Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take, pp. 5 of 7

This by itself was a very interesting story but if I had confined myself to the court documents, I would probably have been one of the proverbial blind (wo)men, touching the trunk of the elephant and thus forming a mental picture of the elephant. But the happy problem in late imperial Chinese history, especially from the Ming dynasty onwards, is the historian is almost never short of primary documents for research. When I turned to the local provincial records – the local histories or local gazetteers – I discovered therein different narratives about the wokou. The local histories tell of how coastal populations suffered because the maritime prohibition impinged upon their traditional livelihoods of fishing and trade. As a result, many turned to maritime activities despite the illegality simply because they had no other options. Even the local officials, representatives of the Emperor, colluded in these proscribed activities, simply because local government finances depended upon the lucrative but illegal maritime trade. Hence, despite the injunction that all foreigners could only trade in China at appointed ports and predetermined times, the officials themselves willingly closed an eye to the arrival of the Portuguese in Canton and even reached an unofficial agreement that led eventually to the establishment of Portuguese Macau.[v] The traditional Chinese saying “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away” has never rang truer. 

When these local narratives are further juxtaposed against grassroots records in the form of lineage genealogical records of the people living outside of the provincial cities, in the towns and villages, yet a third narrative emerged. While the local gazetteers, often compiled with official sponsorship, tell the story of the wokou, described as incursions against the state, and extolled the heroism of those who stood up to them as exemplars of loyalty to the Emperor, the people in the affected areas, supposedly under siege and attack from the wokou, were in fact going through a busy period of construction and consolidation. They were building lineage temples, buying land to create lineage corporate estates, setting up schools and charitable organizations and even feuding with one another, all supposedly in the period where their home region was under attack from the wokou. With three competing narratives, how was the historian to make sense of these “undigested happenings” that William Cronon alluded to.

It is this process of making sense of these competing (or sometimes complementary) narratives that exemplifies, for me, the difference between academic history and school history. Historians rarely have the good fortune of going to an archive and reading a set of documents to find the answer they seek staring at them. It takes first of all serendipity to find in, say a genealogy spanning twenty odd volumes and numbering thousands of pages, the letter or essay or biography that tells you exactly what that particular lineage or family had done during the wokou raids in their hometown. Most of the time (at least 95% of the time actually), the opposite rings true. The historian sits in the archive trawling through volumes of documents and spending days before actually finding a document that might even be remotely useful. Diverse pieces of information had to be connected mentally before the outlines of the story could be arrived at, and even then, the outlines may be blurred and indistinct and a lot more work had to be put in before they are clarified.

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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