That gap in our collective knowledge needs address and there is an urgent need for a comprehensive historical and anthropological re-examination of Chinese history, argues Professor David Faure, world-renowned expert on China’s economic and business history at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
Described by the China Review as one of the premier authorities on the history of Chinese lineage and society, Professor Faure has spent four decades studying the historical anthropology of Chinese society. He says it is vital for business people and anyone with an interest to work in and with China to learn more about its history and society. “I don’t believe you just walk into Shanghai and do your business. You have to understand the history and all the ramifications,” he said.
Professor Faure led an eight-year HK$34.6 million (equivalent to US$4.4 million) Hong Kong Government-funded Areas of Excellence project titled the Historical Anthropology of Chinese Society to explore Chinese history stretching from the Song Dynasty to World War II, studying 15 areas of rural China to promote a greater understanding of the country’s history and society.
His research has found cultural threads stretching back centuries, explaining why when China opened up in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, people’s innate understanding of business quickly came to the surface, particularly when it came to contracting for private use of land from the communes.
“The process was extremely successful because Chinese people have been signing contracts since the 16th century. It is in their culture and consequently they reacted to the government policy described as the ‘responsibility system’ in a way that made it successful,” said Professor Faure.
“Chinese people also love to buy and sell shares. Where did they learn to do it? They learnt to do it in the 16th century. Chinese people were quite used to shares well before western businesses were and long before company law was introduced.
“They were not just coming out of a collective economy. They were coming out of a tradition they have built up for 500 years. They were trading as capitalists before Europeans were. The Chinese historical economy was very successful – it was the richest country in the world.”
The history and culture of China is best learnt not through documents and texts but by coming face to face with living history, says Professor Faure who grew up in Hong Kong and has been visiting Chinese villages since the 1980s.
His encounters with ordinary people taught him some of the essential difference in the cultures of China and the west, in particular the way in which trust in ritual drives China while trust in law drives the west.
“Everybody you meet is a museum,” he said. “They remember what they have been told. They bring Chinese culture to life in their rituals. They do things without realising why they are doing them in that particular way. As historians we work out the reasons.”
Professor Faure explains that the divergence between China and the west is because in the European scientific tradition, thinkers spent years looking for the natural laws of society and they are still doing so.
“In China, you have a totally different system which comes from the relationship of ritual to the natural order. You deal with people in the correct manner as dictated by ritual because you expect them to react to you through the same ritual.”
“We are going through the process European historians went through in the first half of the 20th century,” he said. “In China, we are 100 years behind in coming to the realisation that history is a collective of lives lived by people right on the ground.
“As yet, we have a world history which is very much centred on Europe and North America. We have an immediate task at hand which is to think about a world history in which China has a part to play.”