History and fictionality : Insights and limitations of a literary perspective

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387-402
Journal / PublicationRethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2004


In both China and the West, the literary quality of historical narratives has been fully recognized. In recent postmodern theories, however, the recognition of history as narrative is given a radical interpretation that challenges not only the truth-claim of historical narratives, but also the very distinction between fact and fiction, reality and textuality. By drawing on both Chinese and Western sources, this article revisits the debate on history and fictionality, and refutes both the extreme position of insisting on the objective truth of historical representation and the completely relativist view that denies history the possibility of representing reality. Given the influence of the postmodern theories, it is particularly important to acknowledge the difference between historical and literary narratives. History as narrative shares with literature elements of constructive imagination, but it ultimately depends on a core of facts verifiable by non-linguistic means. When we realize that the truth recovered from the past in historical writing is not final and absolute, but can be improved to approximate the true, we can both accept the truth-claim of historiography and subject that claim to further investigation and modification. © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Research Area(s)

  • Chinese historiography, Fictionality, History, Postmodernism, Relativism