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Editor's note: This is an interview with Mr. Liu Zhiwei by a student from Xinya College. The interviewer is Wang Jingshu, a PPE student enrolled at Xinya College in 2016. The interview was carried out on June 28, 2018.

Q: Hello, Mr. Liu. The seminar on "Reading of Chinese Civilization" in the semester just ended. To be honest, the students felt it quite difficult about the class for the past eight weeks. As the teacher of the course, how do you feel?

A: To put it simply, I was quite surprised in the first place. I taught a general education course before, and I know students not majoring in history. We also talked about history. For those not majoring in history, what I worry most about is that they may be greatly influenced by the historical records read in middle school or imagined about. No matter what bookthey read, they would try to put it back into their existing system of history. Then they may feel resistant to it if failing to do that. The case is commonly seen. I was a little surprised, however, by the students in this class in the first week. I thought they did not know much about archaeology and it might be difficult for them, but they did well. Then it was different from what I expected for the following units. I was surprised that you worked so hard to give your own understanding and restate what you read.When I read the homework collected every Monday, I would be excited and thought "how is it possible". Basically I didn’t need to say more about it.

Of course, I said so because first most of you do not major in history, and second, you read a lot and obtained more information than you should in such a short period of time, and would state what you gained, learned and questioned about in your own way. On that basis, I am very surprised to see that you did so well.

Also, when you did the presentation, what you reported is consistent with but did not strictly follow what you wrote, for which I felt happy. I remembered the other day when Kong Xiangrui said that he would complete the representation within three minutes,andthen he did it perfectly. Generally speaking, it can only be achieved by the experienced.

Of course, there are some problems. Mr. Gan let you read too much. It will enrich your thought but you may not think deeper. Of course, you don’t need to think deep in class sometimes. You just need to think about what you read. That’s enough. In this case, the course was totally beyond my expectation. I need to reconsider what should be expected and achieved for students not majoring in history with the education on history.

Also you attended and are attending other courses. You don’t link them together out of no reason but I know that you are reminded of what you learn from other courses when reading history. You would occasionally refer to that, but it was appropriate. I also feel happy for that. Reading different books and taking different courses at the same time are a means to process knowledge as a whole, instead of making do with other courses.

Q: What characterizes the students in PPE at Xinya College other than courses, in your opinion?

A: They are people who read. Many people hardly read today. You are voracious readers.

Q: What do you mean by reading?

A: Just picking up a book and read it. I know many students who don’t really pick up a book and read it. Good students listen carefully and take notes in class, while bad ones don’t read.You don’t necessarily read the same book or with the same quantity, but basically you read. It may sound like a low requirement, but it is already a high one today.Books are published in large number though, very few people actually read them.

You have a clear mind and excel in this regard not only other students but also some professors who are really muddle-headed. I don't see any logical confusion or obvious mistake in you. There is a clear logic in what you wrote and presented. I feel very happy inside when reading your homework. I am most afraid of logical mess. You are good at writing and language skills.

Q: Can you say more about our shortcomings (laughs). What do we need to improve?

A: They are far from shortcomings, because I have always emphasized that you do not major in history. I am satisfied with what you have done with those specialized history books. Of course, you are still at a shallow and preliminary stage if you really want to learn more about the history and related issues in these eras that you are in contact with. They are not shortcomings. You don’t need to make any improvement as you don’t do historical studies. I teach history. If history majors hand in assignments like this, I will admire them for the great ideas and clear thinking on the one hand. On the other hand, I will remind them that every specific issue can be explored further based on understanding, and they should find out the layers of history behind such expressions and propositions. You are undergraduates and not majoring in history, so such a requirement is too high. They cannot be regarded as shortcomings because you just need to talk about reading experience instead of doing research. I need to remind you that when you do other kinds of research in the future and look back to these historical issues, you should know that it is more complicated than what you see on the surface, and you need to look at it from more aspects.

Q: What is the difference between reading history and doing historical research?

A: The difference is not so big. And it can sometimes be to your advantage. The historical study in China today is problematic regarding the history books used for middle schools and universities, the historical concepts and methods, and the discourse behind it. You haven’t taken much of it, and it is actually good. So we don’t compare it with historical research in general because the current historical research is unsatisfactory. In terms of academic concepts, values and ways of thinking, many treatises on history are not even as good as your reports.

But we can’t do that. We can’t compare with the superficial or cliche. We need to focus on the cutting-edge research on history. The new is not necessarily the cutting-edge. Many of the books you read this time were published years ago. In fact, they are much more cutting-edge and profound than some new ones. Whether they are classical and cutting-edge is not judged by the date of publication. As long as they are not replaced with new research, even those published 100 years ago are cutting-edge. The books recommended by Mr. Gan this time are all classical and cutting-edge. Even written 100 years ago, they go beyond the general understanding of history now. About the "Kodansha" series, they are not well written, but there is an advantage. It is significantly different from the general system of Chinese history that we are familiar with. The significant difference can bring you a different vision instantly. Each book is different, so you can see in these books that history can be interpreted from different perspectives. Also, you will know better about history by reading some classic studies.

