The Party’s narrative of China’s history

After watching “The Founding of the Party” a few months ago, I was left with several questions about how the last 200 years of Chinese history is presented in the country’s school system. My two favorite sources for this kind of information though couldn’t clearly remember what they had been taught. “It was all state published books,” one of them said, “And in China we have a saying ‘to believe only in books is no different than having no books at all.’” Which wasn’t very satisfying.

So from further reading, and conversations that have ended in slogans reminiscent of the cultural revolution, these are the basics of China’s narrative.

  • 1840′s – Britain leads the first Opium War ending in the the treaty of Nanjing, which is the first of a series of unequal treaties. This not only legalized the sale of opium, but transferred Hong Kong to British rule and begins the pattern of western powers “carving up” China.
  • 1850′s Hong Xiuquan begins the Taiping Rebellion, which captures the southern region of the country, and establishes a competing capital in Nanjing. The revolt lasts 15 years, and results in the death of nearly 20 million. The rebellion demonstrated the potential of a peasant revolt and pressed for land reforms, which were unsuccessful (two aspects fundamental in Maoism). Hong Xiuquan also sought to rid China of Confucianism and traditional religion (which Mao admired). Later rebellions further showed that the Qing gov’t was unpopular and had lost the mandate to rule.
  • 1890′s The Qing dynasty underwent a series of modernization movements in an effort to strengthen the country that was becoming known as the “sick man of the East”. However, corruption and mismanagement derailed the progress. This was evident in the humiliating defeat by the Japanese navy in the first Sino-Japanese war. Japan gained recognition as the regional power, and forced China to cede large amounts of land. By this point, several countries had won spheres of influence (which shows the colonial tendencies of the West).
  • 1900′s The Boxer rebellion begins as an anti-western protest, and nearly succeeds in throwing the foreigners out of China. Their attacks are shown as an all out effort to save Chinese culture and territory. When foreign troops crushed the rebellion and demanded reparations from the Qing dynasty, it was clear that Western powers were seeking to destroy the country.
  • 1910′s – Fortunately the Chinese people rose up against the Manchu gov’t, and began to reassert their claims over their own destiny. However, Sun Yatsen’s dream of creating a united and strong China was derailed by warlords and a self proclaimed new emperor, Yuan Shikai. Yuan signed the 21 agreements with Japan that further reduced China’s powers and limited their sovereignty. After WWI most German colonies were returned to their rightful owners, with the exception of those in China, which were given over to Japan. This was “allowed” by the Western powers in the treaty of Versailles. This insult led to the May 4th movement, which was a student/academic led protest, that provided the intellectual push needed to establish the Communist party that would fight for China’s sovereignty.

As you can see from this telling, China was a great country that was seen as the center of the world until the 1800′s when foreign powers started to systematically pick the kingdom apart. The narrative convincingly points to the Party as the savior of the country’s reputation, and is responsible for its return to glory.

Understanding this history is key to understanding how modern China views itself. Here are four examples from the last week that reinforce the points made by this narrative:

  1. Libya’s fate can’t be shaped by imperialist powers
  2. New western colonialism emerges in Libya
  3. Recommended reader’s comments 9/7
  4. Recommended reader’s comments 9/13

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a different reading of Chinese history.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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29 Responses to The Party’s narrative of China’s history

  1. All of China’s problems were their own fault. Imperial China was slow to adopt new technologies and methods and so they got left in the dust. That’s just the way the world works. When you’re no longer up to par with everyone else then it’s only a matter of time before they set their sights on you.

  2. Baobo says:

    The Western narrative:

    • Victorians “saved” China from the stone age
    • America “saved” China from Japan
    • Mao was a Soviet puppet
    • “that other guy” (Chiang Kai-shek) fought for peace, love, and freedom

    If you ask Americans to name any Chinese leader except for Mao, they might say “Hirohito”. They just don’t know.

    • Andrewthegreat says:

      That’s not the Western narrative I’m familiar with. Don’t know where you came up with that. Here’s what I learned:

      -China was a brilliant civilization that was on ebb during the Qing dynasty.
      -America played a vital role in WW2, part of which included the Pacific front.
      -Mao and the Soviets didn’t like or trust each other much.
      -Chiang Kai-shek wasn’t much better than Mao (my grandfather, a Korean war vet told me this).

      The last point is rather insulting and untrue. I could have given you at least a Hu Jintao, Sun Yat-sen, and Deng Xiaoping from grade school.

    • Baobo:
      I heard those lines before (perhaps more wordy in form) – doesn’t surprise me. They just don’t know.

      Andrewthegreat:
      You’re right too – clearly you’re better educated than most if you could name Hu etc from grade school. Too bad most (at least in my experience) just don’t know.

      • Andrewthegreat says:

        “I was generalizing.”

