HISTORY OF CHINESE HISTORY
Joseph R. Levenson (1920-1969), a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote: “China’s past will be kept in mind, and fragments from its world of values valued. No radical westernisation will put an end to the historical significance of China.... Their modern revolution, against the world to join the world, against their past to keep it theirs, but past — was a long striving to make their own accounting with history.” Chinese history, until the twentieth century, was written mostly by members of the ruling scholar-official class and was meant to provide the ruler with precedents to guide or justify his policies. These accounts focused on dynastic politics and colorful court histories and included developments among the commoners only as backdrops. The historians described a Chinese political pattern of dynasties, one following another in a cycle of ascent, achievement, decay, and rebirth under a new family. [Source: The Library of Congress *]
Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past--a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. The events of history came to be presented as a function of the class struggle. Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party. *
A series of thought-reform and antirightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. In the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, however, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only historical study of traditional China but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Party. In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics, although a much greater range of historical topics has been discussed. Figures from Confucius--who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians--to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists is that Maoist-era historiography distorted Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980s, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely. Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development. *
China has no tradition of independent historical scholarship. Historians in imperial China were employed by the Emperor to write accounts to justify the Emperor's rule. The same could be said of modern historians in the Communist party. It was a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao's.
Barbara Demick wrote in The Atlantic: “In China, history long occupied a quasi-religious status. During imperial times, dating back thousands of years and enduring until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, historians’ dedication to recording the truth was viewed as a check against wrongdoing by the emperor. Rulers, though forbidden from interfering, of course tried. So have their successors. Among the most intent on harnessing history for political gain are the current leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. They routinely scrub Chinese-language scholarly books, journals, and textbooks of anything that might undermine their own legitimacy — including anything that tarnishes Mao Zedong, the founding father of the party. The effort, no small task, has not gone unchallenged. A web of amateur historians has been collecting documents and eyewitness testimony from the seven decades that have elapsed since the establishment of modern China in 1949. Guo Jian, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater who has translated some of their findings, describes the tenacious researchers as “the inheritors of China’s great legacy,” dedicated to “preserving memory against repression and amnesia.’’ [Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020]
Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History);
Facts and Interpretations of History in China
It is hard to rely on facts from Chinese — especially Communist era — documents and historical records. Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: We sometimes lose track of the fact that officials write reports for all sorts of reasons, with reporting the truth rarely among them. When Communist officials report that Nationalists have infiltrated the Party, one is not sure that this really is the case. Perhaps a score is being settled. In one respect it doesn’t matter: if Mao read the report and believed it, then its veracity is secondary.” Often writers and historians “do not discuss such nuances, giving the impression that these reports are facts.” Then its also often difficult to gain access to information on issues of great importance. “For all the talk of archival treasures, the real archives we need — for example the records of such major events as the death of Mao’s designated successor, Lin Biao — are under Communist Party control, meaning they are just as inaccessible now as they were” in the past. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016]
The West has traditionally look upon history in terms of material progress---from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, for example---while the Chinese have traditionally emphasized history's continuity, especially in terms of the Chinese remaining Chinese through all of history's changes and upheavals. Confucianism, the Imperial system, the Chinese written language are all credited with helping China maintain its Chineseness.
History promulgated today by the Communist Party is molded to fit the four main stages of the Marxist concept of social development: 1) primitive society; 2) slave society; 3) feudal society; and 4) semi-feudal/ semi-colonial society.
Many towns and even villages have local, amateur historians. Often they are quite knowledgeable and have researched their topics of expertise quite thoroughly even though their education never advanced beyond the sixth grade.
The Chinese are great practitioners of revisionist history, especially today. Historians and textbooks make a point of highlighting the atrocities and injustices committed against the Chinese by the West but brush over atrocities and injustices committed by Chinese against others, such as their invasions of India and Tibet, and have made nationalistic claims such as that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, founded in northern Korea, was Chinese not Korean.
Sima Qian (145 B.C.-?) is regarded as China's greatest historian. His "Records of the Historian" contains 520,000 characters and is regarded as the greatest historical work in China. Qian professed an "undying loyalty to the crown" even though he was castrated for "defaming the Emperor" after he wrote a letter in defense of a general who was criticized for losing a battle. Spared from execution because his skills were considered too valuable, Ch'ien wrote a chronological history divided up into five sections: 1) "Basic Annals on Important Rulers"; 2) "Chronological Tables"; 3) "Treatises on Political Economic, Social and Cultural Themes"; 4) "Hereditary Houses"; and 5) "Biographies of Important Men Who Were Not Rulers".
