SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001
The history man
The modern terms "globalised village" and "world citizen" are irrelevant to heavyweight historian Immanuel Hsu. Despite his long years of residence in the US, his ancestral roots are still the essence of his character.
His strong passion for China, where he was born and raised, is reflected in his classic history text The Rise of Modern China, hundreds of thousands of copies of which have been sold to senior secondary and university students worldwide since 1970.
One reason for his determination to write the book was to help Chinese people develop their national identity, he said on a visit to Hong Kong earlier this month for a series of lectures marking Chung Chi College's 50th anniversary.
Now his work has become even more accessible with the publication of a two-volume Chinese version, translated by a group of Nanjing University history professors. Professor Hsu has voiced his pleasure that the new version, released this month, would open the book up to more mainland and local students.
The English version is already required reading for students sitting the history examination in the Hong Kong A-Level Examination, and certain courses at Cambridge, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley use it. Based on the sixth edition published last year, the Chinese version covers a 400-year period spanning the rise of the Qing Dynasty, the Boxer Rebellion, the founding of the People's Republic, Hong Kong's return to China and 21st century China.
National identity looms large in Professor Hsu's thinking. A characteristic of the development of Chinese history in the past century - marked by imperialist aggression and internal turmoil - was its search for identity, he said in a public lecture at the Central Library earlier this month.
Having an American wife and speaking fluent English do not reduce his identification with his mother country, nor does he think people's perceptions of him has changed due to his chosen home.
"People regard me as a very Americanised Chinese scholar who has adjusted well to life in the United States," says the 78-year-old, who received his doctorate degree from Harvard University in 1954. "You may have gone to an American university, have a good job and be treated as a professional by others, but socially, your friends will say 'let's go to a Chinese restaurant and you'll order for us'," he laughs.
To him, the concept of a globalised world is a myth: people are still defined by their ancestry, he feels. Exemplifying this thought, he considers the well-known newscaster Connie Chung - who was US-born and raised - to be essentially Chinese.
He recites a Putonghua expression to make his point: "Bu yao wang ben (don't forget your roots). You must know where you come from. It is shallow to consider oneself a world citizen in today's globalised world. We all have to travel with a passport, and regardless of the passport I use, I still look Chinese."
But the professor emeritus of the University of California in Santa Barbara still believes that despite ethnic differences he blends easily into the American way of life.
But it is a good time to be Chinese, he adds. As he concluded in his Central Library speech, China's international status is ever higher. Its standing now, he noted, was the highest since the late Qing period. In 30 to 50 years, he predicted, China would become a true world power.
It is thus a good time to consider where China has come from. What Professor Hsu offers is not just a chronological account of events in China, but more importantly, fresh interpretations of why things happened the way they did.
"When I wrote each sentence, I thought about it carefully and sometimes for days. I wanted to put it in the right context, in the right tone. I have an intellectual responsibility for my readers," he said. "The main purpose of my book is to introduce new knowledge, new interpretations that cannot be easily obtained in China or Hong Kong.
"I am opening a new window."
The 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown was a case in point. He has written that the student demonstrators were unwitting pawns in the power struggles between the hardliners and reformers led by former party secretary Zhao Ziyang.
The rising calls for democratisation in those days were also due to the increased status enjoyed by intellectuals in China, he says, when knowledge and talent were in increased demand for the country's modernisation drive.
Professor Hsu gives credit for his success as a historian to those who taught him in the West, including the renowned historians William Langer, John Fairbank, Serge Elisseeff and Edwin Reischauer, who once served as the American ambassador to Japan. They taught him vital research methodology, ways of thinking and writing.
Languages have also been important. Even when he was as young as four, his mother practised speaking in English with him every day.
While studying at the famous missionary Yenching University (the predecessor of Beijing University), he began reading French literature. Later in Japan, he picked up Japanese and Russian, of which he has only a faint memory now.
But these languages were influential in his development as a historian, allowing him to pore over official documents and records dating back to pre-war days.
Thanks to the vast amount of archival materials he has studied, he may have accomplished the most objective account on what modern China has gone through.
Using the Nanjing massacre as a prime example of conflicting reports, he said the Japanese were more concerned about protecting their image in their account of events while the Chinese flatly called it a bloodshed.
Like any academic of repute, however, he advises students to consider other versions of this history alongside his own.
"I have tried to be as objective as possible in my writing but students should read widely, think of different angles, different interpretations and form their own opinions."
To him, the pursuit of historical knowledge is both a delight and a way of life. Anyone studying history should also learn to grasp multiple realms of knowledge.
"History is life. It includes politics, drama, philosophy, music, literature, the whole spectrum of human events," he says.
The Rise of Modern China, Sixth Edition, by Immanuel C.Y. Hsu, is published by Oxford University Press. The Chinese version is published by Chinese University Press, (HK$148).