Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Sunday, 08 April 2007
Sunday, 08 April 2007 10:49

The World of World Histories

To some people “history” is just a story, not the story or chronicle of what actually happened at some moment in the past, but “his” story, the interpretations, additions, subtractions, perhaps fabrications, of some individual who had a personal agenda to prove a point, preserve or embellish the memory of some event, celebrate or vilify some protagonist.

To some students “history” is just a dreaded school subject that forces them to memorize names and dates and series of events long enough to remember them for the final examination and then gratefully forgotten.

To some people knowledge of “history” contains valuable lessons that warn us about mistakes of the past, so we can avoid them and teach us how to manage similar problems in the present.

But to some people “history” repeats itself, which means that the same mistakes are made generation after generation and era after era, because no one really pays attention or takes seriously the lessons of the past. This is just as well, some people say, because the circumstances and conditions of every age are not really the same anyway.

To some people “history” is not the exposition of facts that are certain and immutable. History is rather rewritten continuously as each succession of historians reinterprets it in the light of current events and concepts.

To some people “history” is fascinating and interesting, because it is about people. They rewrite and embellish it in historical and biographical novels not to deceive but to interpret and entertain and hopefully teach. The persons who made the history were real people with feelings and ideals, strengths and weaknesses. These are as much responsible for the events of history as the recorded deeds.

Some people replace the facts and events of real “history” with fabrications and interpretations to justify and promote the ideologies that they are trying to force everyone to accept.

Some people not only have no interest in “history”, they live in nearly total disregard and ignorance of current events. Their only concern is to survive the present moment however they can. Their poverty and desperation are a sad commentary on contemporary history.

To me “history” is more than a log of events. Its purpose and significance is to show the relations between events, to explain the reasons for peoples’ actions and to evaluate the results in terms of justice and injustice, success and failure, appropriate or inappropriate, practical or impractical, right or wrong, so that we can understand the causes and effects of their actions and hopefully learn something that will help us in the evaluation of our own present situations.

Such a “history” necessarily goes beyond the bare recorded events. We rarely know what the protagonists were actually thinking, what they felt or what motivated them, we can only surmise. That is why there are so many versions of history and that is the way that things should be. We should always try to verify the facts. As more data becomes known about past events, of course our explanations and interpretations should be emended. And the more we learn about anthropology, geography, psychology and the religions and convictions and beliefs of those times, of course our descriptions and explanations should change.

A true historian needs to be honest and humble. This history that I write is only according to the facts and information I now have. It is quite possible at any time that new facts will emerge or more reasonable or reliable interpretations will appear and I have to humbly take back some of my former conclusions and come up with new ones. History is a living discipline. What actually happened in the past cannot be changed. But the long distance lenses we employ to view those facts do change, allowing us ever clearer pictures.

“History” has always played an essential role in every people and civilization. Long before the written word, the songs and narrations of myths and legends were chanted or recited around campfires at the end of the day. They acquainted the people with their roots, gave them models to live up to, implanted the beliefs and principles that governed their lives. What they were told were not the bare facts of former events, but the embellishments of commentators who reshaped the recalled data with life and color to entertain and inspire at the same time. Ordinary men became heroes. Heroes became gods. The truth was not lost, but cast in language that highlighted its significance.

Nowadays “history” in the strictest sense has become a science, with rules and methods. One has to stick strictly to the facts, cite primary sources, give references for every assertion. What emerges is a reliable chronicle of events accompanied by a well founded reasonable set of hypotheses about the causes and effects of the events narrated.

In actual fact, these modern histories have much in common with the myths and legends of former times. The historian does not record every known fact or supposition, but only those he or she chooses as relevant. The historian makes assertions and comes to conclusions that are intended to explain the whys and wherefores. And the historian has an agenda of truths he or she wants to teach and which he or she hopes will influence the thinking and behaviors of the readers. And to cap it all off, many of the historian’s hypotheses may be controversial, rejected or criticized by other historians.

So, what is my conclusion about all this? It is this: There is no one “world history.” There is instead a “world of world histories”, each one saying something different. Whether it is a myth, legend or historical treatise, it needs a good dosage of salt. Bare facts are dull and uninspiring. They need to be seasoned with color and excitement. Good story telling is as important for the bard as for the scientist if they want people to stop and listen to what they have to say. And they should all of them, every one, be “taken with a grain of salt”. Not everything they say should be taken point blank.

This does not disturb me at all. After all, when everything is said and done, it is not the deed of yesterday that moves me, but what it means to me. The real value of myth, legend or history is that it gets me to reflect on what was and apply it to what is to come.

(Picture by Liang Zhun)

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