Q: So how can we avoid blind reading?

A: You should read the classics! You should read those that have been recognized by the academic circle! Of course, not all the classics are necessarily good, but basically they should hold the vision and sight due for history. Many of the books we read this time were written by scholars deceased, such as Michio Tanigawa and Tian Yuqing. It is the case for humanities where real classics cannot be surpassed.You can say that you have moved forward, but still on the basis of your predecessors. Do not blindly trust those books that seem refreshing. Be careful.You should know that human beings are progressing step by step in terms of both intelligence and the understanding of themselves and the world. Any new ideas that suddenly pop up are just new if without any root. They are not necessarily good. Be careful when reading them.

Q: What about the New Qing History?

A: I think many people have misunderstandings about it. They have learned about it from controversial articles. Actually, controversies exist in a specific context. Scholars who criticize New Qing History have some intellectual anxiety, and we can understand their sense of crisis. However, we should figure out the context in which they criticize, instead of finding out about the intentions and opinions of the authors of New Qing History based on their criticism. Their misunderstanding about New Qing History shows their sense of crisis and their worry about being led to a certain direction. But I don’t think the focus of New Qing History should be placed on the Manchus as the dominant factor. In fact, the Chinese scholars in Qing history have never ignored the factors of Manchuria, Mongolia, Central Asia, and inland. Emphasizing the factor of Inner Asia does not mean denying Chinese localization. We need to put the controversy back into its context and should not replace the context of controversy with the discourse of academic research.

Q: So maybe we are too sensitive?

A: Because we have a certain understanding of history, which may be narrow and prejudiced. In fact, the academic circle has always brought in the factors of Manchuria and Inner Asia as well as Chinese localization together for the study of Qing history. Those who praised New Qing History thought that Chinese scholars did not know it before and it was told by foreign scholars; those who opposed New Qing History thought that our history is intended to be replaced. Of course, different scholars have different research focuses and different abilities. For example, those who don’t know Manchu and don’t do national-level research put less emphasis on Manchuria, Mongolian and Inner Asian factors, but it does not mean that these factors can be de-emphasized in the study of Qing history. I have been able to clearly detect these factors since I started to read works on Qing history as a student. There are also many people in the circles of Qing history studying Manchu and using Manchu archives. There have always been scholars doing it and we don’t need foreigners to teach us. So the foreigners did not come up with anything completely different from what we know. Therefore, we do not have to emphasize that they have ulterior motives.

Q: Next year, you will give a course on economic history at Xinya College. What do you expect for us about that course?

A: I'm actually still thinking about it now, because I teach economic history in a way different from what you are familiar with. I'm a bit doubt if it should be offered to non-history majors. But I kind of want to do that. Because I think you may need my course more if you don’t select history in the future. It seems more important to understand the Chinese economy since you will become elite in various fields. The research on economic history now sees an obvious tendency. That is to simply apply economic theories and concepts. These theories and concepts can never be abandoned for the research. Economic history cannot be separated from economics, because it is part of economics and must be dwelt upon with modern academic concepts. Meanwhile, we should not apply them mechanically. For example, the GDP is also taken into consideration in the study of economy in ancient times. However, to calculate the GDP requires a unified market. Without it, how can we do the calculation? Most of the products in rural China do not enter the market at all, and the life-sustaining resources for hundreds of millions of people or even a billion people are not included for the GDP calculation, so I don’t think it is appropriate to study the economy in ancient times by calculating the GDP. Of course we can do estimates, but it does not make too much sense. It is often said that economic history research used to be descriptive, but now it needs to be scientific and precise. The problem is, such estimates are actually descriptive. The resulting information is no different than descriptive. So I think that in the economic history class, we can try to read historical documents instead of papers. We don’t need to read too much. We should try to figure out some documents written by people at that time on the economic issues then.

On June 19, 2019, the "Economic History" course for students in PPE at Xinya College ended. Mr. Liu Zhiwei treated students to pizza and they chatted together.

Q: You have lived in Tsinghua for a few months. What impressed you most?

A: The biggest difference between Beijing and Guangdong is that there are many universities, many students and scholars. I am most impressed by the crowded scene in the lecture hall. A lecture on history could actually attract hundreds of people. It will never happen in Guangdong.

This semester, We held eight public lectures as a supplement to the course. I was stunned by the crowd in every lecture. I would have felt great if it had attracted 30 or 50 people in Guangdong. However, I ignored the fact that there are a lot of universities and students in Beijing. A lecture would gather a considerable number of people even if only one-thousandth of students of each department come. Mr. Gan Yang selected those with the great academic attainments in the field of history as speakers. The other scholars had a keen eye on research and general history. I have learned a lot from their lecturers.

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