Sima Qian is called China's 'grand historian'. Born between 145 and 135 B.C. to a family of court astrologers and the son of Sima Tan, the prefect of grand scribes to Emperor Wu of Han, Sima Qian becomes grand historian three years after his father's death in 110 B.C. He created an advanced form of calendar in 104 B.C.. In 99 B.C. he offended the emperor and chose castration as his punishment. "Among defilements, none is so great as castration. Any man who continues to live having suffered such a punishment is accounted as a nothing," Sima wrote. He later became a palace eunuch His “The Records of the Grand Historian” cover a period of 2,500 years [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 7, 2012 /*]
Much of what we know about China before the first century B.C. is what Sima described. Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “In a nation obsessed by its history, Sima Qian was the first and some say the greatest historian. In today's China, Sima Qian's book, The Records of the Grand Historian, is regarded as the grandest history of them all. What Herodotus is to Europeans, so Sima Qian is to Chinese.” /*\
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “In the study of early China we owe the greatest debt to Sima Qian, the Grand Historian of the court of Wu-di.” It is important “to acknowledge the contribution that Sima Qian has made to all later understanding of ancient China. The scale of his text (which runs over 3000 pages in modern commentary editions) and its pervasive sensitivity, intelligence, and sense of value are unmatched anywhere in the ancient world. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
“Sima Qian was the son of the Han court historian and inherited the position of his father, Sima Tan. The office of historian was not at that time confined to issues that we now think of as historical. The historian was principally an archivist and an astrologer. In an age when the rhythms of the heavens and of the earth were considered to bear so closely on the conduct of government, the position of court astrologer was an important one, and prior to Sima Tan it is likely that “historians” had paid little attention to organizing the records of the past.” /+/
“Our vision of ancient China has been overwhelmingly shaped by the perspective of this one man. We know that Sima Qian’s failings as a historian, many of which he was the first to admit, have led later historians into many important errors, and surely continue to blind us to certain aspects of ancient China. However, most of us who work in the field of early China believe that Sima Qian’s intellectual honesty and devotion to distinguishing between truth and fantasy as best he could make his history, the “Shiji”, an invaluable gift to us. In some ways, Sima Qian’s own tragic relationship to Wu-di serves as a symbol for the greatness and failure of the Chinese imperial system. For all these reasons, we will close this course with the reign of Wu-di, and later close these readings with an account of Sima Qian himself.”
Ban Gu (Pan Ku, A.D. 32–92) wrote Qian Hanshu (Ch'ienHan shu; History of the Han Dynasty), a continuation of Sima Qian's work.
Recording History in China
The Chinese method of chronicling history was established in the second century B.C. and was practiced until the end of the imperial period in 1911. Early Chinese histories such as The Era of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms were essentially lists. Records of what happened more than 2,000 years ago were often written a considerable length of time after the events they describe and were based as much on legends as facts.
The traditional recorded history of China before the establishment of the Chou dynasty in 1122 B.C. is almost entirely legendary. Empirical evidence is based on archeological information from the Shang dynasty and other periods.
Each dynasty complied the history of the previous dynasty and established special imperial offices in charge of storing and compiling historical documents. These offices included the Grand Council Archives, the Palace Archives, the Grand Secretariat Archives and the Historiography Office Archives.
Chinese history is often lacking in analysis and criticism and offers few insights other than what is recorded. "Chinese civilization," wrote Boorstin, "suffered from its antiquity, its precocity and its continuity. The greatness of ancient models, the unbroken series of records, and the early effectiveness of central government all reinforced reverence for ancestors and stifled efforts to look at unauthorized vistas of the past or to speculate on what might have been." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]
On using family genealogies to study Chinese history, Michael Szonyi wrote in Aeon: “The Chinese tradition of compiling written genealogies means that it is also possible to learn a great deal about how the system really operated, and this is something to which historians have not paid as much attention. As the term implies, the main purpose of genealogies was to trace ancestry and descent. But Chinese genealogies, which range from handwritten scraps to handsomely bound printed volumes, often also included diverse materials relevant to the extended family – locations of ancestral tombs, biographies of prominent members, and rules for managing shared property. [Source: Michael Szonyi, Aeon, April 11, 2018. Michael Szonyi is professor of Chinese history at Harvard]
Asked for his views on the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai famously replied that it was too early to say.
Archival Documents of Imperial China
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Archival documents are not only records produced during administrative activities, but also an important source of materials for studying the implementation of policies and the formulation of legal institutions. Since the ancient times there has been a system for safekeeping national archives on account of their referential value and confidentiality. It is noted in Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) that King Cheng of Western Zhou had commanded his officials to store important archives in a jinguei (golden cabinet), revealing that the ruler was cautious of preserving archives. Considered by many as the earliest archiving system, the practice of preserving administrative documents has been carefully observed and followed in each succeeding dynasty, leaving an important treasury of materials of historical value. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw \=/ ]
“Such archives were sealed and preserved carefully, and access by others was next to impossible. Documents thus treated would include all those compiled under imperial commission, such as veritable records, court diaries, imperial genealogical records, proclamation mandates, compilations of decrees, and all those that could help compile dynastic histories.
“After Manchu ruled China, the system of archival management of the Ming was adopted. Clear and strict regulations for archival practices, such as registering, copying, recalling, repairing, checking, and filing, were written out. For example, the huge number of archival documents preserved in the Grand Council was regulated to be examined and repaired after several years in consideration of their frequent use by officials and the resulting damages. We may thus get a sense of the kind of attitude of Qing court held towards the management and preservation of national archives. The collection at National Palace Museum includes imperial decrees and official documents, biographies of officials, and palace memorials and accompanying illustrations. They show how the Qing government was administrated, the court life, and the relationship between the emperor and officials, as well as the process of the rise and fall of each reign.
