Why It’s Time to Rewrite China’s History Books
As I explained in the previous two articles in this series, social media and digital platforms are fomenting a sweeping revision of China’s historical knowledge. Young Chinese are examining China and the West through a critical, developmental lens; reevaluating the Chinese revolution and its Marxist legacy based on modern realities; and challenging the liberal, humanist historical narratives favored by the “reform and opening-up” generation.
Unsurprisingly, critics of the trend tend to blast young Chinese for their naïve ideas and lack of research experience, or otherwise write them off as nationalist “wolf warriors” or “little pinkos” for their support of the Communist Party of China (CPC). But it’s worth noting that this shift is not purely the result of an official, top-down push; indeed, the resulting works are often different from official narratives or those of the academic establishment.
Popular history has almost never been produced under strict academic conditions. And it’s hardly abnormal for a new generation to revise the historical understandings of those who came before them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to name just one example, reform-minded scholars like Liang Qichao were derided as rebels for introducing Western learning and criticisms of Chinese traditions to a mass audience. Now their works are considered foundational texts in the history of modern Chinese thought.
Nor are the standards of what constitutes naïve fixed and permanent. Many of contemporary China’s leading scholars of politics, history, and culture grew up in the liberal intellectual ferment of the late 1970s and 1980s. They’ve undoubtedly made great contributions to the field, but their often uncritical embrace of neoliberal tenets — and their use of them as a measuring stick for the supposed defects of Chinese society — now make them seem just as ingenuous as the young leftists they criticize.
As an academic myself, rather than dismiss leftist attempts to rewrite history as insufficiently rigorous, I think they deserve a fair hearing. The current generation of young Chinese have more experience with other countries and cultures than any of their forebears, and this is reflected in their often globalized approach. Their movement is characterized by the belief that they can discover the most important contributing factors to national development and people’s happiness through a comprehensive, comparative analysis of China and other countries.
Of course, that’s not to say their analyses don’t merit criticism. For example, it’s hard to deny that many young Chinese have a habit of expressing their ideas in ways that are more memetic than strictly accurate.
Streaming platform Bilibili, with its highly distinctive “bullet screen” comments feature, is particularly meme-friendly. This has its advantages for transmitting knowledge: the platform’s interactivity allows users to create fun, short history-themed videos that reduce historical and political issues to relatable, understandable phrases or images. One of the most popular templates for leftist memes is the film “Let the Bullets Fly,” and in particular its character “Poxy” Zhang. With his emphasis on “equality” and “not kneeling before anyone,” Zhang has become an aspirational metaphor of sorts for Mao Zedong. The movie’s powerful local mob boss, Master Huang, on the other hand, acts as a stand-in for the bureaucratic capitalists and comprador bourgeoisie audiences love to hate.
While this can help viewers quickly form a basic consensus — complete with easily identifiable heroes and villains — it also runs the risk of reducing their points to mere frivolous entertainment, rather than persuasive arguments. Nor does it help create a climate in which the issues being memed are analyzed with a serious attitude or subjected to rational inquiry.
This should offer those of us in academia food for thought. How can we provide young Chinese with richer cultural products to help them shift from a state of “comfort” to one of being proactive — thus avoiding stagnation in a cycle of consumerism and depoliticization?
There’s a protocol here. In the 1950s, the CPC commissioned historians to compile a series of works covering the main figures and events in world history. Scholars from relevant fields were invited to compose a series of short books using Marxist techniques like historical materialism. Each work was around 40,000 to 60,000 Chinese characters in length, and written in language that was easy to understand.
There’s no reason we can’t produce a revised and updated series of histories for the current generation. Qualified scholars, ideally young ones, should be encouraged and funded to write monographs using everyday language on the Chinese and foreign historical figures and events the public needs to know about. Aim for around 50 books in total, each around 40,000 to 60,000 characters in length, and publish it under the imprint of an authoritative publishing house.
Mass media outlets and online platforms like Bilibili or question-and-answer platform Zhihu can also meet some of the demand for new histories with series or programs of their own, inviting young historians to initiate authoritative and popular discussions of historical issues. Examples of suitable topics include Republican-era China; how to evaluate the Chinese revolution; achievements and experiences in the first 30 years after the founding of the People’ Republic of China; and features of governance in ancient China.
Personally, I hope China’s youth can move away from simplistic, if satisfying renderings of the country’s history, and gradually start theorizing and systemizing their feelings to create a history and politics that can appeal to wider groups, not just young Chinese.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, China’s young generation is reaching political maturity. Sociologist Max Weber defined that term as the readiness of a people “to place the long-term economic, political, and power interests of the nation above all other considerations.” Admittedly, their understanding is still marked by the occasional bit of juvenilia, and it may be a bit rough around the edges, but these are solvable problems. Rather than looking down on them and criticizing them, we should work to help them question what they’ve been taught.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: An image the cartoon characters of “rabbit” and “eagle,” which respectively stand for China and United States from ‘That Year, That Rabbit, Those Things.’ From Weibo))