Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft

By Lloyd E. Ambrosius | Go to book overview

2.

Culture and Context in Biographical Studies:
The Case of China

R. Keith Schoppa

Robert Rosenstone, observing the essential relationship between historians and the past as they interpret it, concluded that “History does not exist until it is created. And we create it in terms of our underlying values. Our kind of vigorous, 'scientific' history is in fact a product of our history, our special history that includes a particular relationship to the written word, a rationalized economy, notions of individual rights, and the nation-state. Many cultures have done quite well without this sort of history, which is only to say that there are - as we all know but rarely acknowledge - many ways to represent and relate to the past." 1

Perhaps the most telling clause in Rosenstone's historiographical reflections is the parenthetical “as we all know but rarely acknowledge.” Historians and biographers-as-historians are rooted in their particular cultures and contexts. Their created histories - in subject matter, approach, interpretation, methods, nuance - will reflect to some degree or other the culture and context that constitute their “special history.” But, as in most endeavors, people rooted in a particular culture take that culture and its values as the norm and often quite unthinkingly assume its universal applicability. In his presidential address to the American Historical Association more than thirty years ago, noted China specialist John K. Fairbank argued that “historians in America have been, like historians elsewhere, patriotic, genetically oriented, and culture-bound." 2

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