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:
- Libya’s fate can’t be shaped by imperialist powers
- New western colonialism emerges in Libya
- Recommended reader’s comments 9/7
- Recommended reader’s comments 9/13
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a different reading of Chinese history.