands of Japanese mercenaries, to terrorize the coastal region. The root cause? The prohibition on maritime trade imposed in 1378 by the founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (r. 1368 – 1398) that illegalized private trade and channeled all foreign trade into the tribute trade system, in line with his vision and image of China as the center of the known world.

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!