The Chinese have developed a strong sense of their real and mythological origins and have kept voluminous records since very early times. It is largely as a result of these records that knowledge concerning the ancient past, not only of China but also of its neighbors, has survived.
Chinese history, until the twentieth century, was written mostly by members of the ruling scholar-official class and was meant to provide the ruler with precedents to guide or justify his policies. These accounts focused on dynastic politics and colorful court histories and included developments among the commoners only as backdrops. The historians described a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family.
Of the consistent traits identified by independent historians, a salient one has been the capacity of the Chinese to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. Their success can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule. The Chinese also left an enduring mark on people beyond their borders, especially the Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese.
Another recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threat posed to their safety and way of life by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. In the thirteenth century, the Mongols from the northern steppes became the first alien people to conquer all China. Although not as culturally developed as the Chinese, they left some imprint on Chinese civilization while heightening Chinese perceptions of threat from the north. China came under alien rule for the second time in the mid-seventeenth century; the conquerors--the Manchus--came again from the north and northeast.
For centuries virtually all the foreigners that Chinese rulers saw came from the less developed societies along their land borders. This circumstance conditioned the Chinese view of the outside world. The Chinese saw their domain as the self-sufficient center of the universe and derived from this image the traditional (and still used) Chinese name for their country--Zhongguo () , literally, Middle Kingdom or Central Nation. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. China had taken it for granted that its relations with Europeans would be conducted according to the tributary system that had evolved over the centuries between the emperor and representatives of the lesser states on China's borders as well as between the emperor and some earlier European visitors. But by the mid-nineteenth century, humiliated militarily by superior Western weaponry and technology and faced with imminent territorial dismemberment, China began to reassess its position with respect to Western civilization. By 1911 the two-millennia-old dynastic system of imperial government was brought down by its inability to make this adjustment successfully.
Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past--a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. The events of history came to be presented as a function of the class struggle. Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party. A series of thought-reform and antirightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. In the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, however, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only historical study of traditional China but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics, although a much greater range of historical topics has been discussed. Figures from Confucius--who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians--to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists is that Maoist-era historiography distorted Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980s, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely. Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development.