Imperial Chinese Decrees, Maps, Documents and Edicts
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “When there were major events, such as emperors ascending the throne, imperial weddings, succession to rule, death of a ruler, succession of rulership, granting of honorific titles, or promotion to the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the emperor would issue an imperial decree to inform all the subjects in the land. The content of the decree was first drawn up by the cabinet, and, when approved by the emperor, the final version was sent to the Tiananmen Gate Tower to be announced. Officials in the Department of Rites would then make or print multiple copies, to be distributed to the various provinces and counties, and further passed down level by level. Through the imperial decrees on view here we can understand the format and the historical messages they convey. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw ]
“Official documents refer to books written or compiled by officials appointed to the Historiography Institute. The compiling and editing of historical books was mostly led by cabinet scholars, and the writing was done by Hanlin Academy officials. For example, the Veritable Records Office was set up to compile the Veritable Records. Other such institutions would include the Office of the Records of the Emperor's Daily Life, which was responsible for recording the daily and official activities of the emperor, and the Academia Historica, which was established to compile national history. The Huidian Office and Santong Office, on the other hand, were responsible for documenting the country's administrative systems and laws. The Wuying Palace was a publishing unit established by the Imperial Household Department, responsible for printing monographs. The beautiful layout and binding of its output is illustrative of the finest craftsmanship, and is highly regarded in our collection.
“Qing officials often included figures and illustrations in their memorials to the throne in order to present a more detailed description of what was reported. River maps, building plans, city walls and gates, military maps, and mausoleum plans are some examples. Usually the emperor would return the memorials to the officials after spelling out his comments, but the attached illustrations would be forwarded to the Grand Council for storage.
“The National Palace Museum houses a large number of Qing palace memorials, copies of palace memorials housed at the Grand Council, biographical materials in the Historiography Institute, and a host of anthologies and journals. The rich collection includes the biographies, career histories, and comments on government administration of many Qing officials from the Manchu, Han Chinese, and Mongolian clans. These materials show the many facets of Qing officials and their lives, as well as their close relations with the emperors. Among these officials are some well known historical figures, such as Fan Wencheng, Cao Yin, Agui, Lingqing and Ceng Guofan.
The Museum's inventory of cartographic materials, including the maps of Amur (or Heilong), Yellow, and Yangzi Rivers, as well as Taiwan. The river-themed maps in long scroll illustrate the grand views of the landscapes, denoting a sense of the well-established source of long standing and far reaches. Each of these maps, long hidden in the court and rarely seen by the common souls, was made for specific purposes to meet actual needs, The rich, geographical delineation of nature and cultural landscapes presents not only the wide-reaching scale of imperial territories, but also strong visual impacts.
Great Western Sinologists
Cambridge University is seen as the birthplace of Sinology and where Wade and Giles invented the first Romanization system for Chinese. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who is chancellor's professor of history at the University of California Irvine, is one of the leading academics working on Chinain the United States and author of “China in the 21st Century,” said: “I think in the US historians who write on China are more fully integrated into history departments whereas here (in the UK) some are part of China studies. It is not a clear divide.”
Joseph Needham, a British biologist-turned-sinologist who spent forty years compiling an encyclopedic account of Chinese science. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “One of the most significant scholarly enterprises in the field of Chinese studies has been the series, "Science and Civilization in China", which was begun in the early 1950s by the British biologist and sinologist Joseph Needham. The series was written or supervised by Needham until his death in 1995, and volumes continue to be published as of this writing. Aiming at completeness rather than brevity and often very technical, the works in this series are the most authoritative sources for issues of Chinese science and technology in all traditional periods.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
Henri Maspero is author of "China in Antiquity" (1927; published in English translation by Frank Kierman, 1978). Maspero, who died in 1945 at the Buchenwald concentration camp towards the end of World War II, was among the greatest scholars of ancient China in the early twentieth century, trained in the academies of French Indo-China. His approach represents the viewpoint of the great French school of sinologists (scholars of China), which dominated Western understanding of China until the period after World War II (and which continues to produce excellent scholarship of many different styles today). /+/
Geremie R. Barmé is a professor of Chinese history and founding director of the Australian Center on China in the World at the Australian National University. Among his books are “China Story Yearbook 2014: Shared Destiny,” a collection of essays on China under President Xi Jinping. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Barmé began his career in 1972 studying Chinese at the Australian National University. In 1974, at the age of 20, he went to China to continue his studies, moving from Beijing to Shenyang and Shanghai. As the Cultural Revolution wound down, he did a stint picking apples in northeastern China and observed the collapse of Maoism. From 1978 to 1991, he wrote for Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. He has been based at Australian National University since 1989, with diversions into making films, writing books and even offering suggestions for speeches on China by Australian prime ministers.” [Source: Jane Perlez, Sinosphere, New York Times,, November 8, 2015 ^]
Chinese and Marxist View of Chinese History
