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Distinguishing Reality from Discourse in history

Date:2008-01-30 00:00Author:youzhengli
Distinguishing Reality from Discourse in Chinese Historiography ----from a point of view of historical semiotics * Youzheng Li Semiotic studies are characterized by its interdisciplinary nature while the current academic world has been gene

                       Distinguishing Reality from Discourse in Chinese Historiography

                                     ----from a point of view of historical semiotics*

                                                               Youzheng Li

        Semiotic studies are characterized by its interdisciplinary nature while the current academic world has been generally organized in the disciplinary-centered framework. Accordingly, western semiotic studies today still tend to maintain their academic status as one “discipline” among many others. In my opinion, the fact becomes one of the main obstacles to  the substantial progress of global semiotics today.[i] When cross-cultural semiotics has steadily developed in the new century, this obstacle becomes more and more serious. The so-called cross-cultural semiotics is even faced with a more difficult task for overcoming the double restrictions of this discipline-centrism. As I point out several times before, cross-cultural semiotics is in essence another kind of interdisciplinary studies. Semiotics is not only the methodological tool to be used in the conventional disciplines but also to be (or should be) an approach towards a general goal for the theoretical breakthrough in the recent development of the humanities. In light of this, semiotics will especially play a revolutionary role for the advancement of European Sinology, American China Studies and the Chinese “State Learning” (Guo Xue), among others. It is noted that they are all related to the traditional Chinese historical discourse whose multiply complicated semantic compositions need to be sufficiently reorganized in our times. The traditional Chinese historical and literary discourse had been created and accumulated in the long-standing Chinese history. For the sake of making the traditional discourse more intelligible within modern academic framework, we should further more reasonably classify the historical discourse.  For this purpose a more intelligible scientific criterion for the new classification of the discourse of Chinese historiography is requested at first.

1. The Gu-Shi-Bian School of Textual Criticism in Modern Chinese Historical Studies

One of the remarkable features in semiotic analysis is to maintain a distinction between referent and meaning in written discourse of the traditional history. In other words the distinction is made between historical reality and its verbal representation, the latter is in fact historiography writings or ‘historical discourse’.  The term “history” either in Chinese or in western languages usually means reality and discourse alike in historiography practice. This traditional mixture of the two meanings of the term is connected to a basic conceptual confusion with respect to the relationship between historical reality and its corresponding verbal representation. As a result, on the one hand there is a conception of the historical process or reality and on the other a conception of historical discourse. The two conceptual categories are conventionally taken as widely overlapped. A historical discourse is usually taken as the direct representation of the related reality. In ancient times reading the former amounts to knowing the latter. Since the modern times Chinese historians have become more and more critical of the semantic ambiguity implied in the classical historiography. Among them Gu Jiegang’s work is the most productive in his textual criticism of the traditional historical texts. [ii]His theory of textual criticism is basically displayed in a clear distinction between reality and discourse by reading the ancient historical texts; or in maintaining the conceptual distinction between historical truth and historical records. According to the school, there exists a traditional tendency to falsify or to retort historical writings. In my interpretation, Gu’s scientific approach to the critical examination of the traditional texts reflects a semiotic character: it not only emphasizes the distinction between reality and discourse but also pays an attention to the constitution of different systems of historical discourses. The constitution of historiography is related to the quality or probability of the representational function of historical discourse. In other words, the historical critic today should explore the true identity of the traditional historical writings, especially of those about the Pre-Qin Impreial  period. Gu and his school is called “Gu Shi Bian” (literally, the discrimination of ancient historical texts), namely the school tending to distinguish between the ‘true’ and ‘false’ ancient historical writings with respect to their different manifestations. Their scientific stance is based on a knowledge that some ancient scholars would intentionally or unintentionally made the false, fictive or imaginative historical writings about historical reality referred to.

