Dialectic, Trialectic, or Just Tell the Story?

I’m in the process of reading a fascinating environmental history of the Yellow River valley during late Song Dynasty China (AD 1048-1128). The author does a very good job telling the story and putting all the environmental, social, and governmental pieces into place leading up to the Big Flood Disaster. But oh, the theoretical jargon and the footnotes! The author handles it well as such things go and does not get lost in the thickets of theories and analyses at the expense of telling the story, unlike some. But still, I’m reminded of the gulf that can exist between academic historians and history readers, even when it is unintentional.

This, I suspect, is where a lot of readers would stop, put the book down, and contemplate backing away slowly. Or bursting into laughter and skipping ahead to see if the story ever picks back up: “This book investigates but does not dwell on various dialectical relationships, such as how the state wrestled with a region… Instead, [the book] explores complex relationships in which…the negotiation between a regional society and environmental disasters were not only mediated, appropriated, and destabilized by the imperial state’s changing policies but also affected the execution and results of such policies. In this sense the book explores the constantly evolving, open-ending  ‘trialectic’ complexity among the river, the plain, the state, and other small-scale subordinate entities.” (p.7)

When you trim through the jargon and clauses, the author says that the goal is to show how complex the interactions between people and the environment really were, without using the usual simplifications and this vs. that of traditional environmental history. The prologue/introduction is where the historian is laying out the theoretical foundation for the work, with all the nods and qualifications required to allow other scholars to understand 1) where the writer is coming from, 2) which other history books this one is talking to, and 3) what new ideas or approaches or material the author is using. First books by academic historians generally have more of this, unless it is something that is directly challenging a major work or widely accepted thesis, in which case you, the writer, had better show all your work and exactly what you are addressing, why, and how you got there from the generally understood consensus.

After the first book, many of us (academic historians) try to limit the theory and jargon to the introduction and write in a more readable style in the body of the book, saving the theoretical material for footnotes. I say many, because I have battered my way through fifth or sixth books that are just as heavy on the theory and scant on story as first books.

And that’s the danger. We focus on writing all the theoretical material, the conversations with other historians, and forget to include the events or processes we are supposed to be writing about in the first place. And the general reader, having been burned, wanders off to read something fun.

In the book cited above, things do improve once out of the prologue. Theory still intrudes but not as much, and the writing is pretty good as academic histories go, and as the limited source material permits. There are not many adventure-rich historical accounts from the Song Dynasty to draw from, and while historians know stuff was going on (invasions, floods, conspiracies, natural disasters), we can’t really find any first-hand accounts because that’s not how the records were kept. Court historians did not go around interviewing peasants and soldiers to get their accounts of what happened. Nor did anyone keep detailed, precise measurements of river flow, sediment load, and river channel depth. It’s amazing that enough survived to allow this book to be written at all, which is one of the important things about it, and why I’m reading it. It is the only work about this event and this period, and one of few in English that is drawn completely from the original Chinese sources.

But I’m not certain how many people with a general interest in China, or in rivers, will leap to buy it. It cost around $50, which is pretty steep for a 290 page book. And it is specialized in both the region and the time period it covers. For what I need, it is fantastic. But I’m an academic historian. Were I reading this for fun, I’d have hit the fifth page of the prologue, probably skipped ahead to see if things got better, and then possibly return it to the library.

Popular history doesn’t show all its work, especially the theoretical background and framework. Popular history focuses on the story. There’s a reason Stanly Vestal, David McCullough, and others are not as  highly esteemed by college-professor-type historians as they are by John Q. Reader. Popular history draws from academic history in some cases, but does not forget that it is the story that counts. And how many people will buy/rent the book and read the story. Academic historians don’t really worry too much about sales numbers, because they know they can’t make a living from their books. That’s what the college salary and research grants are for.

I’ll do a full review of this book later. But it is interesting how the academic bits leap out at me, now that I’ve been away from the business for a while.

Zhang Ling. The River, The Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128. (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

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