present leader of China Xi Jinping with father Xi Zhongxun, a prominent early Communist According to The Economist: China’s leaders are immensely proud of their country’s ancient origins. President Xi Jinping peppers his speeches with references to China’s “5,000 years of history”. The problem is that archaeological evidence of a political entity in China going back that far is scant. There is some, including engravings on animal bones, that shows the second dynasty, the Shang, really did control an area in the Yellow river basin about 3,500 years ago. But no such confirmation exists for the legendary first ruling house, the Xia. Even inside China, some historians have long suspected that the country’s founding story—in which Emperor Yu tames flooding on the Yellow river (with the help of a magic black-shelled turtle, pictured), earns for himself the “mandate of heaven” and establishes the first dynasty—was either a Noah’s-Ark flood-myth or perhaps propaganda invented later to justify centralised state power. [Source: The Economist, Aug 20th 2016]
Marxist historians both in China and outside it have shaped our current understanding of not only the Communist-Mao era but the entire expanse of Chinese history. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Marxist historians (of whom there have been not a few in the People’s Republic of China) view all phenomena of human culture as indirect reflections of the underlying economic structures governing production. For Karl Marx, who lived during the time of the Industrial Revolution’s greatest impact, the nature of production methods and the way in which the means of production (land, tools, liquid capital) were distributed in a given society determined all other phenomena: laws, literature, imagination. Marx’s theories have not only influenced the way ancient history has been studied in China, but also studies of ancient China in Japan. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]
“Even if we do not follow Marx’s ideas, we benefit greatly from the types of economic history that Marxist-oriented East Asian scholars have pursued (and not just East Asians – the late Joseph Needham... was likewise influenced by Marxism in his choice of specialization). In many respects, it is they who have uncovered the truly revolutionary nature of social change in ancient China. We may not agree that the means of production and their ownership are the ultimate determinants of all social phenomena, but it is unquestionably true that they are critically important, and that no historical account can afford to ignore them.” /+/
History in Communist China
Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: For authoritarian regimes like China’s, history is power, because their political systems are legitimized through myths. In the case of the People’s Republic, the story goes that earlier efforts to modernize China were failures and that only the Chinese Communist Party was able to bullwhip the country into the future. This is the history that every child learns in textbooks, that museums serve up in exhibitions, and that the media push in countless television dramas, news reports, and popular books.The problem for the government is that historical truth is hard to suppress. The authoritarian state can prevent it from becoming an immediate threat and can eliminate it from the lives of most citizens, but the truth stubbornly endures, inspiring” independent historians, journalists and academics to uncover it. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, June 27, 2019]
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: ““During my time in China, I had learned to expect that renderings of history came with holes, like the dropouts in an audio recording when the music goes silent and resumes as if nothing had happened. Some of those edits were ordained from above: for years the people were barred from discussing the crackdown at Tiananmen Square or the famine of the Great Leap Forward, which took between thirty million and forty-five million lives, because the Party had never repudiated or accepted responsibility for those events. Ordinary Chinese had few choices: some accepted the forgetting, because they were poor and determined to get on with their lives; some raged against it, but lacked the political means to resist. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 13, 2014]
Official Version of the Communist Party’s History
In 2011, released in conjunction with 90th anniversary celebrations of the founding the Chinese Communist Party, the Central Party History Research Office produced a compendium of the party’s history from 1949 to 1978 (post-1978 apparently remains too politically sensitive because many of the officials involved are still in power). While the tome provides many new details of sensitive events during the Mao era, it is still highly selective and largely in step with the master narrative laid down in the 1982 publication: “Certain Questions in Our Party’s History.” [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]
Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “China’s Communist Party has finally got its story straight. It took 16 years of editing and four extensive rewrites. Chinese leaders, otherwise preoccupied with running a rising superpower, weighed in throughout. “I never thought it would take so long,” said Shi Zhongquan, who helped craft what the party hopes will be the final word on some of the most politically sensitive and also bloodiest episodes of China’s recent history---a new 1,074-page account of the party’s early decades in power.It gets particularly hard when it includes not only two of the past century’s most lethal man-made catastrophes---the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution---but also a modest yet now ticklish upset back in 1962---the disgrace of Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, China’s current vice president and leader-in-waiting.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, May 26 2011]
“It’s an old communist joke that Marxists can predict the future, but the past is more difficult,” Roderick Macfarquhar, a Harvard University scholar and leading authority on Chinese politics under Mao Zedong, told the Washington Post. The past, added Macfarquhar, “is important because it legitimates the present” and “what went wrong then has to be justified now.” The party published its first official history 20 years ago but ended the story with Mao’s conquest of China in 1949. It has now ventured into far more treacherous territory with the January publication of “History of the Chinese Communist Party, Volume 2 (1949-1978),” which continues the saga until the year Deng Xiaoping started undoing much of Mao’s legacy. The leadership’s close attention has at least helped boost sales: The two-volume text topped the Beijing News bestseller list for more than a month, due in large part to bulk orders from party units, which have been ordered to study the work. Regular historians sniff at the whole venture: “This is politics and propaganda,” said Yang Kuisong, a prominent history professor in Beijing. “I have no interest in the topic.”
