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[Caizhai Lecture] Lu Yang: The Significance of History in the Modern Age

MAY . 08 2018
Peking University, April 24, 2018: Professor Lu Yang from PKU’s Department of History delivered Caizhai lecture on the evening of April 19, 2018. Professor Lu began his lecture on the significance of history in the modern age by describing the major features of modern history and discussing the status of history within the current educational framework.

History is an ancient discipline. Traditionally, the function of history has been to educate people on their own traditions and to teach the difference between right and wrong. History, however, is also an ever-changing subject that, as a discipline, adapts to new circumstances. Although it is not easy to describe the importance of history to an audience, thinking historically is essential in the modern era.

Professor Lu Yang
Prof. Lu Yang offered an analysis of the essence of modern history. He explained that he believes that each discipline, including history, has academic integrity. Interpretations of history, however, vary greatly as a result of history's broad scope and multifaceted meaning. History, for example, is now widely used as a source of popular entertainment, and many history books aimed at non-academic audiences have been published. These works, while entertaining, bear little relation to academic historical research. 

History began to develop into an independent discipline in the late 19th century. As a bridge connecting the past, the present, and the future, history is also a window into the human mind. 

In China, Liang Qichao set off a revolution in historiography, the study of writing history, and advocated broadening the scope of historiography research. Liang believed that the emperor’s stories should not be adhered to rigidly, but that history ought to guide China's development. 

Professor Lu pointed out that history is written by a “third party.” Historians, therefore, objectify and distance themselves from the period and content of the history they study, in order to reflect on its significance and value as important historical nodes. 

In view of the relationship between history and language, Professor Lu believes that the style of language directly affects the depth and intensity of a historian’s writing. Some historians have simple and clean styles while others may be ironic or solemn. These styles, along with their selected subject matter, render each historian unique characters in conversation with each other. In the field of history, some scholars uphold the spirit of speculation while others are acutely aware of history’s need to claim credibility. Other scholars believe that historical events or “facts” themselves are not that important because the "smoke" of events is always fleeting. These debates about the direction of history as a discipline continue to advance and change.

Next, Professor Lu Yang focused on the theme of “studying history without certain methods” and “historical imagination.” He pointed out the diversity of modern historical methodology and emphasized the close relationship between modern historiography and the rise and fall of nations.

In the last part of the lecture, Professor Lu Yang talked about the value and limitations of historiography and introduced the “return of man” in current historiography. In light of the development of systematic historiography, Professor Lu explained that we can better analyze the established historical stages. These divisions and even the way that historical events are written about are a social choice that combines economic and cultural factors and is not purely a reflection of social development. Historiography, however, also has its own contradictions. It not only tries to make clear that the space and time of the past are very different from the present. Additionally, historiography also strives not to simply apply the existing analytical framework to set up research questions but to encourage independent analyses and definitions.   

The Q&A session
During the Q&A session, Professor Lu pointed out that official and unofficial histories contain the same academic value as objects of historical study. Outstanding and self-disciplined historians, however, know how to filter and use the best historical materials to support their own opinions. Finally, Professor Lu mentioned that history, as a discipline, is devoted to the study of people and, as such, historians often learn and reflect on their subject while communicating with people.  
Written by: Qian Kang 
Edited by: Zhou Yijing, Erin Dunne
Source: PKU News (in Chinese)