        I realize that, but if I generalized about Chinese people with such hyperbole, I’d get flamed pretty quickly. No free passes. :)

  3. Jimmy says:

    Tom, is any one of the basics that you listed the historical fact? You don’t believe those facts?

    • Tom says:

      These are all basic facts, but the point of the post is what story is told with that string of facts. It illustrates a problem, and leaves the Party as the solution.

      • Jimmy says:

        China had all sorts of problems and the Party luckily solved those problems. Then it is reasonable to say that the Party is the solver.

        Same as America. America had and have a lot of problems and the democratic system luckily ran and run the country well. Now Americans think that this system is the solver and is the best system in the world and they even think that all the countries should adopt the American system.

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    Based on my limited knowledge, there are some truth in all the events (that is, up to the point when the Party entered the picture) this narrative tells. The problem lies in the narrator: It has an agenda and it leads you down to a carefully chosen path that eventually leads to one paramount climax: Chairman Mao Zedong and the Party he led saved China. As it thus drives the narrative of history, it necessarily selects, revises, twists, photoshops, exaggerates, glosses over, delete, etc., to fit its story. Chinese all know that the party history has been re-written for god knows how many times in such a fashion.

    I didn’t watch the movie, and don’t know how the May 4th movement is portrayed there. In the history textbook in China now, it is portrayed mainly as a patriotic movement against foreign imperialism and old feudalism. The fact that it is a cultural movement calling to liberate ourselves from the bondage of the traditional culture, and to learn from the west, especially democracy and the sciences and their underlining ideas and values, has been assiduously downplayed and eventually eliminated. If you read some of the leading intellectuals of that time, such as Hu Shi (胡适), you will be shocked how forward thinking and clear-minded they were about China’s direction (certainly not the director where the party has taken the country). It is no surprise that Hu Shi was condemned for years and years in our textbooks and media as the “running dog of the Americans” and Luo Longji (罗隆基), another leading intellectual of the time who wrote heavily on human rights and the rule of law from 1920s-1940s, was China’s first and THE biggest rightist in the 1950s. How the Party has shamelessly appropriated May 4th into its narrative is a telling story of how the party has appropriated history in general to serve itself.

    We have to keep in mind that the Communist Party in its early days (Mao didn’t become a leading figure until the 1930s) was not the same party as it is in 1949 and Mao was directly responsible for this transformation for worse; and that a lot of China’s most progressive and brightest young people at the time, for having no other choices, joined the party to fight for a better China. I remember reading the memoir of Wei Junyi (韦君宜),who was for years the chief editor of People’s Literature Press, in which she said, if she had known what the party was going to become, she would not have left her family and joined this party. She speaks for tons of people!

    Back to our story here. To re-examine China’s history in the last two hundred years, a lot of fossilized words will have to be undone, and it will have to take a whole different crop of historians whose interest is to find as much truth as possible, not to serve anyone’s agenda.

    This narrative of the party has been so engrained in the mind of the larger part of the Chinese population for so long that, at the slightest beckon, or with no beckon at all, a lot of Chinese are ready to hate any foreigners, blame foreigners for China’s problems, instead of taking a closer look at what the party has done to China and has not done for China and its people.

    For starters, from 1949 to 1979, there were no evil Americans and western aggressors to blame, what did the party do in China? I read in the papers that, in the newly remodeled Museum of History at the Tiananmen Square, there is only one–just one–sentence for the entire Cultural Revolution.

    There is your history, narrated truthfully by the party.

  5. And Tom is right. The basic facts and chronological order are correct – and nobody whatever the age would dispute that. The trouble is with the finer details and the ‘fine-focus’ of those facts. Of course, we could say ‘finetuning’ exists in any country’s history, but the problem is rather more prominent in [modern] Chinese history, mainly because of two competing political entities (China vs. Taiwan) and at least four different historical perspectives to the entire 1800s storyline (pre-1949 China vs. post-1949 China vs. Hong Kong vs. overseas Chinese vs. Taiwan vs. the West). I’ll give you two quick examples:

    1840s – Chinese roundly blame the British for the opium trade and addiction, as if the British introduced opiates to China. Fact is, it was the Portuguese and the Jesuit missionaries (from their staging posts in Portuguese Goa and other outposts in the Maluccas) who introduced opium (as well as peanut oil, which the Jesuits accidentally discovered made Chinese knees go weak). The Dutch, the Swedes and the French wanted to get in on the logistical game, but the Brits won out the chartered shipping for the opium. That gets very little airtime in the historiographic orthodoxy. The whole business of the Treaty of Nanking (note the ‘k’ as that is the correct spelling for that legal document) fires up tempers on all cylinders. We could argue that the treaty was just the first step in British domination of China, and it could’ve been, but the fact remains the actual treaty itself was ultimately about establishing a base for shipping operations in Hong Kong (yeah, I actually read the treaty in law school, so there). There was British treachery behind the treaty (and London today won’t even deny this), but there was even more treachery and selling-out on the Chinese side (especially in the form of the Moqwa personage) – now conveniently ignored in modern Chinese history books (both in China and in Hong Kong).