2. The Necessary Distinction between Reality and Discourse

In terms of the above modern scientific experience, this author suggests a basic criterion regarding the classification of the traditional Chinese historical writings: the features of historical discourse, rather than the related historical processes (or reality). In other words, a modern historical theory should first of all make clear what is the object proper of their  operation in historiography practice. In other words the object of the operation is said to be not the historical reality itself but rather the related documentations. The true object of a historian’s operation is the verbal and nonverbal documents rather than historical processes referred to. Accordingly we’d better not to accept a historical strategy directed to the related historical reality as such that is in fact inaccessible except its broken material, therefore historical reality should not be confused with their corresponding documentations. In light of this point of view, different kinds of documentation systems can refer to the same historical period. Accordingly, we should organize two different types of studies with respect to the same related period, although the relationship or connection of the two kinds of studies can and should be examined separately later. This specially chosen approach is to reject a naïve point of view that the different kinds of documents can be used in mixed way or at random for the same historical period referred to. Historical reality and its related historical discourse belong to the two different epistemological categories. But a clearer distinction between reality and discourse will lead to a more reliable approach to understanding historical reality through a more effective examination of the written discourse.

3. Four Types of Chinese Historiography

In comparison with the traditional classification of historical studies based on the related periods, the new criterion suggests a new classification of historical studies according to  different structures and functions of historical documentations. For Chinese history they could be in turn:

   A-Discourse: The Modern History, called Type A, starting from the beginning of the 20th century; it is characterized by the more scientific way of thinking about as well as by much richer techniques for constructing historical discourse, just as what we see in modern western history;

   B-Discourse: The Standard Traditional History (zheng shi), called Type B, organized by the imperial academic institutions over 2000 years, which is characterized by its moral-pragmatic historical ideology, the certain consciousness of historical truth and the stereotyped writing procedures;

   C-Discourse: The Pre-Qin Written History (xian qin shi), which is characterized by its complicated mixture of discourses based on true records, imaginative myths and oral legends. This Type C as the earliest written history in China has a special significance but its authenticity is widely unfounded. The most important and difficult problems emerge with respect to C-discourse

   D-Discourse: The Real Historical Documents, called Type D,  consisting of pre-historical words and physical remnants based on the findings by archaeology. The development of modern archaeology has led to a seemingly more promising perspective for ancient history. And for the Chinese archaeology its relationship to the historical studies is much closer because of the findings of the inscriptions on bone and tortoise shells that are indeed the records of the imperial sacrificial activities. The physical existence of the primitive pre-historical writing as the type D presents a great potential to explore the historical reality that has been presumed to correspond to Type C, for they share the reference to the same historical period of the legendary Shang Dynasty.  [iii]

The four classes of historical discourse are defined by the ways of constitutions and functions of the related documentations, while each can be freely connected to any historical periods. For example, all kinds of historiography can deal with problems relating to the same Shang Dynasty. But in fact different types of Shang discourses should not be directly combined merely because of their common historical referent. Especially, C-discourse, which consists of written documents, and D-discourse, which consists of the special written documents (inscriptions and epigraphs) and unearthed findings, share the rather same reference to the Shang period and the early Zhou periods. This distinction is related to an understanding that what written in C-discourse cannot be naturally taken as the authentic records of the events in the related periods.

A typology of Chinese historiography is therefore requested to be different from the conventional division of Chinese historical periods. The former is based on the composition, constitution, structure and function of different historical disciplines, while the latter is based on the temporal demarcation of historical process, although both seem to maintain a natural corresponding relationship. On one hand, any type of historiography can deal with all possible historical periods; while on the other, one kind of historiography has its main corresponding temporal period, especially A, B, D types. Type C is more special because there is a long distance between the time of its formation and the time of the periods it refers to.

