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Reacting to the Past

Sun Yue


     Trevor Getz must be congratulated for putting up a colossal target for everyone to shoot at! His question should properly be split into two parts: Whose world? And whose history? Yet, the first part of the question is no question at all: it's everybody's world, powerful or powerless, rich or poor, living or dead, for the ghost, left unpacified, might still be speaking to Hamlet and us! For the second part of the question, no easy answer is readily available. For obvious reasons, only some are professed historians. They write from their own perspectives, employing whatever archival materials they have access to and cognitive or analytic tools available to them. It would be a shame to blame them for not exerting themselves to cover everybody and everything that cries out to be covered. How can those engaged in this Herculean task of writing the world's history be expected to do justice with equanimity to each and all even if they are consciously and conscientiously committed to do so? Since, proverbially speaking, "no [wo]man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little," there is and should always be a pool of latent histories for historians to jump into in terms of scope and coverage.

     As for those trumphalist accounts that we daily encounter in textbooks, newspapers, policy statements, government resolutions, etc, they are reminders of the presence of various forms of haunting centrisms, including ethnocentrism, at work in our human psyche, such as those leading to the Christian dismissal as vain of all human efforts in pursuit of an omniscient omnipotent pure good God! Imperfect as all these are, they are all of what we have and we cannot easily discard them in favor of pure and perfect knowledge, something that might be eternally absent from us humans. Show us one single account that is not at all biased of human history? Show us one single form of political enterprise that is devoid of unjustified oppressive violence? Centrisms lead to entrenched dogma, while ignorance breeds self-congratulated conceits. Maybe that's pretty much the human lot. But that's also where humility, empathy, and dialogue shine out. And reflecting on the contours of world historiography, especially in connection with the WHA, I do feel that the pilgrims of world history do represent progress by consciously embracing the whole world, by crossing the boundaries of existing entities, and by choosing interaction over isolation as the way for human progress.

     As a late-comer to world history, I do not claim to know better than each and every one of my colleagues. In fact, I am never confident that we moderns (in the neutral sense of the term) necessarily know better than the ancients, especially in handling such interpersonal or social cohesives as love, law, and order. As a student of European witchcraft history, I am never confident that those inquisitors exhibited more barbarous cruelty than their modern counterparts. But that is not the real issue, I mean, the comparison of degrees of "barbarity." What is at issue is the degree of human efforts in sustaining the bonds of love and order among peoples, and to that end, empathy is the prerequisite for real understanding, for confronting real or perceived evils, who would fail to [re]act?

Mr. Sun Yue teaches at the College of Foreign Languages, works for the Global History Center, Capital Normal University, and edits its affiliated Global History Review, an annual publication in Chinese featuring the work of both international and Chinese scholars. His current research interest is the Early Modern European Witch-Hunt, and global history. He can be contacted at


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