As a profession anyway. Historians are notorious for thinking that the past matters a lot, and most of us even think the past matters even if it has nothing to do with the present. (We’re weird that way) If you are a China historian, however there are always peoplewho are only interested in the contemporary rise of China. Whenever I ask my Modern China students why they are taking my class I usually get a lot of them who are interested in “how China got where it is now” by which they usually mean (even if they don’t yet know it) events since 1983. 1 To some extent I don’t mind this. At most small schools China historians will be the only China person there, and talking about contemporary China is part of the job. Part I like too. I find China today fascinating, and giving half-baked opinions on it is a lot of fun. Plus I’m told by colleagues in less trendy fields that this public interest is why people are always shoveling money at me. (Using very small shovels, I might point out)
All that said, I’m glad I’m not Jonathan Spence. He is currently giving the Reith Lectures in England, and apparently the format is 20 minutes of Spence talking about Chinese history followed by 40 minutes of questions about contemporary China. Given that “the value of history is in its relevance to the present” this is not that surprising, and Spence’s choice of topics probably did not help. It would be refreshing to me, however, if Chinese history in the West could draw at least some audience of people who thought that Confucius, like Socrates, was worth knowing about even if it had nothing to do with your stock portfolio, and who thought that the White Lotus was just as interesting/important/cool as the Wars of the Roses even if neither of them has much to do with Darfur.
Blogposts also tend to get more attention if they are focused on the present. ↩