In general a contemporary history has a higher authenticity in its records and descriptions because  the distance between the time of historical reality and the time to treat the reality in historiography is relatively short, such as Type A as well as Type B. Type D has the same or more typical feature like this, but Type D is not made by a more developed historiography; instead, it only makes available some physical but rather broken material. The verbal texts of the Shang oracle inscriptions as the records and relics of supernatural ritual behaviors imply not much information about important events to be used for reconstructing a proper historiography of the Shang. In fact, the so-called Shang history as an established discipline is made by a combination of documentations of  Type C and Type D. The epistemological problem concerned is related to the corresponding relations between C and D: both cover the same historical period referred to while the constitutions of Type C and Type D are much distinctive to each other in different aspects.

On one hand, according to our above classification, there are four types of Chinese historiography with their related historical materials, on the other there are four historical methodologies corresponding to Types of  A, B, C and D. That means different  types of historiography request different scientific-operative procedures. In addition, each  methodological category further contains two parts: the classical and the modern. Or, in other words, each above historical and related methodological categories should be combined with the modern historical methodologies concerned in our times.

A: for modern history or the historiography in connection to modern period, the mechanism of historical studies is radically different from another three types. The multiplicity of creation of written documents in modern historical science makes the operative means of the player radically different from ancient historians. In this sense, the  construction of historiography consists of two parts: the historical discourse and the method to study the former. The former contains Type A, B, C, D, as indicated above, and the latter contains both the classical and the modern. Historians respectively related to the four types of historiography have different combinations of both intellectual and practical means. The historian of Type A (the modern) and the historian of Type B (the classical) are in fact different kinds of scholars; namely their scholarship belong to different academic realms. However, the four types of historiography share the same object “history” as the homogeneous historical reality-process. But, once more, the historical process itself cannot be reduced to the object of any historiography; instead, the object is the different types of the documentary material or historical discourse containing their special constructing ways. For the latter the four types of historiography have their respective types of the object as written discourse rather than as reality.

4. Reexamination of the So-called “Double-Evidence Method”

That is why the naïve principle, the so-called double-evidence method invented by Wang Guowei [iv]and accepted by many contemporary Chinese and Sinological scholars must be reconsidered or redefined now. For that principle simplistically presupposes that any issue in C-discourse should be taken as authentic if it cannot be rejected by any evidence taken from D-discourse. The  principle is based on a common sense that the periods referred-to by Type C and Type D naturally correspond to each other, while in fact the actual period or process cannot be actually accessible. What we can reach is only some written discourse as such which claims to refer to that period.  Because of   Type D we indeed gain some physical (written and nonverbal) records of that period but they are not yet established historical discourse.


Another difficulty of this principle lies in its accepting any single case as historical evidence without double checks from other cross-reference supports. As a result, it tends to accept most statements from C-discourse, namely taking C-discourse as mostly authentic historical documents. This scholarly tendency has become quite popular over the past 70 years within and outside China. The consequence is less caused by the scientific progress than by an emotional self-satisfaction. Because so many modern Chinese historians have mixed the scientific and ideological criteria with an idea that the existence of more authentic historical documents can display the more “national pride” or “self-respect” for China in the world. [v]That is the main reason why Gu and his school has been neglected so long by both domestic and oversea Chinese historians for the past half a century.

5. In Defense of the Historical Truth by Historical Semiotics


In a certain sense it seems to be true that history cannot be separated from literature. All classical historical works either in West or in East definitely contain their literary elements. Or, exactly, historical narratives naturally or unavoidably contain literary fictions. Epistemologically speaking, however, we should distinguish the typical history in conception from the actual history that has been realized in historical reality. Type A, the history to be written in modern historical period, exhibits a scientific model of historiography that presents itself through a variety of new methodological means of scientific nature. According to Type A, historical practice should be separated from the literary practice in their constitution. This fact indicates a possibility at the ideal level that history should present historical truth rather than fictions. In other words, the literary elements actually contained in historical works can be excluded in an ideal sense. There exists an ideal type of scientific history with respect to the concept of historical truth.

