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China: taking history seriously

EPA/Wang Qingqin

Many people outside China find it hard to understand its obsession with history. Appropriately enough, however, a little historical context can help to explain this. China has had more recorded history than anywhere else. For most of it, China was the centre of the known political universe.

The only time when China wasn’t the dominant force in the world was during the “100 years of shame”, or the period when China was torn asunder by the Europeans and – even more gallingly – by the Japanese. Restoring China’s rightful place at the centre of world affairs is a key goal of China’s leaders. It is also one that enjoys the enthusiastic support of the mass of its people.

The depth of Chinese indignation about their treatment was recently brought home to me by two events. I’ve been to the Summer Palace in Beijing a number of times, but have never previously been so conscious of the outrageous conduct of the British in destroying the original.

If there’s a school of comparative historical hooliganism, the efforts of the British empire in destroying its Chinese counterpart are without parallel in their vindictiveness and extent. Islamic State’s recent efforts look puny and insignificant by comparison, not least because of the significance and beauty of what was actually destroyed.

But if the Chinese are collectively miffed about the impact of European imperialism, this doesn’t bear comparison with the depth of animosity toward the Japanese. There is no doubt that Chinese people are entitled to feel aggrieved about both the actions of the Japanese in places such as Nanjing, and about the failure of Japan’s leaders to take responsibility for them and express genuine, unequivocal remorse.

But the attitude of China’s leaders and the public more generally seems out of proportion when we remember that these events occurred 70 years ago. Rather than forgiving and forgetting, however, China’s leaders and the vast majority of the population are actually ramping up the outrage and resentment, even though very few of them have any personal knowledge of the events themselves.

The quintessential example of this possibility has been the just-concluded remembrance of the war against fascism. As set-piece extravaganzas go, this takes some beating. Although it was the parade of weaponry and celebration of military might that understandably attracted most attention, even more revealing, perhaps, was the accompanying musical tribute to the anti-Japanese war the same evening at the Great Hall of the People.

Many of the songs, dances and epic artistic interpretations of historical events were reminiscent of an earlier era in the history of the People’s Republic of China when ideology and nationalism were even more prominent. In this case, though, it was not evil capitalists that were being condemned, but the evil Japanese.

In case anyone missed the point, large screens in the background thoughtfully depicted the Japanese committing various atrocities while the band played on in the foreground. Nationalistic fervour was at fever pitch, with much flag-waving and striking of nationalistic attitudes.

The entire production was – for outsiders, at least – somewhat discomfiting and reminiscent of North Korea, if not Nazi Germany. Nationalist sentiment in China needs little encouragement at the best of times. But when it is endorsed by the presence of Xi Jinping and other party luminaries, the message conveyed to the rest of the world becomes all the more alarming.

Presumably China’s leaders understand that such expressions of national sentiment are carefully monitored by other countries to whom China has become such an important partner – or even adversary. Presumably the domestic benefits of such bombast were judged to outweigh any possible external damage to China’s reputation.

If so, that is a rather alarming indication of the thinking of China’s ruling elites. Given that the remembrance of the defeat of Japan has been planned for a long time, it is clearly not a case of having a convenient distraction from China’s current economic problems. But it does suggest that nationalism will become an increasingly important part of the way the Communist Party will seek legitimacy in an era when few people take Marxist ideology seriously.

It’s not hard to understand why Japan’s Shinzo Abe wasn’t keen to go to this event. How would Angela Merkel feel about being invited to sit through an evening dedicated to reliving Nazi atrocities – with or without a musical accompaniment?

The point is nobody – not even Israel – would even think of such a thing now. It is alarming and rather depressing that China still does.

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