Shi, a former deputy director of the Party History Research Center, acknowledged wide differences of opinion among scholars, both Chinese and foreign, but said the party was not budging from the line it first fixed in 1981 that Mao made “gross mistakes” but, overall, did far more good than harm. “You can’t attack Mao and not attack the Chinese Communist Party,” Shi said. So touchy is the party about its past that the new history Shi helped edit had to be vetted by 64 party and state bodies, including the People’s Liberation Army. An initial draft took four years to finish, but that didn’t pass muster with the leadership. It took 12 more years before the Politburo finally signed off on a finished text. This, according to an editor’s note, followed “clear demands regarding revisions” from party chief Hu Jintao, his heir apparent, Xi, and vice president Zeng Qinghong. The whole process lasted so long that more than a dozen of the scholars involved at the start died before publication. Of an original trio of three senior editors, Shi, now 73, is the only one still alive.
Mao and Deng Xiaoping in the early Communist years
Content of the Official Version of the Communist Party’s History
David Shambaugh of George Washington University wrote in the New York Times, Nowhere mentioned is the violence of political campaigns during the 1950s that cost the lives of tens of millions (some of the campaigns are discussed, but not the persecutions and killings). The 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which intellectuals launched broadside critiques of party rule (many which remain apt today), is totally absent. Only the subsequent “Anti-Rightist” purge is covered (in a sanitized fashion) “but not Deng Xiaoping’s role in directing it. [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]
Mao himself does come in for criticism, but overall the blame is shifted to others. Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng does benefit from a posthumous “rehabilitation,” but no such luck for the disgraced Zhao Ziyang. The official treatment of these events is clear: maintain a strong institutional apparatus and remain vigilant against inner-party usurpers and foreign saboteurs. Thus, even in the midst of an anniversary celebration, the party’s continuing inability to honestly and fully confront its past speaks volumes about its present and future. It is symptomatic of existing insecurities.
Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “In a lengthy discussion of the Great Leap Forward, a ruinous crash program of industrialization and rural collectivization launched in 1958, the party history acknowledges great suffering and even notes that because of food shortages and illness, China’s population in 1960 fell by 10 million. But, claiming that Mao’s goal throughout was basically the same as that of China’s current leadership, it says he was driven by “a desire to change a picture of poverty and backwardness and make China grow rich and strong so it could use its own strength to stand tall in the forest of nations.”
Mao and Liu Shaoqi
Mao, according to the party’s version of events, “realized relatively early through preliminary investigation and research that there were problems in [the Great Leap] movement and worked hard to correct them.”Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who last year published a study of the period, “Mao’s Great Famine,” dismissed this as a “barefaced lie.” Mao, he said, was indeed aware of the starvation caused by his policies but pressed on, with the result that as many as 45 million people died. Not recorded in the official history is a 1959 comment by Mao that Dikotter unearthed from a Chinese provincial archive: “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
Historians of the Mao Era in China
Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “In the six decades since coming to power, China’s Communist Party has devoted enormous resources to composing historical narratives that seek to legitimize its rule and obfuscate its failures. The disastrous famine that claimed millions of lives last century is said to have been caused by bad weather, not Mao’s misguided policies. Chinese history books often blame the United States for starting the Korean War, not the Communist troops from North Korea who, most historians agree, first invaded the South. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 18, 2014]
Yang Jisheng, author an authoritative account of the Great Famine, told the New York Review of Books, “Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions...But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled “Rightists” or “counter-revolutionaries.” There is an author in Anhui province who has described how his family starved to death. There are many authors who have written about how their families starved.[Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010]
On how he went about his research Yang said, “When I started I didn’t say I was writing about the Great Famine. I said I wanted to understand the history of China’s rural economic policies and grain policy. If I had said I was researching the Great Famine, for sure they wouldn’t have let me look in the archives. There were some documents that were marked “restricted” (“kongzhi” in Chinese)---for example, anything related to public security or the military. But then I asked friends for help and we got signatures of provincial party officials and it was okay.”
On why officials didn’t destroy the files, Yang said, “Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact---how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.”
Yang said people were sympathetic to his objective. “There was an elderly staff member in one archive, for example. My guess is that he also lost family members in the Great Famine; when I asked for relevant archives, he just closed one eye and let me look. I reckon he held the same view as I: that there should be an accounting of this matter. Like me, he’s a Chinese person, and people in his family also starved to death.
Life of Yang Jisheng: Underground Chinese Historian
Barbara Demick wrote in The Atlantic:The best-known of the new self-styled historians is Yang Jisheng, whose detailed account of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Tombstone, was banned on the mainland, but was circulated there in samizdat versions available online and from itinerant booksellers, who hid copies on their pushcarts. His book on the Cultural Revolution , The World Turned Upside Down, was published in Hong Kong in 2016 and became available in English in 2020. [Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020]
“Yang was born in 1940 in Hubei province, in central China. In a heartbreaking scene in Tombstone, he writes of coming home from school to find his beloved uncle — who had given up his last morsel of meat so that the boy he had raised as a son could eat — unable to lift a hand in greeting, his eyes sunken and his face gaunt. That happened in 1959, at the height of the famine, but it would be decades before Yang understood that his uncle’s death was part of a national tragedy, and that Mao was to blame.
“In the meantime, Yang ticked off all the boxes to establish his Communist bona fides. He joined the Communist Youth League; served as editor of his high school’s mimeographed tabloid, Young Communist; and wrote a poem eulogizing the Great Leap Forward. He studied engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, although his education was cut short by the start of the Cultural Revolution, when he and other students were sent traveling around the country as part of what Mao called the “great networking” to spread the word. In 1968, Yang became a reporter for Xinhua News Agency. There, he would later write, he learned “how ‘news’ was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpieces of political power.”
