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·Liao Xuesheng

Liao Xuesheng, male and from the Han ethnic group, born in July 1936, is a native of Xianning, Hubei Province and a member of the Communist Party of China. In December 1960, he graduated from the department of history of St. Petersburg University. He is a Researcher of the Institute of World History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His academic expertise is in world history and ancient Greek history. Since 1992, he has enjoyed a special allowance awarded by the State Council.



Adhere to and Develop Historical Materialism


       Chen Yuwu (hereinafter referred to as Chen): Mr. Liao, I am so glad to have this opportunity to interview you. We know you studied at Wuhan University, then pursued further study in the Soviet Union, and then worked in the research institute. Can you tell us what process you used to pursue your studies?


Liao Xuesheng (hereinafter referred to as Liao): speaking of study, I didn’t have any real advantages; I was also so busy that I didn’t have time to read books. However, to be honest, I am very lucky compared with others.


First, it was "inherent shortage”. Though my family was very poor when I was a child, my parents positively supported my studies. In 1942, I started to go to primary school and the infrastructure was very poor. My home town was in the Heshengqiao rural area, Nianning county, Hubei province, which is located in the south of Wuhan, next to the Yuehan railway, so it had some strategic significance. After Wuhan was occupied by the Japanese invaders, my hometown became a base for them from 1938 to 1945. Under these conditions, which was full of bad polices, bad men, and under the white terror that was Japan's military that always arrested people as they wanted and during the days when the life of the people was miserable, it was impossible for children like me from poor families, to get a good and enlightened education. 


Next, it was “innate shortage”. In 1960, which was the last year I studied in the Soviet Union, I was elected as the secretary of the branch of the Party. Facing the reality that the Sino-soviet relationship had worsened, the thoughts of the Chinese students in the Soviet Union were very complicated. Besides, the position of secretary was a very important leader in the Party, so its relevant work used a lot of energy. Therefore, I was so busy that I had very limited time to study and I had to make the best of it to study. Since 1961 when I started to work in the history research institute of China Academy of Sciences and became a member of the world history team, the domestic political movement began and lasted for a long time. During the period from the time that I came back to the end of the "cultural revolution" in 1976, I almost didn’t do anything related to academic research. In 1963, I was assigned to engage in a “modern history seminar” which was conducted by Mr. Lishu. The specific task of it was to collect “revisionist speeches” from Russian history books. I joined in the editing work of Foreign Historiography Trends magazine with the focus on “anti-revisionism” in our country.


In September 1964, Kangsheng said: “all people who engage in social science should go to the rural areas to experience the peasants’ daily life.” Therefore, people like me had to go to the rural areas for "four clean-ups" with most of my colleagues from the World History Laboratory. First, in the beginning, I stayed in Haiyang county, Shandong province. In June, 1965, I came back to Beijing and few days later, was sent to Fangshan for the second stage of the "four clean-ups". The "culture revolution" began before the end of the "four clean-ups" in Fangshan, so I came back to the institute again. From this experience you can see why I didn’t have time to read books. During the period when I worked for the “Modern History Seminar", my leader allowed me to read some professional history books on the ancient Greeks at night in response to my request. I didn’t have any opportunities or have access to any foreign books except for a few of the works of Mao Zedong and the works of Marx and Engels when I was sent to the rural area later. 


The “innate shortage” which mentioned is that my golden age passed away just like that. To be honest, I don’t have many achievements to show off.


After the end of the “great cultural revolution", I was 40 when I first started to do academic research. I still thought I was very lucky as I could still do research. To me, the luckiest thing is that nearly all of my books and many kinds of foreign language dictionaries were preserved. However, after 40, I didn’t have enough time to read books and write, because I had been granted many titles such as the backbone, the tutor, the deputy director, and the director, which all represented responsibility. Therefore, the time that I had to get down to reading and writing was very limited.


In 1978, we started to recruit graduate students, and I was designated as one of their tutors in world history. I was still a research assistant at that time. I became a tutor of the three masters at the ”first stage of Huangpu” as a research assistant that was very weird and could only happen under those special conditions.


Later, I was assigned to edit the Great China Encyclopedia· the Volume of World History for 8 years, which was proposed by Hu Qiaomu and was also necessary. Except for teaching and editing the Great China Encyclopedia, I also engaged in some other work such as the Biography of Foreign Historical Famous People and the Foreign History Memorabilia etc., which were conducted by the director of our institute.


