Chinese historiography refers to the study of methods and assumptions made in studying Chinese history.

Narratives and Interpretations of Chinese history

Dynastic Cycle

One example of the fruitfulness of questioning assumption comes from questioning the assumption that "China was weak in the 19th century" and pointing out the fact that at the time in which China was supposedly weak, it managed to extend its borders to record sizes and Central Asia. This in turn has caused scholars to be more interested in Chinese policies and actions in Central Asia and has led to the realization that Central Asia affected Chinese policies toward Europe in a deep way.

Another trend in Western scholarship of China has been to move away from "grand theories" of history toward understanding of a narrow part of China. A survey of papers on Chinese history in the early 21st century would reveal relatively little attempt to fit Chinese history into a master paradigm of history as was common in the 1950s. Instead, early 21st century papers on Chinese history tend to be empirical studies of a small part of China which aim to reach a deep understanding of the social, political, or economic dynamics of a small region such as a province or a village with little effort made to create a master narrative which would be generalizable to all of China.

Also, such current scholars attempt to assess source material more critically. For example, for a long period it was assumed that Imperial China had no system of civil law because the law codes did not have explicit provisions for civil lawsuits. However, more recent studies which use the records of civil magistrates suggest that China did in fact have a very well developed system of civil law in which provisions of the criminal code were interpreted to allow civil causes of action. Another example of the more critical view taken toward source material has been anti-merchant statements made by intellectuals in the mid-Qing dynasty. Traditionally these have been interpreted as examples of government hostility toward commerce, but more result studies which use source material such as magistrate diaries and genealogical records, suggest that merchants in fact had a powerful impact on government policies and that the division between the world of the merchant and the world of the official was far more porous than traditionally believed. In fact there is a growing consensus that anti-merchants statements in the mid-Qing dynasty should be taken as evidence of a substantial erosion in the power and freedom of action of officials.

Finally, current scholars have taken an increasing interest in the lives of common people and to tap documentary and historical evidence that was previously not analyzed. Examples of these records include a large mass of governmental and family archives which have not yet been processes, economic records such as census records, price records, land surveys, and tax records. In addition there are large numbers of cultural artifacts such as vernacular novels, howto books, children's books, which are in the process of being analyzed for clues as to who the average Chinese (if there was such as thing) lived.


Early Imperial China
Mid-Imperial China
Late Imperial China