Abstract: From a comparative perspective, this article examines the rise of “evidential learning” in Qing China of the eighteenth century and its far-reaching influence in shaping intellectual development in modern China. It argues that parallel to the interest of humanists and antiquarians in early modern Europe, the Chinese evidential scholars of the late imperial period pursued a similarly revivalist interest in their study of Confucianism. By improving and perfecting the skills and techniques of textual and historical criticism, and by using the methods of philology, phonology, paleography, and etymology, they hoped to restore the Confucian classics to their earlier, hence (to them) truer and more authentic form. And in pursuing this common interest, these scholars formed an active scholarly community, a Republic of Letters, wherein they exchanged ideas and criticized one another’s works, much as did their European counterparts in advancing humanist and antiquarian scholarship. In reconstructing the historical context whence the Confucian classics had emerged, they also prized the importance of historical and epigraphic study and approached the understanding of the classics from a historical perspective. All this has left an enduring imprint on the endeavor by modern Chinese historians to modernize historical study since the early twentieth century. The legacy of evidential learning demonstrates that the antecedents that were often considered unique in shaping the modern historical discipline in Europe also existed in East Asia and, very likely, elsewhere in the world as well. It is time for us to go beyond the East-West binary to analyze and appreciate the interest in history—and the varied methodologies it has engendered sustaining its pursuit—as a global phenomenon.
Journal of World History – University of Hawai'I Press
Published: Jan 16, 2008