China’s Official History and Wild Histories

By David Webster

In Canada, some say, you can only get a new history museum by renaming an existing museum.

In China, the 2010-1015 Five-Year Plan envisions opening 3,500 new museums. And this isn’t a matter of grandiose targets never to be achieved: by the end of last year, 4,000 museums had opened.

The Chinese state’s efforts to control the country’s national narrative dwarf the federal Harper government’s (all too real) efforts to harness history to a usable national narrative, or the efforts of Pauline Marois’ outgoing  government to promote more of the teaching of Quebec’s national history in Quebec schools.

It overspills into foreign relations. In March 2014, a visit to France by Chinese president Xi Jinping saw two history-conscious governments dig into and warp the past to paint a picture of historic ties that both hoped would underpin improved Sino-French collaboration. Xi’s visit included a high-profile stop at the Sino-French Institute in Lyon, where many Chinese students studied in their years of exile from Chiang Kai-shek’s authoritarian regime between the 1920s and the 1940s. This was the result of an agreement inked by Cai Yuanpei, dean of Peking University, the site of numerous anti-government protests throughout China’s 20th century history. The visit, in one critical account, aimed at showing China’s current authoritarian regime was “retrospectively responsible for and in control of all of China’s modern history irrespective of its past political colours.”

Chinese museums and foreign tours thoday, in short, aim at promoting national cohesion through common touchstones, common understandings of a national past, even common myths.

Traditionally, China’s history has been told as “official” history. Each dynasty writes the story of its predecessor, laying out what was good and bad in the dynastic span. Generally the story tells of a dynasty gaining “the mandate of heaven” to replace an earlier group of rulers and govern more justly and efficiently. Its early rulers take power by capturing the old imperial capital and building their own or taking over the former dynasty’s capital, make the required sacrifices to earth and heaven, restore the cosmic balance, deliver fairer government to the peasant majority and the urban literati, and make China strong once again. But over the years, the dynasty grows increasingly complacent, corrupt, and weak. Storms, famine, dragon sightings or other signs signal that the mandate of heaven is passing away. A new man –a peasant rebel, a foreign conqueror, a previously loyal general, or whatever – declares himself emperor, and a new dynasty rises.

This way of writing the official history has always served as a way to legitimate new dynasties by showing the faults of their predecessors and claiming the mantle to control the understanding of the past. At the same time, it has reinforced a cyclical view of history and reference to common cultural touchstones, such as the writings of Confucius and his disciples.

Official history did not perish in China with the demise of the imperial order in 1911 and its replacement by first the Republic of China, and then the People’s Republic of China. I remember as a young child growing up in Beijing the iconic image of Chairman Mao high on the gate to the north of Tiananmen Square – and almost everywhere else. The official story of the early People’s Republic was that Mao Zedong had made China strong again, sweeping away the corruption and poor government of the Republic of China and creating a strong and incorruptible new People’s Republic. That narrative lives on, even as Maoism has been abandoned in today’s China. A 2011 television series celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party concluded that the CCP had two major legitimating strains: it had stood up for China and made the country strong again after a century of humiliation at the hands of the West, and it had delivered economic development.

Official history, in other words, remains dominant in China. If China’s ruling “Communist” party declares it “serves the people,” official history in China serves the state. National narratives aim to bolster loyalty to a single national project directed from the capital.

And yet, there have always been challenges to “official history.” In the gaps and the margins, avoiding direct challenges yet always obliquely offering another view, are “wild histories.” They, too, have a long and honourable pedigree. Sima Qian, the first great historian of China and the first to write a dynastically-sanctioned history, told about the past from multiple perspectives. He recounted the same story from the point of view of the centre, but also through the eyes of opposing nobles, generals, assassins, even jesters. No version of the same events was privileged over others. Official dynastic histories did not keep this multiplicity of perspectives, but wild histories picked up the strands dropped by court historians.

Take Xi’an, the ancient capital of the Qin, Han and Tang dynasties, glorious names in China’s past. It’s from here that the terra cotta warriors marched around the world, including to museums in Montreal and Toronto. In Xi’an, there are certainly approved sites of memory evoked to tell of a single China, read back in time from today to the distant past. Yet what’s the most striking about the Xi’an tourist trail is the way new museums are sprouting like so many flowers blooming. Yes, these are there as a result of China’s surging capitalism and the opportunity to make money from tourism (most of it, by the way, now domestic tourism by Chinese, rather than a lure to catch foreigners and their money). A Han burial mound is carefully excavated to show what was buried with its occupant. This state-of-the-art museum wasn’t here a decade ago. “Han ladies” are sculpted and sold alongside the kitsch knock-offs of terra cotta warriors, a second symbol of the city’s past that adds women to the story.

Perhaps most interesting is the Sha’anxi Folk Museum. Here, all efforts at narrative are abandoned as old buildings, sculptures and relics sprawl across a rural hillside. The privately-owned museum is not on a site of anything: it consists entirely of material brought from other parts of the province. Houses are saved from the wrecking ball (as good a symbol as any of today’s China), and brought here to be preserved. A courtyard home tries to depict an ordinary urban family’s life in the 18th century. Spare spaces are filled with display cases. One houses an immense pile of jeweled shoes once worn by women who had been subjected to foot binding. Another display case winks that it contains an erotic manual and “ancient sex picture.” It’s a chaotic jumble that rejoices in its own chaos: wild history thrown together in stone and fabric.

This museum isn’t a government effort. It’s designed to make money and to celebrate ordinary lives in no particular historical order. It makes no nods to national narratives or even to China – its subject is local people and its occasional music is local folk music, not the “Tang operas” of the city centre. The guiding sentiment seems to be: if it’s old, we’ll buy it and rebuild it here.

As China wields its history as a bludgeon to build its global image, it’s fascinating to see the way wild history remains there in the gaps, refusing to be shaped by government demands for a national narrative to serve the national interest.

David Webster is an assistant professor in the history department at Bishop’s University in Quebec.

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