Historical consciousness grows in Chinese sociology

By MENG QINGYAN / 11-09-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Public art promoting filial piety on a street in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province Photo: CFP

To understand the modernization of Chinese society, it is vital to make sense of its historical foundation and evolutionary trajectory, as well as the course in which various concepts and principles shape the social structure, and vice versa. As an organic entity, society continuously cultivates cultural traditions and ethos in specific histories, which make up the intellectual background of a nation. 

To sociologists, this highlights the importance of incorporating historical perspectives into their research in two ways. First, society is an organic entity made up by people, and fosters order, systems, culture, and emotions in its history of continuous development. Through these elements, society also has an impact on people living within it. This is the foundational logic of the diverse national spirits and cultural traits presented by different civilizations. 

Therefore, when sociologists try to analyze such issues as systems, order, structure, and culture, adding a historical dimension can provide us with a broader vision for understanding reality and help us comprehend the underlying logic and historical context of social changes more deeply. 

Second, conducting sociological studies through the lens of history doesn’t mean that researchers can randomly study historical figures, incidents, or texts. Rather, they should identify key junctures of institutional development, social changes, and civilizational evolution, and examine mechanisms behind these junctures to explain structural factors behind the changes and to untangle the thread of social history underlying the civilizational course. Thus, historical perspectives can facilitate sociologists to overcome the problem of fragmented research and place research topics on a macroscopic horizon. 

In the recent decade, Chinese sociologists have gradually realized the necessity of “bringing history back to sociological research,” practicing the mission in their teaching and research activities. In late 2012, the Social Sciences in China Press under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences joined forces with the School of Sociology and Political Science at Shanghai University and the Chinese Journal of Sociology sponsored by the university to hold a symposium on “changes in Chinese society and the frontier of sociology: historical perspectives in sociology.” This event marked the beginning of Chinese sociology’s turn to history, representing a major advancement in the development of historical sociology in China. 

With the publication of increasing high-quality papers and monographs on historical sociology, and the convening of more and more scholarly activities centering on history and society, sociologists are building a research consensus through iterative studies and discussions, leading to a series of clear research subjects. Highly correlated, these subjects will greatly inspire researchers to delineate the trajectory of Chinese society’s evolution through history, clarify the social basis of Chinese civilization, and understand the historical logic of Chinese modernization. 

Traditional society 

Chinese society was concretely formed out of complex and diverse practices over a long period of time, alongside its own cultural characteristics, which are intrinsic connotations of Chinese civilization. “Civilization” is not only a system of concepts, but is also the endogenous order foundation for Chinese society, and the collective “default value” that nurtures Chinese people’s behavioral ethics. 

The way people form groups naturally gives rise to relationships and social structures, and generates historical traditions and social cultures on the basis of these networks. “Ethics” epitomizes Chinese social culture and group order. Boiled down to fundamentals, ethics consist of principles for people to get along with each other. That a person should be “kind as a father, filial as a son, courteous as an elder brother, and respectful as a younger brother” is the crystallization of traditional fine Chinese culture, and also a code of conduct running through people’s everyday life. 

Since the discipline of sociology was introduced to China as “qunxue,” meaning a study of groups, pioneering Chinese sociologists like Pan Guangdan and Fei Xiaotong had started to focus on the ethical order in Chinese society. Whether research of “wulun,” the Five Cardinal Relationships (between ruler and subject, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend) or discussions on “chaxu geju,” differential modes of association, these scholars were exploring the civilizational roots of traditional Chinese society, forming a holistic view of Chinese society in the ontological sense.  

In recent years, scholars of historical sociology have carried forward this research tradition, deepening studies of the classical concept of chaxu geju and further revealing how “cixiao yiti,” or the mutual reflection between father’s kindness and son’s filial piety, became the governing ethic of behavior for Chinese people’s daily life. 

Furthermore, researchers investigated the theoretical connotation of “family” in Chinese culture and social operations. Family, and the resultant behavioral ethics and social implications, also serve as the primary bond of group order in traditional society. Chinese people not only lead a social life within communities constructed by families and related ethical constructs, but also behave according to a system of social ethics with respecting the superior, favoring the intimate, being kind to offspring, and performing filial piety at the core. 

This system of ethics was widely accepted through various institutional arrangements in Chinese history, shaping a social structure characterized by jiaguo tonggou, which means that family and the state are the same, or family is a reduction of the state. This cultivates the social and political inclusivity as well as great unity of Chinese civilization.