I feel lucky too. Although my family was very poor when I was young, I could at least go to school; although the conditions in school were poor, I could at least learn something. After the new China was founded, my study conditions greatly improved. In 1950, I passed the exam and was admitted to study in the second middle school in Liwuchang, Hubei province, which was located beside Ziyang Lake of Wuchang, before I studied in high school. Then, I was admitted to study in the best middle school in Wuhan, Wuchang experimental middle school. I graduated after 2.5 years and was enrolled in the history department of Wuhan University. Besides, I got a grant in high school before going to university.


In 1953, when I was due to graduate from high school, the youth league hoped to choose some outstanding people for posts. Of course, it was a big honor if you were picked. The number of students across the whole city that were eligible was 15, our school counted for 5, and our class counted for 3 of those, so I had an opportunity to work for the Wuhan Municipal Party Committee of the Communist Youth League for two months during summer vacation. At that time, people didn’t have ideas about pursuing fame and wealth for themselves, and what we thought was how to contribute to our country regardless of that the types of jobs we were doing. After coming first in the university entrance exam, I gained admission to the history department of Wuhan University. The Communist Youth League decided to let me go to university. University students were seriously insufficient at that time.


I met many good teachers at Wuhan University, such as Wu Yuyu, Li Jinnong, Tang Changru and some other scholars. In 1954, I was sent to preparatory school to prepare to study in the Soviet Union. I went to study at the Soviet Leningrad University, and my task was to study the history of ancient Greece. On January 13th, 1961, I came back to Beijing. There, I also met many good teachers, classmates and good Chinese seniors, etc., who gave me much support and help.


In my life, to me, the luck thing was to solve the problem regarding the outlook on revolutionary life. The whole social atmosphere was very good after the establishment of the new China; people became their own masters, everybody was in a happy mood; our country was better day by day. I felt very honored to be given the chance to study at Wuhan University and in the Soviet Union, which made me a highly motivated person. The new change in China, the experience of the old society and the environment across the whole of society all made me solve my outlook on life very early. Obeying the Party, complying with the arrangement of organization, doing things honestly, to be an honest person, working hard to build a new China and a socialist society were taken for granted and as a matter of course and our duty. My belief in Marxism was from the bottom of my heart. Besides, my studies were in philosophy social science, so I read many Marxist works. The outlook on life is very important to the development of a person. Although I went through many setbacks, I wasn’t affected by the unhealthy ways and customs. Therefore, I could persist in volunteering to study Marxism and apply it into guiding my research in to being a true person. 


      Chen: the function of history is a mirror of the present. Ancient world history is very long and what it means to the present? How do you handle the relationship between the ancient and modern?


      Liao: the origin of human culture is an eternal question. Besides, the influence that Greek culture plays on European culture and then plays on world culture is very great, so it plays a very important role.


We should research ancient history and modern history well, which cannot be separated completely though they have their own emphasis respectively. Especially on the theoretical level, it can’t do without comprehensive knowledge. The study of World history can’t get good results if we separate the past and the present, separate China or anywhere else in the world. It is the same when researching ancient and modern history which requires us to think about our country and our people.


Historiography is certainly relevant to ideology. Isolated from ideology, it is impossible for any historiographer to become a “pure historiographer”. The people who advocate weakening the ideology of historiography also have their own ideologies. Marxism is designed to serve the laboring people and humanity's liberation, which is its nature. Marxism doesn’t avoid the nature of the Party, and meanwhile, it is really the most scientific science. There is no other scientific system that can reveal the laws of development of human society like Marxism.


From the academic theory, the most rigorous social economic form of theory is the five forms theory of Marxism. No one can deny it from the combination of theory and historical facts. Of course, we should enrichen, perfect and develop it. We should believe it is a science and study its system again and again. It is not an easy thing to master the system. We should not stop after scratching the surface and study it further and deeper.


    Chen: how did you deal with the relationship between world history and ancient Greek history? Are there any conflicts between this kind of whole study and individual study?


    Liao: it depends on how you understand history as a whole. I originally studied ancient history, but you know ancient history can’t be isolated from modern history. I believe in the successive social economic forms of historical materialism. If you really want to know about the influence of ancient Greece, you should know modern history. The reality of China forced me to study ancient history and modern history at the same time. For example, to criticize the "oriental autocracy", I have to study ancient and modern political theories at the same time. Again, for example, in fact, most of my time was used to study modern history when I was the director of an institute. The leader let me to serve as the director of an institute to manage the institute, in which most people studied modern history, so I didn’t know what I should talk to them about? My work forced me to learn about various academic developments.


