Chinese history

5,000 Years of History

Chinese history

Justin Crozier surveys perceptions of Chinese history and attitudes to teaching history in China. This article is taken from SACU's China in Focus magazine (2001).

How Long is Long ?

“China has 5,000 years of history.” This is almost invariably stated when Chinese people discuss their nation and its place in the world. In a broad sense, the statement is perfectly correct. China has a rich and ancient heritage. But what is most significant is the implicit suggestion that other peoples lack the same cultural longevity as the Chinese.

This is where distortion creeps in. The vast area known today as China has indeed witnessed the development of human civilization for millennia. But so have India, Africa, Europe and the Near East. The implication that non-Chinese peoples lack a comparable degree of history is false. The Jews have a history of at least 5,000 years, as do the Egyptians and Indians. The recorded and archaeologically attested history of the Celts is of similar length to that of the Chinese; the early history of both peoples disintegrates into unattested mythology. A substantial chunk of Chinese ‘history’, including the legendary Xia Dynasty, is actually prehistoric.

The Chinese script is about 3,700 years old; the alphabet, in its earliest form, is a little older. Writing systems in Egypt and Mesopotamia predate Chinese writing by a millennium. The "Western" culture of today can trace its roots to Egypt and Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, where early civilization was far more advanced than in China at that time.

The peoples of India, the Near East and Europe may have changed their rulers, their religions, their states and even their names - but so have the Chinese. And like the peoples of the Near East, they have succumbed to successive foreign conquests while retaining their own identity. While Indo-European peoples such as the Celts and Germans moved around dramatically, they did so within an area comparable in size to modem China.

Indeed, in an analysis of Chinese history, it quickly becomes clear that the terms “China” and “Chinese” are rather slippery. The majority of Chinese people are Han, but this name only came into use after the Han Dynasty, founded a mere 2,027 years ago. The notion of Zhongguo, the “Middle Kingdom” emerged in the Warring States period, only a few centuries before. In translation, “Chinese” sometimes stands for Han, and sometimes for Zhongguode. In making statements about China's “5,000 years”, the term is being applied retrospectively. In this sense it actually denotes nothing more than a geographical area. Modern Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan can make even more impressive claims on this basis.

But despite these facts, Chinese people have been taught that they are the heirs to a more ancient civilization than are other peoples of the world. Most believe it. The message conveyed in Chinese schools and universities, and echoed by the media, is that China's history makes it special. This particular lesson has sunk in deeply. History has become an instrument of national self-assertion.

The view of the Outside

How one quarter of the world's population views the other three-quarters is obviously an important issue. China's current view of history shapes her outlook at a time when she faces an unprecedented level of interaction with the outside world. Entry to the World Trade Organization has been almost as popular a cause in China as entry to the World Cup finals, but is a much more realistic prospect in the near future. With Beijing's 2008 Olympic bid in full swing, and interaction with foreign countries constantly increasing through business and education, the Middle Kingdom's view of the outside world is more significant than ever before.

China's attitude to the outside world is famously problematic. The greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, Lu Xun, observed that, “the Chinese always consider themselves to be inferior or superior to foreigners, never equal.” Various factors play a part in this national inferiority complex. Centuries of cultural isolation, compounded by humiliations and horrors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, certainly play a large part. Language is also a factor: the Chinese language and writing system, and the translation difficulties they entail, create a substantial cultural barrier. The very notion of Zhongguo, the "Middle Kingdom", and waiguo, the "outside countries", establishes a "Sino-centric" outlook in speakers of the language. This is in turn contradicted by China's status as a "developing nation". The mixed feeling of superiority and inferiority are fuelled by the state media which is always quick to foster a sense of national grievance against the waiguo, thus diverting attention from internal problems.

China's view of the outside world is not unique. Many countries, including Vietnam, Korea and Japan have a similar outlook. A largely mono-racial society (China's "minority nationalities" are either almost entirely integrated, like the Manchu and the Hui, or regional curiosities) inevitably finds it easy to strike a poses of superiority when contemplating the outside world. And multicultural societies are not immune to such attitudes either. The USA also tends to foster an American-centred world view among its citizens - as in the frequent application of the term "African-American" to people who have no connection with America. In China, however, the effects of size and mono-culturalism are particularly reinforced by the dogmatic manner in which history is taught.