National governance

The state-society relationship, as defined by Western theory, used to influence social sciences and humanities in China for a long time, as scholars interpreted the state as a political system, and groups as a social system, as two completely different categories. However, as mentioned above, under Chinese civilization’s ethical structure of jiaguo tonggou, the state and groups are not opposing concepts. Instead, the two are integrated. 

Renowned scholar Yan Fu’s translation of “sociology” into “a study of groups” contains such a consciousness that families and states both fall into the category of groups. Then how did Chinese society of this kind construct a national governance system? In traditional society, featuring technological underdevelopment and weak administrative capacities, how did a territorially vast state govern its people and sustain the great unity over the course of its long history?

In the recent decade, historical sociologists in China have conducted extensive research based on the above questions. To answer these questions, it is essential to break the existing state-society paradigm, because the behavioral ethics in traditional Chinese society were universal rules across social strata. Bureaucratic scholar-officials and commoners shared the same meaning system and ethical structure. 

By exploring archives and documents, historical events, political thoughts, and institutional evolution in this vein, scholars deepened their understanding about Fei Xiaotong’s “dual-track politics” theory of the “power of the monarch” and the “power of the gentry.” They discussed the dispute over “fengjian zhi,” the enfeoffment system of fiefdom, and “junxian zhi,” the bureaucratic prefectural system, and reinterpreted the relationship between the two. The enfeoffment system of fiefdom established universal principles for human relationships and social order through patriarchy, while the bureaucratic prefectural system defined the basic administrative relationship between the central court and local authorities. The two systems supported each other. 

In addition, historical sociologists delved deep into the institutional evolution and the internal connection between the formal bureaucratic administrative system and the informal ritual education system, which jointly served the overarching goal of national governance. 

As such, studies of historical sociology clarified the historical context of China’s national governance and have provided fresh perspectives for re-understanding the relationship between the state and society in Chinese civilization. 

Chinese path to modernization

Social changes and political reforms which took place after the 19th century have remained the foci in domestic research of social sciences and humanities. This period not only saw China develop from a traditional country to a modern one, but also included a historical process in which an overall crisis broke out in traditional Chinese society, while the Communist Party of China (CPC) led the Chinese people to successfully respond to the overall crisis and step onto the path of modernization. 

Studies of historical sociology in recent years have attempted to understand the historical path and social impetus of Chinese modernization by exploring the grand topic of “changes from the past to the present” through the histories of social ethos, of organizational evolution, and of social culture. 

Some researchers found that modern political and intellectual elites including Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Sun Yat-sen all offered solutions to the overall crisis from their own perspectives, and tried to address problems like social disunity and organizational weakness, though they failed due to their own limitations. 

In contrast, in the complex and formidable situation of multiple revolutions, the CPC managed to reunite the fractured Chinese society into a powerful collective through organizational innovation and practice of democratic centralism. Through the mass line featuring the principle of “from the people, to the people,” Chinese communists reconstructed a community for rural society by collective means. 

Based on detailed historical facts, historical sociologists have uncovered the indigenous path of how the CPC led the people toward modernization from the angle of political culture and organizational generation. It is exactly the consciousness of exploring institutional origins that drove researchers to dissect the social history of adapting basic Marxist tenets to the Chinese context, inspiring studies of Chinese modernization’s historical path and social foundation from the perspective of historical sociology. 

At a seminar on cultural inheritance and development on June 2, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping stressed that it is natural to integrate the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and fine traditional culture if we are to create and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics on the basis of the profound Chinese civilization of more than 5,000 years. “This is the understanding we have drawn from our exploration of the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the key to our success,” he said. 

Both the turn to history in domestic sociological studies and the emergence and development of historical sociology in China over the past decade have responded to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important expositions on integrating the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and fine traditional culture, reflecting Chinese sociologists’ deep theoretical consciousness. 

Through academic research, scholars have been trying to clarify the civilizational connotation, historical course, and practical mechanism of Chinese society, gradually establishing a theoretical system of historical sociology with Chinese characteristics, which should have a global vision, focus on Chinese civilization, take root in Chinese society, and explore Chinese paths. This will be a critical mission for indigenous historical sociology research in China for many years to come. 

Meng Qingyan is an associate professor from the School of Sociology at China University of Political Science and Law.