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
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.