What I learned slogging through China’s official version of history

Over the past three days we’ve had a chance to look at the full version of the story the Party tells about China’s past 170 years. I divided it into three sections that weren’t broken up in the National Museum, but that allowed reflection on logical chunks – The Opium war up to the founding of the Republic; The founding of the Party through the Mao years; and finally, 30 years of opening up. I wanted to wait to comment on the text until you all had had a chance to read it and form some of your own impressions (which I hope you’ll share below).

The first thing that I noticed from the exhibit was that China’s default status in the world is “glorious,” and that this glory comes from the Party. This is hardly a surprising claim, but its importance in the foundational myth is worth noting. Even the title of the exhibit reinforces this idea – The Road to Rejuvenation. From there we learned that foreigners’ only interest in China was exploitation, and that the Republican gov’t failed to live up to Sun Yatsen’s vision for China.

While these two points are not completely accurate, they are presented in a way that is convincing and clear. The repeated use of the word “bourgeois,” suggests that this is a story that the Party knows how to tell (it appears 9x in the first section, and only 1 time after that when discussing the founding of the Party). All the sections prior to the actual establishment of the People’s Republic of China seem to be much clearer than the later sections.

The second section of the exhibit has a different focus and serves to emphasize the role the Party has had in improving the lives of the Chinese people. It also reinforced the idea of ethnic unity (mentioned three times here, and only one other time in the preface). While the first section may have bent the truth to some degree, this section seems to have heavily employed the use of the delete button and provides a version of history that would likely confuse many who survived Mao’s decades of rule. Without any further knowledge of China, one would come away with the impression that nothing bad happened in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s; even though well over 50 million Chinese people died unnecessarily during that time. As despicably revisionist as it is, there is still a narrative that makes sense if you ignore all of the outside information.

The only mention of the Cultural Revolution

However, it’s not Mao’s era that seemed the most difficult for Party historians to discuss, it’s the last 30 years. As I walked through the museum with my father, we were both left scratching our heads as we read through lists of slogans and campaigns that described each leader’s reign since Mao. I wasn’t surprised that there was no mention of Tian’anmen square or the other crackdowns, but  I was surprised that there was not no mention in the narrative of a single concrete action that any of these leaders had accomplished.

Within each decade there were trinkets of accomplishments, but it felt more like a scrapbook than a museum, in that it provided very little in the way of explanation. Oh look, it’s Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat. Wow, remember when we got let in to the WTO, or sent that guy into space? What was clear to me was that the Party still doesn’t know how these leaders will be viewed in the future, and seems to be working on the last third of the narrative.

Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat

The conclusion though makes sure you haven’t missed the point – “Socialism is the only way to save China,” and a subtle nudge to “closely unite around the CPC central leadership with Hu Jintao as its General Secretary.”

View of Tian’anmen Square from the museum

As we left the halls of the museum and returned to Tian’anmen Square, I couldn’t help thinking that not far from here Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei, Wang Lijun, and Bo Xilai were all waiting for history to judge them as well. Each one would have been seen quite differently just a little over a year ago by the authorities and by common Chinese people. Chen would have likely been forgotten in Linyi, unknown to most and a thorn in the side of leaders; Ai would have occupied a dubious position between dissident and respected artist, but I don’t have many Chinese friends interested in modern art; Wang was a cop worthy of novels and film; and Bo was a rising political star that caused the country to pause and sing the songs of an era worthy of a single photo in a museum.

11 responses to “What I learned slogging through China’s official version of history”

  1. Kaspallivan says:

    Thank you for posting your personal observations about the national museum. I’d be interested in whether or not you think that the English versions of the texts have been modified to “please the eye” of the curious/informed Westerner? Does the English translation actually paint a more accurate picture of Chinese history than the Chinese text, which might in turn be more propaganda than anything else?

    • Tom says:

      As I was on a tight time frame in the museum, I didn’t take time to compare the English and Chinese versions. From my experience with People’s Daily, and other propaganda organs, the English and Chinese are usually fairly close.

  2. James says:

    “seems to be working on the last third of the narrative.” When history is fluid, recording it too quickly can only cause problems.

    I wonder how historians in China feel about this delayed and selective recording of events, do they wholly approve, or do they perhaps keep a secret history that will never be released?

    • Tom says:

      I’m not sure if there is a “secret history,” but there is a lot of information that has not been released. If you read Mao’s Great Famine, you realize that the Party has copious notes about the causes of the man made disaster, but insist publicly it was a natural disaster.

  3. Lao Wai says:

    While most museums everywhere will give you a truncated and somewhat sanitized version of history, this is a government that consistently denies reality, covers up all events that reflect badly on the party and will use whatever means to suppress voices other than the Party line.
    I have often heard Chinese proudly announce that Chinese know more about America than Americans know about China. In some ways Americans know more about the last 30 years of Chinese history than Chinese know.

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  5. Bakary says:

    The differences is — If a Chinese person knows more about America than most Americans then he’s welcome to write a book about it and publish it in America for everyone to learn from, and for himself to profit from. If a foreigner does that in China they’d be arrested, thrown in jail, and be called propagandist spreading poison amongst the people.

  6. Well written Tom and very accurate. China’s leaders haven’t accomplished much of anything great in the last 150 years except grow the wealth and benefits of the CPC which in turn has brought prosperity to the masses. As long as the CPC is in power, China will always be a repressive country to live in and will never overwhelm the western world. They are too busy hiding the truth, corrupting, abusing their power and focused on their own agenda to take on the more established free world countries.

    • Chopstik says:

      I’m not sure I’d want to state that the various Chinese governments haven’t accomplished much in the last 150 years. While there are a gaggle of problems that can be discussed (and have been on this forum) regarding China and the Communist Party (in particular), it would be a disservice to suggest that it is all bad. There have been various improvements in the standards of living for many Chinese, literacy has most certainly improved along with basic health care (as compared to years past). I’m sure there have been other advances that I am neglecting at the moment but perhaps others can bring them up here. While it is ok (well, outside of China, anyway) to bash the party for its failures we should not be so blind as to do so while ignoring some of the positives that the governments have seen to. It’s fine to be critical but it would be wise to remain open-minded at the same time.

      • I completely agree with you in your statement above. It wasn’t my aim to bash the progress China has made in the last 150 years (even the last 30 years!) but more to point out that China could of done a lot more if it had opened itself up to the rest of the world. Just look what has happened since “little Deng” opened up China to the western world — more prosperity and growth in any country on record in the past 30 years. The real test for China in the next 30 years is if it’s political system and leaders can continue making China even a greater nation.

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