13. Three Moments of Definition in Chinese Historiography
Glen Dudbridge† [+]
University of Oxford
The pre-imperial Chinese inhabited a universal space, but for centuries their feudal states did not feel bound to a universal chronology. Each maintained its own. The Qin empire imposed a single, central chronology to match its sole legitimate title to power, an example followed by its successor, the Han. Late in the first century BC, the relationship of official historians to centres of power, whether feudal or imperial, received a firm definition in the first imperial bibliography, which viewed and classified their work as canonical. The tradition of standard dynastic histories that developed later took a bureaucratic form in which all institutions, including chronology, reflected the legitimacy of the dynasty in question. Those simple values were disturbed at times when central power collapsed and dispersed among regional polities. Bibliographers, striving to maintain order and structure in written culture, moved imperial historiography outside the standard canonical class. Historians had to decide where among rival regional powers legitimacy was presumed to lie. When they chose to present a chronological narrative, that meant choosing which chronology to sanction. This chapter looks at particular examples to study what choices they made and what circumstances drove those choices. It also pinpoints three documents that illustrate the growing ironical distance between historians and their subject-matter. It concludes by observing that the universal model remained the historians’ default position in spite of the persisting chaos of regionalism and collapsing borders.