China’s past needs to be rewritten

By Gideon Rachman

How would a Chinese superpower treat the rest of the world? Anyone wanting to peer into the future could start by looking back at the past — or, at least, at the official version of China’s past. The message is not reassuring. China’s schoolchildren are being taught a version of history that is strongly nationalist. The official narrative is that their country was once ruthlessly exploited by rapacious foreigners. Only a strong China can correct these historic wrongs.

This official story has a lot of truth in it. China in the 19th and 20th centuries was indeed the victim of foreign imperialism. The trouble is that China’s official history lacks the quality that Maoism was meant to stress: self-criticism. If you visit the exhibitions in the vast National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square, you will see and read about the terrible things foreigners have done to the Chinese. There is almost nothing about the even more terrible things that Chinese people did to each other, largely because most of these crimes were committed by the Communist Party, which still runs the country.

A more honest debate about the past will be an essential part of China’s journey to a more open political system. A view of Chinese history that moves beyond a narrative of victimhood might also make China’s rise to global power smoother.

The galleries devoted to modern Chinese history in the m useum are called “Road to Rejuvenation”. In the first room, the visitor is treated to a prominent written introduction that proclaims: “The Chinese nation is a great nation whose people are industrious, courageous, intelligent and peace-loving.” The exhibition promises to show how the Chinese people “after being reduced to a semi colonial, semi feudal society since the Opium War of 1840 rose in resistance against humiliation and misery and tried in every possible way to rejuvenate the nation.”

The n ational m useum is well-displayed and full of interesting objects. But, the political message is crude and insistent. The exhibits on the Opium War are accompanied by an explanation that “imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people”. Acres of space are devoted to the Japanese invasion of the 1930s — but the Chinese civil war between nationalists and communists is given relatively cursory treatment. My student guide explained: “That’s not so interesting, that’s just Chinese people fighting Chinese people.” Read more…

Gideon Rachman is chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times.

As published in www.ft.com on March 12, 2012.


Kong Wong March 14, 2012 - 3:49 am

Mr. Rachman basically wants to teach Chinese his version of the history. In his view, and in the western view, the Chinese communist party is inherently evil. So he puts forth unconfirmed numbers likes 20Million Chinese died in man-made famine while purposely ignoring the fact that he nor any historian had the ability to verify the number of deaths, nor what the weather factor had in the famine itself. He wants to put on par, a surpressed uprising in 1989 with verified death in triple digits to a military massacre of Nanjing in 1937 with verified death of 300 thousands. Perhaps, instead of China rewritting its official history, Mr. Rachman should study it.

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