In addition, I had to engage in culture construction and the ideological struggle. Several books that I had written and edited all have some background on this. For example, when the Ministry of Public Security who assigned us to edit the Knowledge of World History for the police nationwide, I was the head of the world history institute so I couldn’t shirk this responsibility. Fifteen Lectures about the World History was assigned to us by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the CPC and the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the CPC, and it took our group several years to accomplish it. Great Historic Change of 21st Century was a research project which was planned by the National Social Science Fund because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the great changes in the world, which needed to be summarized and studied carefully. It took my group seven years so I didn’t have so much time to work on my personal favorite things.


       Chen: How to deal with difficulties in language, culture, materials, etc. when studying world history?


        Liao: there were many difficulties to studying world history well and the most basic method is to have a high sense of responsibility, right learning methods and perseverance. It is difficult for Chinese people to study ancient Greek history, and it is not just about several books.


        First, we should overcome challenges including language, culture, and knowledge background. It also involved many challenges about theory of historical materialism.


We should read the materials that have been translated, though studying world history couldn’t rely on the translated materials or it would lead to big problems, as many things couldn’t be translated such as ancient decrees and regulations. Many government posts are hard to translate. We could understand some words’ meaning when referring to the reference books at least. It is difficult to learn this kind of language well. It is common for a person who studies ancient world history to master more than ten languages. I studied English in middle school and high school; I studied Russian for two years at home and studied it specifically for three years in the Soviet Union. Ancient Greek and Latin were required courses. Besides, I also learned a little German in university. 


Actually, I gained my cultural background knowledge from scratch. For me, I always knew little about ancient Greek and Roman not only in Wuhan but also later in Beijing. About Greek mythology, I had to remember, understand and be familiar with those myths one by one, though it is general knowledge to the Soviets.


The Soviet Union took paid a lot of attention to the teaching of and study of Marxism. The students from the history department had to study the Party’s history of the Soviet Union, philosophy history, logistics, political economics, etc, while the teachers asked us to read many original works of Marx, Engels and Lenin and also checked our notes. We had many discussions in class, the number of which was about 3 to 4 per week. Everyone should give a speech and prepare themed report. This atmosphere forced me to study and I nearly spent all of my time studying except for eating and sleeping. My stay in the Soviet Union was like that for five years.


To Chinese people, the most important and urgent thing to solve is foreign languages, though collecting materials is a very big challenge. During the period of the "cultural revolution", I did two things: the first was to read the works about Marxism and Leninism though I may be criticized for that; the second was to learn some foreign languages. During this period, much work couldn’t be continued, so I had time to read an English-Chinese dictionary, learn some languages such as French, Italian, Spanish, Albanian and so on. During the period 1982 to1983 when I made an academic visit to Greece, we studied Modern Greek for three months. I can’t be sure how good my foreign languages are, but I can say I understand some professional books at least. 


    Chen: in your opinion, the effects that the Soviet Union had on Chinese academia is very great, what do you think?


    Liao: I think the new China was just like a blank piece of paper when it was first liberated, and all of things just began to bloom. It had positive meaning when advocating learning from the Soviet Union though many people scolded the Soviet Union later (most of them just didn’t know about the Soviet Union). In fact, it was a positive thing when we introduced the Soviet research system, which had a significant effect on the development of historical science for the new China. After decades of development since the 1950s, the Soviet Union’s historical sciences have produced some achievements. Although the system in the Soviet Union is not perfect, it is of great significance for the new China.


In fact, how to understand and inherit the historiography heritage of the Soviet Union was a big project for the Chinese history field and even the whole of China faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. We needed to make out how scholars of the Soviet Union used Marxism to do historical research to explain the developed laws of society. There are many good things contained in the history of the Soviet Union. In 1867, in the preface of the first edition of Das Capital, Part 1, he said: “my point is recognize the development of economical social forms as the process of natural history.” Lenin attached great importance to this excellent view of Marx. After the October Revolution, the great achievement of Soviet scholars was adopting specific world historical materials to explain the alternative economic social forms. Although the work that they had done was not perfect, generally, it was positive. The great achievement of the historical academy of the Soviet Union played an invaluable role in promoting the spread of socialist ideology worldwide. Now, some people neglect and misunderstand the alternative theory of economic social forms in turn just because the socialist movement was at a low stage, which we should pay attention to. People think that what the Soviet union had achieved in the past was negative and everything in America is good just because of the collapse of Soviet union, which is dangerous and not right, and just a one-sided and superficial idea. The healthy development of Chinese historiography needs to be scientifically summarized and inherit the excellent cultural fruits from all countries in the world.