In terms of actual historical practice we’d better say that there exists a spectrum of historical authenticity. From the above classification of historiography we can conceive a notion of the authenticity of discourses with different degrees in historiography. This differentiation itself of historical discourse based on different categories of historical documentations and methods further indicates the validity of the concept of historical truth, which can, however, only be accepted in a relative term. Historical relativism is caused by the shortcomings implied by the techniques as such of historiography, rather than by certain historical-philosophical epistemology. This conception of the degree of authenticity in different types of historical discourse is made sense especially by the contrast between modern history and classical history. All kinds of intellectual and technical tools for making historiography in modern periods makes the historical representation attain a much higher level than what people could do in ancient times. This sharp distinction between modern and traditional histories implies an increased theoretical intelligibility with respect to the conception of historical truth.

In principle, the structure and function of Type A is widely similar to those of modern western historiography; or, a general modern historical science makes itself essentially different from all traditional historiography because of its highly enhanced scientific way of thinking about historiography and its related technical conditions. Regarding “modern or contemporary history” we can obtain much more reliable knowledge than what we can do with respect to “ancient history”. In fact there are two different types of “history”: the modern and the ancient; or the scientific and pre-scientific according to their different conditions for historical constitutions. There is no longer a single discipline called history or historiography but at least the two distinctive ones. Traditional Chinese history evidently belongs to the latter too, which is characterized by its pre-scientific features with respect to the quality of documentations and writing with respect to historiography. The pre-scientific feature of the traditional history naturally makes itself less authentic but the fact has nothing to do with a nihilist theory about historical truth. There are a lot of practical factors actually obstructing us to reach historical truth; the fact has not rejected the validity of the concept of historical truth. In contrary, logically we need the concept of historical truth to make reasonable our other concepts used in our practice in historiography. In which we are only requested to employ a practical rationality for establishing our scientific explorations without being misled to any other realm of metaphysical imagination. Different from all other disciplines in the humanities, history is closely tied with our actual life and future. In history we request an operative and feasible rationality to improve our knowledge and practice concerning human fortune; namely we need to have a more reasonable way to make theory and practice in a better balance. Therefore, semiotics can be helpful for us to attain the purpose.

In terms of scientific approach of semiotics we emphasize that the distinction of the historiography-type and historical-period can help us more reasonably employ historical studies for more clearly knowing the historical reality of all kinds, including those made in (the) both pre-scientific and scientific periods. The terms reality and truth in history can only be relatively accepted because of the empirical nature of human social and intellectual life. What we are able to have and expect for is merely the knowledge of historical processes organized by our limited capability in intellectual practice. But we should do our best to constantly increase that capability. The only principle for the objective is rationality of methods in social practice, for we are doomed to organizing our individual and collective practice in a rational way. Historical studies have become a leading branch among all human sciences today and historical theory as a newly formed discipline is typically interdisciplinary in character. A new historical science guided by the semiotics-directed historical theory will also become one of the momentums in the globalization of the humanities.  

* This paper is based on a lecture given in the Conference about Ancient Chinese historiography held in Shandong University, Sept. 2006.

[i] Refer to Youzheng Li:  “The Epistemological Turn in Semiotic Strategy”, in Semiotica, V.162--- 1/4 (2006), p.176-177.

[ii] Among his works the most important are the 7-volume book series Gu-Shi-Bian (Reflections on Ancient Chinese History), edited by Jiegang Gu (or Ku Chieh-kang) and others, The Ancient Classics Publisher, Shanghai, 1982.

[iii] This four-category model was first presented by the author in his paper for the Conference about Gu Jiegang’s Historical Thought held in Shang Dong University, October 2006.

[iv] Refer to Guowei Wang’s work The New Evidence of Ancient Historyin Chinese, Tsing Hua University Press, 1994

[v] E.L.Shaughnessy said that the scholarly rejection of existence of Hsia Dynasty will hurt the self-respect sense of Chinese. That is the reason why most Chinese scholars tend to confirm a longer history of China in their studies. Refer to Tu Cheng-seng(ed): Ancient Society and States (in Chinese), Yun-Chen Publisher, Taipei, 1992, p.881