Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng

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Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng

Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng (1738-1801) was a Chinese scholar and historian. His ideas about historical methodology and the historical process were far more advanced than those of most of his contemporaries.

Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng was a native of China's coastal province of Chekiang. Both his father and his grandfather had been government officials, and they handed on to Chang an avid interest in history and literature, a belief in strict adherence to the principles of historical accuracy, and the conviction that one must write and teach on the basis of one's principles without regard for popular esteem. Although Chang achieved the highest civil service examination degree in 1778, he never held high office and, in fact, spent much of his life on the verge of poverty.

Philosophy of History

Chang's best-known publications are his local histories (ti-fang chih) and two major collections of his essays on historiography (Wen-shih t'ung-i and Chiao-ch'ou t'ung-i). Chang was a methodical historian, and he developed his own indexing system in order to assure proper attention to detail and accuracy. He became one of the most enlightened historical theorists during the Ch'ing dynasty. Unlike many Ch'ing historians, Chang spurned pedantic historical writing and urged historians to search for general interpretations through specific factual information.

It was Chang's argument that history was an evolutionary process of individuals and political and cultural institutions. He felt that historical development was underlain by a basic principle or "path" (tao), which was the human potential for living an ordered, civilized, and moral life. To Chang the good historian was a sage who could "apprehend the essential character of the past and present" and "understand the principles by which the world is ordered." Chang believed, furthermore, that the ideal society was one in which there was a total integration of the intellectual-literary world and the political-institutional world, in which scholars would be officials, and in which culture and state were synonymous. In this idea Chang was applying the thoughts of the great Ming philosopher Wang Yangming, who had advocated a "unity of thought and action." Relating his thoughts to the political conditions of his day, Chang firmly supported state control of scholarship and even endorsed the Emperor's literary inquisition of the late 18th century.

The last years of Chang's life marked a sad close to a life of brilliant thought. Few of his contemporaries accepted Chang's "radical" ideas, and he found himself in extreme poverty without the support of a patron. He died in 1801 with few friends and almost no disciples, and it was not until the late 19th century that Chinese scholars began to fully appreciate his genius.

Further Reading

A superb study of Chang is David S. Nivison, The Life and Thought of Chang Hsüeh-ch'eng (1966). Other works which provide substantial information about him are Arthur W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912 (2 vols., 1943-1944); Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, Intellectual Trends in the Ch'ing Period (1959); and W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank, eds., Historians of China and Japan (1961). □