        Chen: we all know the issue about blood relationship that you always stress at the beginning of the slave owning society, which also is a supplement to Marxism. How did you discover it?


        Liao: slave owners and slaves were from different tribes with different blood at the beginning of the system of slavery.


There are two reasons that lead to the popularization of the slavery system. First, the constant development in production leads to the possibility of a exploitative relationship between people. Second, neighboring tribes had different propinquities, which is why this form of exploitation appears with the slavery system rather than others. 


An original society must be a blood society. People originated from animals, and the basic community is a clan tribe. At the beginning of exploitation when the producer had the ability to produce, the people wouldn’t exploit others who were in the same tribe as them. The early slaves must be prisoners of war or from other tribes. The increase in slaves lead to polarization among the rich and the poor in the same tribe. The head of the slave owners used his power to further control the general slave owners and people in the same tribe. The stronger ones control the weaker ones, and as a result, the weaker ones devolve into slaves.


The first group of slaves must be captured from the exterior, and in other words, the slaves that are exploited by the exploiter were from other tribes. It is common throughout the world, so there are no special rules in many places including China.


We can say Marx and Engels paid attention to the role of blood relationships in the process of primitive society. They couldn’t come to the right conclusion when they were alive, because the materials which obviously involved the relationship between blood and geopolitical position had not been discovered by archaeologists. The study of ancient Greek history, especially the Solon's reformation and Ancient Athens’ civil rights, facilitated my understanding of the relationship between blood and geopolitical position in early slavery society. As a Chinese person, the understanding of the ancient Chinese patriarchal system is good for my understanding of the role that clan tribal blood relations played in early slavery society. The study of ancient Roman law, Billund’s Hammar Rabbi Code in Cuba and other ancient laws enhanced my knowledge of it.


        Chen: the history of the world is different in different periods and different places, so it is very complex when studying it. Are there any common laws that can be appled? Is there a general trend related to research in to world history after 30 years of study since Chinese reform and opening up?


        Liao: the fundamental research of history is to study the rules of the development of history. The historical materialism of Marxism has solved it on the whole, and of course, it needs to be developed further.


The study of Chinese world history is always weak. We just copied the Soviet Union’s example after the founding of the New China. The education of historical materialism can’t be without world history, which was named “occupying the platform”, namely reading and cultivating talents. At that time, domestic scholars couldn't digest all of things brought from the Soviet Union in a short time.


Generally, Chinese people had their own ideas on world history research which began in the late 1970s. We can consider the founding of World History magazine as a symbol of it. Although it has progressed through 30 years of development, it is still weak overall. Before the "cultural revolution", we gave lectures on world modern history just before the end of the Second War. Now, the content of world modern history that we study is much wider. For example, no one studied church history, but now people not only study church history, but also study the history of religion. Therefore, from this point, we can find that something that couldn’t be studied before, now can.


However, there are some setbacks. For example, it was normal when talking about historical materialism before, but now, some people actually don’t talk about it. Every person just manages a piece of content in front of them. To some, feudal society has gone, slave society also has gone and capitalism is much better than socialism.


Overall, though the study of world history has made a little progress through decades of development, it can’t be overestimated.


        Chen: why did someone say that the clash and struggle can’t be avoided in the theoretical field?


        Liao: the big progress of economic globalization and international cultural communication determine the different debates between views in the ideological and theoretical field.


Now, why do we firmly adhere to the Marxist faith? That’s because many people don’t believe in Marxism any more. They think capitalism is the best and will live forever and there will be no other social forms. Before, it was the capitalist society, now, it is the capitalist society and it will be the capitalist society in the future.


For example, the Wittfogel’s so-called Oriental autocracy had its own background when introduced into China. There are some ideological debates about this. Wittfogel is a German who once took part in the communist international but he became an anti-communist after settling in America. Oriental autocracy, written by him, was against the Communist Party completely, which says that communism is totalitarian and not a democracy. A group of people once supported this point after the "culture revolution”. My major was ancient Greek history, so I had the right to say something about it because I know it is not right.