“But it wasn’t until the crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 that Yang had a political awakening. “The blood of those young students cleansed my brain of all the lies I had accepted over the previous decades,” he wrote in Tombstone. He vowed to discover the truth. Under the guise of doing economic research, Yang began digging into the Great Leap Forward, uncovering the scale of the famine and the degree to which the Communist Party was culpable. His job at Xinhua and his party membership gave him access to archives closed to other researchers.
In 2008, when Tombstone first appeared, the Chinese leadership was more accepting of criticism. Two of Yang’s contemporaries at Tsinghua University in the 1960s had by then risen to the top ranks of the Communist Party — the former leader Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo, the head of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress — and he received indirect messages of support, according to Minxin Pei, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a friend of Yang’s. “The book resonated with the top Chinese leadership because they knew the system could not produce its own history,” he told me. The problem for Yang today “is the overall sense of insecurity of the current regime.”
“Yang, 81 in 2020, was still living in Beijing at that time. He was so nervous about the repercussions of The World Turned Upside Down that he initially tried to delay publication of the English edition, according to friends, out of worry that his grandson — who was applying to university — might bear the brunt of reprisals. But the repressive political climate in China today makes honest assessments of Communist Party history ever more urgent, Guo told me. “Ever since the time of Zuo Qiuming [a historian from the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.] and Confucius, truthfully recorded history has been considered a mirror against which the present is viewed and a stern warning against rulers’ abuse of power.” He pointed as well to a more contemporary, Western source, George Orwell’s 1984, and its mantra, “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.”
China Urged to Confront its Own History
Dan Levin of the New York Times wrote: “The tour guide outside the bloodstained classrooms of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the high school in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh transformed into a prison and torture center by the Khmer Rouge, paused to ask whether any tourists in the group were from China. Visibly relieved when no hands were raised, he went on to describe the enabling role that Beijing played in the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rampage that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians beginning in 1975. Later, he explained why he asked whether there were Chinese among his audience. “They get very angry when I say it was because of China that Pol Pot was able to kill so many people,” he said with evident frustration. “They claim it’s not true, and then say ‘We are friends now. Do not talk about the past.’” [Source: Dan Levin, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 3, 2015 ***]
On top of this “China’s insistence that Japan face history is raising uncomfortable questions about Beijing’s own practice of suppressing historical truths about trespasses domestic and abroad.... The Chinese government has been just as adamant in rejecting any parallels between Tokyo’s revisionist tendencies and its own refusal to acknowledge the tragedies that scar the nation’s recent past. “They are like wind, horse and cow, completely unrelated,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote. ***
“The Chinese government’s effort to shape the narrative about the nation’s past begins in schools. Four of the most widely used high-school history textbooks avoid any mention of the Khmer Rouge. They also omit China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, a monthlong war launched by Deng Xiaoping to punish the Vietnamese for toppling Pol Pot’s regime. ***
“Unlike China’s battles against the Japanese, which often dominate prime-time television slots, the invasion of Vietnam gets scant screen time. The effort has been so successful that many university students in China have no idea that the war even took place. The enforced historical amnesia about China’s invasion of Vietnam has come at a price. For years, thousands of the war’s veterans have complained of being denied benefits and adequate compensation for their role in the conflict. Many have been detained for protesting. “I don’t think the government values us enough,” said Li Zizhong, 60, a veteran from the coastal city of Qingdao who has been petitioning the government for six years to increase his 350 renminbi (about $57) monthly subsidy. “Apart from that I have nothing.” ***
“By contrast, Chinese textbooks go into great detail about the Korean War, officially known in China as “The War to Resist America and Aid Korea.” But Chinese textbooks ignore one pivotal detail of that conflict: that it started when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950. Instead, they state only that war “broke out.” According to “War and Peace in the Twentieth Century,” a textbook published by the Chinese Ministry of Education, after United States troops “lit up the flames of war,” China was forced to secure the country’s “national safety and support the just cause of North Koreans which greatly enhanced the international status of China.” Zhang Lifan, a respected historian, “says the Communist Party’s refusal to permit an honest historical reckoning ultimately undermines China’s global standing. “If China acknowledged its past one day and stopped hiding from history,” he said, “it would help on the world stage and win the party a lot more support from the Chinese people.” ***
China’s Hypocritically Condemns Japan for Whitewashing History
In 2015, Dan Levin of the New York Times wrote: “As China prepares to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II... the state news media has been hammering away at a central theme underpinning the government’s narrative about the suffering China endured under Japanese occupation: Tokyo must “face history,” goes the storyline and reaffirm its admitted wrongdoings.” The “People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, published a series of articles that accused the Japanese government of “whitewashing its wartime past” and warning that right-wing nationalists were plotting to return the country to its militaristic ways, potentially jeopardizing regional stability.[Source: Dan Levin, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 3, 2015 ***]
