China: Selective history needs to be re-written

By Gideon Rachmon, The Financial Times, Mar 16 2012

[Read response to this commentary here

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 that 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.

These gaps matter. 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 National Museum are called Road to Rejuvenation. In the very 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 National Museum, which reopened in 2011 after a decade of renovation, 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.”

The treatment of China under communism is even more heavily edited. A vague mention of “setbacks” in the early years of Communist Party rule is the only reference to the “Great Leap Forward” – the man-made famine that killed at least 20 million people.

The turmoil and terror of the Cultural Revolution is not discussed. Nor is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.


It is interesting to think about what a museum of modern Chinese history would look like in a post-Communist China. Such a museum would certainly deal with some of the self-inflicted tragedies of modern China. But the strongly nationalist tone of the rest of today’s exhibition might well survive.

As one professor at Peking University put it to me: “The emphasis on exploitation by foreigners won’t change. That is what everybody here is taught to believe from the age of six.”

As foreigners seek to engage modern China, it is important that they understand how China views its own past. Every Chinese schoolchild is taught about the Opium War waged by the British. Oddly enough, I cannot remember the subject coming up in my history classes at school in the United Kingdom.

A study of Chinese history would also help outsiders make sense of the opaque politics of modern China. The Tiananmen revolt of 1989 was part of an honoured national tradition of student uprisings, demanding national rejuvenation.

Similar events had taken place in 1919 and in 1935 – and, on both those occasions, they had been provoked by perceived humiliation by foreigners. Those historical memories help to explain why the Chinese authorities feel vulnerable to accusations that they have shown weakness in dealing with the outside world.

And yet, a visit to the National Museum also underlines how the Chinese government is deliberately stoking up nationalism as a source of political legitimacy.

West’s lack of knowledge
It would surely help foreign leaders to deal with China if they knew much more about the country’s past. Yet while educated Americans and Europeans usually know quite a lot about each other’s history, a similar knowledge of China’s past is almost entirely lacking.

The average British politician will know something about America’s New Deal but nothing about China’s New Culture movement. He will generally know a fair amount about President Lincoln but very little about the Tang dynasty. The few events educated Westerners do know about belong to the Mao era – precisely the period that China still glosses over.

This suggests a useful course of studies for both China and the West. Schools in Europe and the US should do much more to educate children about the long history of China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese themselves should start to examine the history of their own country in the 20th century in a more honest and open fashion. Once both sides have dealt with China’s past, they might be better prepared for the world’s future.

Gideon Rachman is The Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs columnist.


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