Rediscovering History in China


It’s hard to overstate how politicized history has become in China, where politics and tradition give it a mythic, taboo quality. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx’s points was that the world was moving inexorably toward communism, an argument that regime-builders like Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rise to power. In China, each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor’s history, and the dominant political ideology, Confucianism, is based on the concept that ideals for ruling are to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance matters in judging governments, but mainly as an expression of history’s verdict.

Shortly after taking power in 2012, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping reemphasized history’s importance in a major speech. Xi is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a top Communist who helped found the regime but fell out with Mao and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought this family trauma might lead the younger Xi to take a more critical view of the Mao era, but Xi has presented himself as heir to the founding generation, including Mao. In his speech, he said that the last thirty years of reform should not be used to “negate” the first thirty years of Communist rule—in other words, you can’t support China’s current policy of opening to the outside world and economic development but also criticize the Mao era. Both, he said, are one and the same, two sides of a coin.

The unstated reason is that Mao isn’t just China’s Stalin—someone whom the Soviet Union could discard because it still had Lenin as a less tarnished founding father. For the Communist Party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state. Five years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, the Party issued a statement that condemned that era and Mao’s part in it, but also ended further discussion of Mao by declaring that “his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”

For decades, many independent Chinese historians have tried to dig deeper, usually by publishing their memoirs and internal documents abroad. One coalition of scholars led by Song Yongyi, a librarian at California State University, Los Angeles, published The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, a monumental work with 40,000 entries, including unpublished speeches, documents, and other information.1 Others, such as the journalist Yang Jisheng, have published revealing histories of the Great Leap Famine.2Many of these works have been published in Hong Kong, often through the publisher Bao Pu, who runs New Century Press. All were inspired by memory.  Song was jailed for five years during the Cultural Revolution. Yang watched his father starve to death during the famine. Bao’s father was a famous reformer who spent years in jail after the Tiananmen massacre.

What is new now is how prevalent these challenges are inside China. In 2014, I published a two-part article in the New York Review of Books on Remembrance, an underground journal in Beijing that tackles sensitive issues of the Chinese history. 

  Remembrance is part of the rise of unofficial memory in China, a trend that resembles the appearance in the Soviet Union during the 1980s of groups like Memorial, a historical research society that helped undermine the regime by uncovering its troubled past. Today’s China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the censor’s grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history represents legitimacy. The government still controls official history through textbooks, museums, movies, and the media.

But memory is more private, and setting it down on paper can be presented as a personal enterprise, even when the outcome is highly political. Besides Remembrance, China has roughly half a dozen other samizdat publications that explore the past through accounts of personal experience, In addition, there are a growing number of underground documentary films, including some that send students to collect oral histories in villages that suffered during the Great Leap Famine or the Cultural Revolution.

    This project aims to document this change and examine its impact on the regime and how people approach history on a daily level.