Premier Li Keqiang of China raised the issue during a televised news conference this month. “For leaders of a country, while inheriting the historical achievements made by their predecessors, they also need to shoulder the historical responsibilities for crimes committed by past generations,” he said. Pivoting off such statements, a number of independent Chinese historians have tried to highlight the Communist Party’s role in the deaths of tens of millions during man-made famines and the political terror that marked its first decades in power—episodes that are erased from the nation’s official history. “The Chinese government propagandizes the parts which it finds useful while ignoring aspects that could draw criticism,” said Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian who has sought to illuminate the party’s selective approach to its history, which is enforced through media censorship and book-publishing bans. ***
“The Japanese, too, have been calling on China to acknowledge its role in some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. Writing for the Japanese website JBpress, Kuni Miyake, a retired Japanese diplomat, castigated the Chinese government for mocking “the global standard of intellectual fairness” by refusing to accept accountability for the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed industrialization effort during the 1950s that some historians say led to the death of 45 million people by famine and other causes, as well as the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that killed thousands and traumatized a generation. “If China asks others not to whitewash the history of 80 years ago, Beijing should be able to also face the modern history of China in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and, of course, in 1989,” Mr. Miyake wrote, the last date a reference to the year Chinese troops gunned down unarmed civilians during the protests at Tiananmen Square. “So far, there are no history museums in China that face such history.” In recent months, Beijing has repeatedly expressed consternation with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, a conservative who has sought to play down his country’s wartime atrocities in Asia while denying that thousands of “comfort” women and girls were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers. ***
Detained “Picking Quarrels” About Chinese History
In 2020, Du Bin, a journalist involved in several book projects critical of China’s Communist Party, was detained.. Amy Qin wrote in the New York Times: “As China intensified its clampdown on independent reporting, the authorities detained a journalist who recently worked on books that were critical of Communism and the Chinese Communist Party, the journalist’s friends and family said. “The journalist, Du Bin, 48, was detained by police officers in Beijing, said his sister, Du Jirong. Police officers told Ms. Du that her brother had been placed under administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The vaguely worded offense is one that the government often uses to quell activism and discussion of social and political issues. [Source: Amy Qin, New York Times, December 18, 2020]
“Friends of Mr. Du, who has worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, say they believe his detention may have been connected to several of his recent book projects. One book, published in Taiwan in 2017, was a historical account of what is known as the “siege of Changchun,” when Communist troops blockaded the northeastern Chinese city in 1948 to starve out their rival Nationalist soldiers, leading to the deaths of at least 160,000 civilians. Another book by Mr. Du, about the more nefarious aspects of Lenin’s experiments with Communism, was scheduled to be published in Taiwan on Jan. 1, 2021.
“Liu Hua, a friend of Mr. Du’s, said that Mr. Du had recently been summoned several times by police officers and told to stop posting about sensitive subjects online. “It seems as though the words coming out of Du Bin’s pen hurt their feelings,” Ms. Liu said. “It is not the first time that Mr. Du’s work has provoked the ire of the authorities in China. In 2013, he was detained for just over a month after releasing a documentary about a Chinese forced labor camp and after publishing a book, “Tiananmen Massacre,” about the government crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. During his detention, he said at the time, he nearly developed an eye infection because he kept one of his contact lenses on longer than he should have so that he could see and document every detail of his experience in custody.
Sued for Questioning Patriotic History in China
“The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain” is a well-known patriotic tale about a group of Chinese soldiers who threw themselves from a cliff to avoid capture by Japanese forces. Two survived after falling onto tree branches, the story goes. In 2017, Hong Zhenkuai was found guilty of libel for questioning certain parts of story. Josh Chin of the Wall Street Journal wrote: In publicly doubting that and other details, the court ruled Mr. Hong had damaged the soldiers’ “heroic image and spiritual value.” Under a clause lawmakers added to draft rules for China’s first unified code of civil law “anyone who slanders or otherwise harms the image of Communist Party heroes and revolutionary martyrs could face legal liability. [Source: Josh Chin, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2017]
“State media reports said the National Peoples Congress’s legal committee decided to add the clause after some delegates said comments attacking martyrs of revolutionary lore were harmful to the public interest. The clause would make it a civil offense to “damage the name, likeness, reputation or glory of heroes and martyrs.” “While civil codes have been credited with helping foster civil society, particularly in post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe, they have also been employed to do the opposite, according to legal experts. “The clause gives Chinese authorities a new tool in an intensifying campaign to root out sprouts of “historical nihilism,” their term for public skepticism around the party’s version of past events.
“In the past, the party muzzled critics of official history with censorship, but increasingly it prefers to discredit them in courts of law and public opinion. Descendants of the Langya Mountain survivors sued Mr. Hong after he wrote articles that cast doubt on core elements of the story, including claims the quintet killed vast numbers of enemy troops before leaping. Despite scrambling four hours to the top of Langya Mountain in an act of defiance and an effort to bolster his case, the writer lost an appeal.