    1850s – The Communists generally take a favourable line with Hong Xiuquan because it’s pretty convenient to exploit his Taiping movement as a legitimate peasant uprising that anticipates the Communists’ own rise. Tom’s summary above is the version now most taken by the younger amongst us. But ask any (really) old fogey (over 70), and we’ll likely get a different, more negative, picture – Hong was your Hakka Johnny-come-lately, megalomaniacal and mentally disturbed, who was half-baked in his education (he wanted to be a ‘national’ imperial scholar at 22, when anyone worth his/her Chinese history salt knew you couldn’t have been a ‘national’ over 18 but only a ‘privincial’ imperial scholar). The Hakkas weren’t well-liked by the mainstream Chinese since the 13th century (more then, less now), and Hong was no exception. Hong’s successes were more a result of general ignorance of the general populace at the time combined with politicos riding on Hong’s coattails to grab a piece of the power pie. Hong Kong at the time was only 10 years old and it was the first wave of immigration from mainland China because the more mobile part of the population just knew things were going down the toilet with this Hong chappie. That too now gets conveniently ignored in modern Chinese history books. Two of my neighbours (both over 90) absolutely hate and despise Hong, but my younger neighbours are in the yeah-he’s-okay-kinda-guy camp. What gives?

    Sorry, guys, being longwinded and boring again, not very well written, but hope it gets the point across.

  6. Yaxue C. says:

    Find this online (http://laiba.tianya.cn/tribe/showArticle.jsp?groupId=106956&articleId=269669232172632579526956). The commentator compares the descrepancy between how May 4th, 1919 is described in high school textbook and what the historical sources tell us:

    “五四”1919年运动部分,中学历史课本与史料记载不同”

    课本内容梗概:1919年,中国代表打算在屈辱的巴黎和会协约上签字。5月4日,在无产阶级的领导下,北京上万学生举行爱国游行活动,火烧赵家楼,声势极其浩大。政府退让并拒绝在和会上签字,学生运动取得胜利,并为共产党创立打下了基础。

    其他史料记载:1919年,中国代表顾维钧在巴黎和会上据理力争,试图夺回中国的权益。北洋政府不予理睬,为在和会上取得胜利,学生们发动爱国运动,反对北洋政府。当局不能在签约上达成一致。一部分学生发展为无产阶级,并与已有无产者一同组织全国性的罢工。不久,政府被迫拒绝在合约上签字。

    历史课本只字不提顾维钧的争辩,但仅仅学生能让帝国主义屈服么?最初的运动也并非无产阶级领导。五四运动值得我们永久地纪念,但课本不完全客观的描写并不令人满意。

    Just one example.

  7. Joel says:

    The Tianjin Museum has a whole section dedicated to this narrative, verbally, visually, and architecturally driving home the point that the Party is great Savior of China, that China can’t and wouldn’t exist without the Party, and that the Western powers are the bad guys. Described and photographed here: http://chinahopelive.net/2008/01/12/januarys-propaganda-history-style-tianjin-museum

  8. NiubiCowboy says:

    Danwei’s translated a joke making the rounds on Weibo. Given the topic at hand, I figured it was pretty relevant to your post and the ensuing discussion: http://www.danwei.com/a-village-with-only-one-restaurant/

    • Joel says:

      I’ve seen this kind of joke, or this form of joke, make its way from the Chinese internet into English a few times. Always critical of the Party and its excuses. One was about eating a bad egg. Someone ought to collect them in one place!

  9. Chopstik says:

    Now that I can only get to read these at night, I see that everyone has said the things that popped into my head when I first read your post. :-)

    As TheNakedListener pointed out, the issue isn’t so much that the events aren’t true but the context in which those facts are presented and other facts that are conveniently omitted. And yes, the same happens in all countries but they seem to be a little more egregious in China.

  10. anonymous says:

    Yeah,it’s the official viewpoint that authority intend to plant into everyone’s mind to recognize that the party is the messiah unquestionably .

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  14. As one of the post-1980s generation of China I was trained first in “liike” (science) in high school and computer programming in the university. So what history lessons I got was far inferior to those trained in “wenke” (humanity). But from what I’ve seen in my textbooks, there’s alwasy a disturbing trend of rewriting history that “anything against the old emperors, anything against foreign invaders, and anything against the KMT must be good”.

    Take the Boxer Rebellion for one example. What the boxers did was outrageously silly and even rather evil. To a certain degree the boxers worsened China’s relationship (bad already) with many other countries without much of a point. Still in our history textbook they were told as heroes.

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