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Personality in popular history

by Anthony Webb, 8 October 2021

Can there be too much personality in popular history?

This post is a rumination on the pitfalls and promises of focussing a history book too much on personality… or not at all. Along the way I will touch upon the toilet habits of the first president of the China, the ancient secret to a healthy life, and the views of a talking mouse – so read on.

I am currently reading two books (reviews coming soon) covering 20th century Chinese history. While the period they cover is identical the way in which they approach the subject is totally different.

The first book “From Rebel To Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party” by Tony Saich has a focus on policy and politics – people are interesting only when they instigate or react to policies. The second “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth Century China” by Jung Chang is all about people with a focus (so far) on Sun Yat-sen – the “father of China” – and Chiang Kai-shek – the Nationalist party leader.

From Rebel Ruler vs Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

All brains and no brawn

From Rebel to Ruler aims to be comprehensive in its coverage of the political events: Saich is careful that we get to see what is going on in different parts of China and we get full disclosure of all the intra-party machinations.

At the end of each section it reflects on some of the causes of the events that it describes. For example: why was the Chinese communist party successful in taking over China? What is the balance between the various factors: the importance of Soviet support? nationalist feeling provoked by the Japanese invasion? the socio-economic policies of the Communist party? incompetence of their enemies? and just plain luck?

We get very little idea of what the movers and shakers were like as people – were they nice to their romantic partners? were they good to their friends? This is all left unsaid: Saich is only interested in whether they were politically effective or not.

Say that again?

The content is excellent but because it is so dry and analytical it is difficult to absorb. I have found myself needing to re-read paragraphs because my eyes slid over the page without making any sense of the words. Although – full disclosure – lack of sleep from looking after a restless two year old has also had an effect.

So it is great stuff but I suspect my retention rate will be pretty poor when I am finished.

Personality as history

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister on the other hand tells us a lot about what the movers and shakers were like as people. For example when introduced to Yuan Shikai the first president of China we are told that:

“Yuan’s personal habits were conservative. After bathrooms were introduced to the presidential palace, he still eschewed the flush toilet, preferring his old wooden stool” (sic)

Jung Chang, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

And if that’s not enough personal detail:

“The route to a healthy life for him was the ancient Chinese recipe of drinking human milk; two wet nurses were employed to squeeze their milk into a bowl for him.”

Jung Chang, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister

I’m not going to forget that in a hurry… but did I need to know it in the first place?

Great men of history – but what about everyone else?

Politics as described by Chang is basically biography: the battle of wills between powerful men (who sometimes listened to their wives). The reason the Chinese republic failed for instance is in large part due to the megalomania of Sun Yat-sen who sold-out China to the Russians in order to finance his modern army (later inherited by Chiang Kai-shek).

And because biography is fundamental to the book we get the scandalous details of Sun Yat-sen’s private life: he was happy to use and discard anyone he came across, from his wives and concubines to his brother and children, seemingly qualmless.

But we don’t get to hear about why so many people did follow and respond to Sun. He becomes a cipher for a socio-political movement but that movement itself is anonymous. Is Sun riding a horse steering at will, or riding a wave and following the current? We are left guessing.

What is your learning outcome?

I am really enjoying the book but what am I learning? I suspect I will come away with a bunch of anecdotes which I can use to needle my wife (who is from China and Chinese friends (Sun Yat-sen is still seen as a pretty great guy). But no real understanding of why things turned out as they did.

The benefits of biographical bridging

One aspect of biographical history that does work well is that a cradle to grave story can go beyond the typical stopping points: for example: life doesn’t stop when the communist party took over China but many history books do. Equally following a lifetime can tie together different historical “periods” in a very natural way.

Neither too hot nor too cold

So where do I end up? After having denounced right deviation and left deviation I need to make a case for the central ground.

I think popular history needs strong characters because that is how humans tell and remember stories. They can also be an entry point to a different time or place because our brains are hard-wired to empathise.

But if we forget that the characters are a product of their society and that they are constrained in how they operate by that society we end up with “legendary history”: a few heroes using their superhuman powers explain everything. History becomes an-only-slightly-more-sophisticated Just So story. We think we know everything but we understand nothing.

Conclusion: celebrate in style

How do we achieve this middle ground? I am a twitter follower of the Mouse Bishop of St Albans (@MouseBishop – surprisingly well informed for a mouse) who worries (on Twitter) that academics are concerned about writing too accessibly as this may make them less credible. As a first step perhaps we have to encourage (compel?) all of our academics to write for the public and celebrate it when they do.

And maybe I also need to be more open minded. Perhaps I should also celebrate more the “biography as history” category because if the choice is reading nothing about the past or reading and enjoying something… the latter is better and may kindle a deeper interest. I should also remember that it wasn’t too long go that I wrote a post arguing that it doesn’t matter if history is wrong (as long as you try to get it right).

The deeper answer may be that whether it is good or bad, just reading one book is never enough!


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