“The attack on historical nihilism is part of a vast effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to clamp down on dissenting views and gird Chinese society against what he sees as ideological threats emanating from Western countries. Calling the new clause “unacceptable,” Peking University legal scholar He Weifang argued Monday that there was no accepted legal standard for deciding who qualifies as a hero. He also noted that doubts over the historical reliability of some of China’s martyr stories were widespread. “To uncover the true face of history in the spirit of seeking truth from facts, but to instead face accusations of malicious slander, that is horrifying,” Mr. He wrote in a social-media post, whose authenticity he later verified to China Real Time. “Real gold fears no fire, true martyrs have no need to worry about ‘being smeared.’ All their defenders need to do is present definitive evidence to back their claims. What are they afraid of?”
Loss of Historic Sites in China
A government survey released in 2009 found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been plowed under for development. Important Han, Tang, Song and Yuan-era sites include Cao Wei - Northern Qi city at Yecheng, the Tang - Song city at Yangzhou, and the Southern Song city of Linan. There has been excavations of several imperial mausoleums and cemeteries and a number of porcelain kilns. The survey and excavation of the Han and Tang capital cities, Changan and Luoyang, and the Yuan Dynasty capital, Dadu , which have allowed archaeologists to study the evolving principles of urban design across successive dynasties.
"Aggressive development in China has swallowed up tens of thousands of historic sites in the last three decades. Officials from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) told the Guardian the damage caused over the last 20 years was worse than during the Cultural Revolution. Swaths of Beijing's historic courtyard homes have fallen to the wrecking ball in just the last decade. The old town in Dinghai, Zhejiang, has been almost completely destroyed. The Shanghai family home of the famed architect IM Pei, supposedly protected by the city, has gone. In some cases such as Qianmen, a centuries-old shopping street in the capital historic buildings have been replaced with ersatz versions. In others, sites have vanished entirely. Last month there were reports that illegal mining in Inner Mongolia had destroyed a section of the Great Wall. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 14, 2009]
'shan Jixiang, director of SACH, said it had examined more than 775,000 sites. Some 30,995 of the items on a 1982 list have vanished. "As our country's economy developed, major irrigation and high-speed electricity projects started construction. Urbanization sped up and newvillage [building] projects were carried out. Though the cultural heritagedepartments at all levels [of government] have tried hard to protect sites, they still could not avoid the disappearance of some," the administration said in a statement. "Major natural disasters like earthquakes and floods have also resulted in the disappearance of many cultural heritage sites, while illegal activities and crimes like tomb-robbing destroyed some as well."
"Liu Xiaohe, deputy director of the survey, told the state newspaper China Daily that officials were doing all they could to preserve as much as possible. He pointed out that in one case China spent 300m yuan (£26.5m) to relocate Sichuan's 1,700-year-old Zhangfei temple when the Three Gorges dam was built, rather than see it destroyed.But he added: "We have about 800,000 historical sites in China, but only 80,000 people are working for relics protection. Places like the Palace Museum [better known to foreigners as The Forbidden City] take up more than 2,000 of them, which means some places have no one to take care of them. What we can do now is try our best to protect the significant sites, likethe Summer Palace, while for those less important sites I am afraid they should give way to economic development."
"The last 20 years have been the worst time for cultural heritage site protection with the rapid development," he said. "It is even worse than in the Cultural Revolution then, most damage was to movable items, but not to ancient tombs or buildings or old towns. For example, many ancient tombs have been robbed and in the [redevelopment] of old towns many old buildings have been demolished. Beijing used to have 25 protection areas and I believe only half of them are still well protected now."
Paradoxes of the Chinese People and Their History
Chinese American Kaiser Kuo moved to China in the 1980s and, according to the Asia Society “since then has found himself in a number of roles serving as a living intersection of culture, identity, and the times. As a founding member of the iconic heavy metal group Tang Dynasty, he changed the way many Chinese thought about music. He later became a prolific writer and host of the popular Sinica Podcast — which has became an influential voice on politics, society, and economics in contemporary China. Now, he's preparing to leave China and his job of six years as director of International Communication at Baidu, China's largest internet search engine. [Source: Laura Jenkins, Asia Society, April 27, 2016]
Kaiser Kuo told the Asia Society: “I’ve always been fascinated with the relationship modern Chinese people have with their own history, and one of the main dualities, if you will — really quite a paradox — is the way that, on the one hand, Chinese seem so freighted by history, or so caught in its gravitational pull that achieving escape velocity seems very difficult; And yet as we’ve all seen, Chinese people are also able to turn on a dime and practically reinvent themselves. They’ve been able to absorb dramatic historical change with admirable equanimity. So while in the morning I can state with confidence that Chinese people are among the most burdened by history, the most conscious of its weight, I can assert with equal assuredness that afternoon that they’re among the most free from it. I’m interested in the way that the fraught relationship with history forms so much of the Chinese worldview, whether for the leadership, for intellectuals, or for ordinary people.
“Another paradox of sorts that really intrigues me is that China has been, arguably, the greatest beneficiary of globalization during the last 35 years or so: Its development model was in some ways ideally suited for the era of the shipping container and commoditized electronics. But China has also been the country that has suffered the ravages of globalization the most. Environmental degradation, sudden and very pronounced income inequality, the crisis of ethics and a rapid descent from a high-trust to low-trust society — all these can be seen as side effects of globalization. China is where the rubber meets the road on globalization, and how it plays out here will probably matter more than whether an anti-trade politician wins the White House.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated August 2021