Tag Archives: Chinese history

China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

seThe Long Read: The country’s rulers do not just suppress history, they recreate it to serve the present. They know that, in a communist state, change often starts when the past is challenged

Source: China’s memory manipulators | Ian Johnson

In November of 2002, my colleague and I went to Xi’an one weekend. At the time, the walls of the ancient city were being rebuilt, but there was a gap or perhaps about a kilometre left. There were large plaques up on the new walls proclaiming that the money for rebuilding the walls had come from UNESCO (I think; I can’t recall exactly). I realised in fairly short order that there’s very little in China which is more than about twenty-five years old. There may have been a temple on some site for 1,400 years, but the current incarnation is probably a recent “fake” built during the current dynasty. 大钟寺 in Beijing was being renovated when I visited it ten years ago, but how much of the building or the site was original beyond its boundaries, I can’t say.

Such places end up being little more than museums; a bit more than a building where relics are on display, but still little more than museums. I assume that most cathedrals in Europe, even if they are mainly modern tourist traps, are more than just the remains of history and are still functioning buildings. Of course some, such as Yonghe Gong (雍和宫) in Beijing are still in use; elsewhere, such as Fuzhou, where there are a lot of temples, they appear to be largely neglected.

One of the things I’ve also noted about my pupils in China is their ignorance of history, their knowledge of which, as far as I can tell, rarely goes beyond 1911, apart from key events in the 19th century such as the Opium Wars, which serve a nationalist agenda as a shorthand for something the wicked foreigners did to the Chinese Empire and something to distract people from the truth. My own knowledge of Chinese history may not be that detailed, but it seems to be more extensive than your average Chinese schoolchild, and although I’m not overlooking potential bias, my knowledge of the subject is at least not filtered through the grimy lenses of the Party’s self-serving view of history.

“Modern” China seems to be at about the level of Tudor England when Tudors usurped the throne (“It was empty, so I sat in it,” said Henry Tudor. “That makes me Henry VII”) with no legitimate claim to the kingdom, but plenty of propaganda behind them throughout their short-lived dynasty.

What if… The Opium Wars

More idle speculation.

As part of the theme of drugs, which we’ve been finishing off as we try to get through the remaining topics (not to mention everything else), we thought we’d look at drugs in history, and in particular at the Opium Wars.

They were the result of a trade imbalance with China in that the country was interested in nothing but silver for its goods. Opium from India flooded into China to such an extent that 90% of the male population of the eastern seaboard was addicted. (I assume that like today, smoking was a social habit in 19th-century China, which meant that it must have been nearly impossible to avoid addiction.) The Chinese enacted laws to outlaw the import of opium, and Lin Zexu, who was sent to deal with the matter, was resolute in his disposal of the drug.

This led to the First Opium War for which China was ill-prepared, having nothing which was able to counter a ship such as the Nemesis or the more modern technology which the British had at their disposal.

But what if there had been no Opium Wars? It is hard to imagine that there would not have been some conflict since other countries could not have sustained an endless flow of silver into China, but if there had been no conflict there would probably have been no Taiping Rebellion, no 1911 Revolution, and perhaps no civil war, thus sparing China the horrors of the first thirty years after 1949.

It is possible that someone in China might have seen the writing on the wall and have done something about trying to modernise the Empire, accepting that a head-in-the-sand attitude was going to damage it. Probably China would have remained a large, fragile, and backward entity in which the centre persisted in seeing unity where none really existed. Even without the Opium Wars there may still have been at least one revolution and the end of imperial China.

This is a complex what-if because I would not be surprised if the Japanese had invaded China anyway so that sooner or later, history would have happened as we know it. And even if that had not happened either, I would not be remotely surprised if China had still emerged much as it is today with its authoritarian government merely following from its predecessors.

The things that get left lying around

Stone me.

After I’d been to get some money from the ATM, I thought I’d check my other account. As I was walking down the lane to Maiyuan Lu, I spotted the stone tablet in the picture below. It has yet to be set on its plinth (top left of picture) and says 美国领事馆旧址 (měiguó lǐngshìguǎn jiùzhǐ) “Former site of the American Consulate”. The date on the left side of the tablet is January this year.

A few more signs like this around here could be quite informative. There’s the building next to the Girls’ College which, though decayed and usually defended by washing lines, looks very much like another consulate. Actually, there’s no guarantee that the current location of the tablet is its final resting place, and the building I’m thinking of could well be the former American consulate. It’d make more sense than either of the other buildings in that corner.