China’s history problems

On my recent trip to China — discussed here — I had a distinct sense of twenty-first century China being a country alienated from its past. Its modern past, the decades following the declaration of the “New China” following the CCP’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, is passed over in the public space, but for the ubiquitous visage of Mao Zedong (including the massive portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square that was recently vandalized and replaced).

The vacuum of the modern past seems to be filled, instead, with the hollowed-out and commercialized vestiges of the imperial past, the heirlooms of China’s ancient civilization that the CCP has “naturally” inherited. Tourist sites like the Forbidden City and Summer Palace are undoubtedly major moneymakers for the PRC, but they — and the past they represent — seem more like curiosities of a decadent past than a source of meaning for a China that is wholly uncertain about its identity.

Indeed, in looking for how the CCP views the past, I was struck, if not surprised, by the party’s efforts to cultivate an air of inevitability about its rule when visiting the museum of the Chinese Communist Party at the site of the first party congress in Shanghai; the party is presented as delivering China from its foreign enemies, the heir of earlier attempts to expel foreigners and overturn the weak rulers who had failed to defend China. Like all communists, the CCP views history simply as something to justify its hold on power, not as a force that can help the Chinese people think about who they are, what they value, and how they should relate to other countries.

With this in mind, it is worth looking at two articles linked to by the China Digital Times today. Each article in turn addresses a different aspect of the PRC’s history problem.

The first, by Henry Zhao in the New Left Review, looks at a debate between two Francophone Sinologists on the relevance of Confucianism as a means of looking at the revival of classical learning within China. (For more on this phenomenon, and Yu Dan, the biggest beneficiary of the revival thus far, check out this article on Danwei.) In reviewing of Swiss Sinologist Jean-François Billeter’s Contre François Jullien, Zhao gives a succinct overview of Confucian thought, and its treatment in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he is clearly sympathetic to Billeter, who has argued that Confucianism cannot be separated from the political system it undergirded for millennia.

This is an important reminder as Confucianism sweeps China again — both for the Chinese people and for the CCP. While it is understandable that Chinese are interested in reclaiming an important part of their past that had been vilified under Mao, to re-embrace the past uncritically is no virtue either. The party, meanwhile, is surely cognizant that Confucianism, while giving absolute power to rulers and demanding obedience for the ruled, also included provisions for dynastic change when rulers failed to fulfill their duties properly. In any case, there is no question that the Confucius vogue is a product of the vacuum at the heart of Chinese identity.

A second article, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at California-Irvine, calls attention to Shanghai’s changing interpretation of its past as host to a foreign enclave. While I was indeed impressed by how pre-1949 history was presented in Shanghai in a relatively favorable light, the relegation of the early decades of communist rule — noted by Wasserstrom — to “Old Shanghai” (perhaps even “Old China”) should by no means be viewed as a welcome change.

In any other words, Japan is hardly alone in having problems searching for a usable past — and it is hardly the worst offender in the region, seeing as how the party that rendered China’s recent history “unusable” still sits, however uneasily, upon the Dragon Throne.

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