Historical materialism is a sharp weapon for combat. Once you master it, you will find human societal development has some laws. Besides, various social forms are connected with each other from ancient to modern times, and from aboard to home. You can’t make clear the clues of world history research unless we master historical materialism. Our ancestors had made it clear for us, what we need to do is specify it. Marx could not predict all of the issues that would happen in more than one hundred years after he died in the world. The great achievement that Marx made was revealing the basic laws of development of human society and indicated the direction where human society would go. Therefore, we can see that he had revealed the direction, law and trend.


       Chen: which part should we put great efforts in to for the research of Chinese world history to be developed?


       Liao: first of all, the leaders should attach more attention to it. World history in social sciences is similar to the math and physics in natural science, which is the most fundamental subject. There is only one science in the world, which was historical science, Marx once said. Thus, we can find out how history is important! The study of science is to reveal the truth but how to reveal it without the history? However, many leaders don’t think so for it can’t increase the GDP. Well, we should know that history is the basic subject. If the study of world history can’t be handled well, neither can Chinese history. Some important law can’t be made clear based on the history of one country.


If you want to understand foreign countries, it is not enough to just read translated materials. We should have a sense of mission as researchers from the national academic institution.


It is very difficult to truly adhere to historical materialism, which has nothing to do with historical materialism itself. Few people had access to historical materialism, such as Guo Moruo before the establishment of the new China. They only could do some research in the Chinese history field under limited conditions. After the establishment of the New China, we just copied something from the Soviet Union, some of which couldn’t be made the best of. At the end of the "cultural revolution", our environment had changed and we started to reflect on ourselves. On the whole, the fundament of Marxism is not solid in the Chinese academic community. During the "cultural revolution", many aspects of Marxism were distorted. Even after the "cultural revolution", some leaders couldn’t realize the importance of ideology and culture.


      Chen: you have been a leader for ten years. If there were conflicts between conscience and the things around you during the period when you conducted research and managed the world history institute, how did you handle them, such as positional title evaluation, applying for subjects, applying for publishing subsidies, subject selection, etc.? All of these will involve in resource distribution matters. How did you address them?


      Liao: first, I would cope with them with my conscience and based on the facts. To be honest, much of my time was not put into the academy. I always know clearly my own ability. My outlook on life was imposed earlyso I am not interested in flattery and speculation. I just complied with our Party's arrangements. I don’t fear anything, and don’t have any selfish desires. I don’t have any interest in being a government official or enjoyment.


I do my job just based on the principles. The world history institute is one of the institutes whose conditions are very poor in the Academy of Sciences of China. I don’t have any privileges in the world history institute.


      Chen: As an experienced person, do you have any advice for young people?


      Liao: first, faith is very important, we should keep our belief in Marxist theory: 1, we should have a firm stand; 2, we should pay attention to the accumulation of various knowledge. It should stress the research and mastering of the Marxist theory system. Under the environment that has changed constantly, Marxism is developing constantly. At the beginning of the new China, we just remembered and recited Marxist theory, and it was impossible for us to understand it truly and systemically. Now, our country is advocating the market economy and many people don’t study Marxism any longer since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many people who don’t have a firm outlook on the world are keen on advancement and wealth and don’t read Marxist theory any more. Besides, some views of Marxism may be wrong and we should figure what is wrong through deeply studying it. We cannot say it is not good before we find the shortcomings of it. Meanwhile, some errors can influence the system which is very narrow. Marxist thinking methodolgy will help you think, find the problems, and reason. We should concentrate our efforts when studying Marxism, especially the important works of classic Marxist writers which we should read and study again and again to study historical conditions and important basis that are put forward through important views of classical writers by combining them with the historical background.


Leadership should lay much stress on historical study. History is the most basic subject. If it can’t be done well, neither can other work. The study of Chinese world history is very weak, which needs to be greatly strengthened. It is very difficult to cultivate a talent who can make great achievements in the world history field. Now, the fields that many experts study are very narrow. Very few people can talk about some laws from ancient time to now. The narrower the person studies, the less qualified they are to do theory work. The team involved in world history research is very weak now and the back-up power is insufficient, which is related to the big environment.


As a basic tool, language is very important which I have addressed before.


We should pay attention the theory but we should refine and sublimate the materials rather than just get stuck in the materials. It is very hard to make progress in history research without the promotion of theory. For example, research in to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union couldn’t deliver any results without the right guidance of theory.


Classic Marxist writers advocated the unity of history and logic when doing research, which is the kind of purpose that we should pursue.


Translated by Li Junwei.


Editor: Wang Daohang

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