China’s memory manipulators: by Ian Johnson

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

When I first went to China in 1984, my fellow foreign classmates and I at Peking University used to play a game with an old guidebook. Called Nagel’s Encyclopaedia Guide: China, it was first published in 1968 in Switzerland and featured descriptions of important cultural sites visited by French diplomats and scholars. The key for us was that they had gathered the information in the 1950s and the early 1960s. In other words, this was just before Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed tens of thousands of places of worship and historic sites across China. We would look a place up in Beijing and set off on our bikes to see what was left.

I remember one trip to find the Five Pagoda Temple, which was built in the late 15th century and featured five small pagodas on top of a massive stone platform. Nagel’s said most had been destroyed in the turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that the five pagodas were still there. Our 1980s maps of Beijing showed nothing, but Nagel’s intrigued us. Did it still exist?

We rode down Baishiqiao Street and tried to superimpose Nagel’s maps of old “Pékin” on our maps of an exhausted, post-Cultural Revolution Beijing. Eventually we had to stop and ask. After many fruitless efforts, we were led through the gates of a factory and into the temple, which was hidden in the back. All that was left was the large stone platform, topped by five stone pagodas. Tiles had fallen off the roof, and slabs of stone bearing inscriptions and decoration lay smashed on the ground. Weeds grew everywhere. Still, we walked the grounds with a sense of wonder: here was something that had vanished from today’s maps, and yet it existed. In one structure we had the story of China’s cultural grandeur, foreign invasions, auto-cultural destruction, but also of survival. Here, thanks to our odd guidebook, we had Chinese history in a nutshell – the past and the present.

Observing China sometimes requires a lens like Nagel’s. Walking the streets of China’s cities, driving its country roads, and visiting its centres of attraction can be disorienting. On the one hand, we know this is a country where a rich civilisation existed for millennia, yet we are overwhelmed by a sense of rootlessness. China’s cities do not look old. In many cities there exist cultural sites and tiny pockets of antiquity amid oceans of concrete. When we do meet the past in the form of an ancient temple or narrow alleyway, a bit of investigation shows much of it to have been recreated. If you go back to the Five Pagoda Temple today, you will find a completely renovated temple, not a brick or tile out of place. The factory has been torn down and replaced by a park, a wall, and a ticket booth. We might be on the site of something old, but the historical substance is so diluted that it feels as if it has disappeared.

What does this tell us about a country? Optimists feel a sense of dynamism – here, at last, is a country getting on with things while the rest of the world stagnates or plods forward. This is always said with amazement and awe. The apex of this era of wonder came shortly before the 2008 Olympics, when the western media tripped over itself trying to trot out the most effusive praise for China’s rise/transformation/rejuvenation – pick your cliche. Typical was a New York Times architectural critic, who raved upon arrival in Beijing in 2008 about “the inescapable feeling that you’re passing through a portal to another world, one whose fierce embrace of change has left western nations in the dust” and concluded that “one wonders if the west will ever catch up”.

Other emotions are more ambiguous. The bluntest I have experienced is this: a country that has so completely obliterated and then recreated its past – can it be trusted? What eats at a country, or a people, or a civilisation, so much that it remains profoundly uncomfortable with its history? History is lauded in China. Ordinary people will tell you every chance they get that they have 5,000 years of culture: wuqiannian de wenhua. And for the government, it is the benchmark for legitimacy in the present. But it is also a beast that lurks in the shadows.

It is hard to overstate history’s role in a Chinese society run by a communist party. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably towards communism, an argument that regime-builders such as Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rises to power. In China, Marxism is layered on top of much older ideas about the role of history. Each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor’s history, and the dominant political ideology – what is now generically called Confucianism – was based on the concept that ideals for ruling were to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance mattered, but mainly as proof of history’s judgment.

That means history is best kept on a tight leash. Shortly after taking power in 2012 as chairman of the Communist party, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping re-emphasised this point in a major speech on history published in People’s Daily, the official party newspaper. Xi is the son of a top party official who helped found the regime, but who fell out with Mao, and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought that Xi might take a more critical view towards the Mao era, but in his speech, he said that the 30 years of reform that began under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, should not be used to “negate” the first 30 years of communist rule under Mao.

The unstated reason for Xi’s unwillingness to disavow the Mao era is that Mao is not just China’s Stalin. The Soviet Union was able to discard Stalin because it still had Lenin to fall back on as its founding father. For the Communist party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state. Five years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, the party issued a statement that condemned that era and Mao’s role in it, but which also ended further discussion of Mao by declaring that “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”

But on a broader level, history is especially sensitive because change in a communist country often starts with history being challenged. In the 1980s, for example, groups such as the historical-research society Memorial morphed into a social movement that undermined the Soviet Union by uncovering its troubled past. Today’s China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the government’s grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history is legitimacy. Even though history is, by definition, past, it is also China’s present and future.

History suppressed?
Chinese cities are ghost towns. Not in the sense of real estate boondoggles – vast complexes built prematurely, lying empty, and crumbling – though there are some of those. Instead, the country’s urban centres are built on an obliterated past, which only sometimes seeps into the present through strange-sounding names for streets, parks, and subway stops.

In Beijing, like scores of cities across the country, streets are very often named after their relationship to things that no longer exist, ghostly landmarks, such as city gates, temples, memorial arches, and forgotten historical events. In the capital, for example, the Foreign Ministry is located on Chaoyangmenwai, or the Street Outside the Chaoyang Gate. Just a few hundred metres west, the street changes name to Chaoyangmennei, or the Street Inside the Chaoyang Gate. In between is the Second Ring Road. The streets’ names only make sense if you realise that the ring road was built on the site of the city walls, which had a passageway right there, Chaoyangmen, the Chaoyang Gate. The wall has become a highway and the gate an interchange. Nothing beyond the street names exists in the neighbourhood to remind you of either spectral structure.

It is always possible for a sceptic to downplay a phenomenon by saying, but wait, that exists elsewhere too. One could say that all cities have neighbourhoods or streets named after people or events long since forgotten to all but history buffs. This is of course true, but in China the cultural dislocation is greater, and the barriers to memory are higher. China does have online encyclopedias, as well as books that explain Beijing’s history. Some even sell well, such as the path-breaking work City Record, by the Xinhua news agency journalist Wang Jun. But these are heavily edited, and require cultural knowledge that most Chinese people today lack. Back in the 1990s, it was still possible to find citizen activists who fought to preserve the old city because it meant something to them. Nowadays, few real Beijingers live in the old city; they have been relocated to suburbs and replaced by migrants (poor ones from China’s hinterland, or rich expats) with no link to the city’s past. The city has its stories, but to most residents they are mysterious.... Read more:

see also

Popular posts from this blog

History Archive: Communist Party of India's resolution on Pakistan and National Unity, September 1942

The Almond Trees by Albert Camus (1940)

Mike Davis on COVID-19: The monster is finally at the door / Impact on the global poor / Capitalism vs human survival

The Assassination of Mahatma Gandhi: Inquiry Commission Report (1969)

Alexandre Koyré: The Political Function of the Modern Lie (1945) /John Keane: lying, journalism and democracy

Remembering Kunjpura

Covid County Simulator (valid for the USA, but with lessons for the world at large)