Academic History

Unlike in the West, history is not a highly regarded academic discipline in China. A common saying on Chinese campuses runs as follows:

“Science students look down on language students; language students look down on history students; history students look down on politics students; politics students look down on their teachers.”

The utilitarian atmosphere of the PRC and the pragmatic instincts of people in an economically uncertain environment have pushed the subject to the fringes of academia. The political vicissitudes of the last 50 years have also dampened interest; much recent Chinese history is more or less "off limits" for academics. And with the Party line demanding a Marxist interpretation of the whole course of history, it is no wonder that the subject has little popularity. The mandatory Marxist framework effectively cuts off Chinese historians from most of their counterparts in the rest of the world. For students, the political infringements reduce history to little more than a random set of questions and answers, which is naturally unpopular. "The reason it's so hard", one student says, "is because it's so illogical."

But the problems with Chinese history far pre-date the People's Republic. While the history of China is no longer than that of many other areas, China's historiographical tradition is undeniably long and impressive. But it is markedly different from the way in which history was written in the West.

Terracotta warrior
Terracotta soldier and horse from the tomb of the first Qin emperor near Xian

'Wild' History

Official history made an early debut in China. Qin Shi Huang, the "First Emperor" who was buried with the Terracotta Warriors in 210 BC, initiated a virulent propaganda campaign that aimed to eradicate any historical records that clashed with his official line. Subsequent dynasties followed his lead, with the result that official history became very much the norm. This, and the fact that literate Chinese were almost all civil servants, created a very different situation from that in the West. In the Christian world, most literate men were churchmen, often ascetic monks railing against the practises of temporal rulers. Disgruntled clerics like Gildas and Gregory of Tours, with their disdain for secular powers, were part of a very different tradition from that of China, where the alliance of the literate and the powerful developed a "party line" far earlier. The term yeshi, "wild history" is applied to writings that are not written by imperial historians - but this "wild history" is so common in the West that no specific term for it has developed. It is surely significant that Western historians use "official history" to designate a specific subset of "history", while in China, "wild history" is the smaller subset.

Teaching History

The age-old emphasis on rote learning in China further hampers the development of a subject based on argument and interpretation. The traditional respect accorded to teachers in Chinese culture also militates against an academic atmosphere of debate and discussion. The sheer numbers of students involved in all levels of study in China, both now and in past centuries, encourage the use of simplistic examinations that are easily marked. Thus even today, history, at university entrance level and in the universities themselves, tends to be examined through multiple-choice tests and even fill-in-the-blanks. The essay examinations that British students are familiar with from secondary school level are largely unheard of.

When history is reduced to a matter of filling in blanks and choosing A, B or C in exams, the ability of students to question and challenge what they learn is also reduced. A tradition of wrong and right answers leads to an environment where blanket statements, like the "5,000 years of history", are swallowed whole - along with all that they imply.

The unquestioning approach that is nurtured in the Chinese study of history allows many bizarre notions to slip into popular mindset, beside the notion that Chinese civilization's longevity somehow distinguishes it from other nations. One of the most striking is commonly expressed by Chinese undergraduates; the idea that "Genghis Khan made China great." This would strike a western student of history as absurd; but in China it is a commonplace. When it is pointed out that Genghis Khan was a Mongol who conquered much of Europe and Asia, and began the conquest of China that was completed by his descendants, the standard answer is that Mongols are Chinese. The Mongol conquests, many Chinese students are convinced, were just a "Chinese civil war".

Who is 'Chinese'?

Here is where the slippery concepts of "China" and "Chinese" demonstrate their flexibility. Mongols are one of the official minorities of China, and Inner Mongolia is a Chinese province. It is true that the Mongols who founded the Yuan Dynasty in China were partially assimilated into the Chinese way of life before their overthrow by the Ming. But there are large Mongol populations in Russia, whose ancestors have never been under Chinese rule, as well as in "Outer" Mongolia, which has been independent of China since 1911. But the malleable concept of "China," and the retrospective application of the term, allows Chinese historians to present the Mongol conquests as a triumph for the Chinese people.

At the same time, most Chinese students are aware of the discriminatory policies the Mongols adopted in China, under which Han people were third-class citizens in their own land. This oppressive system is etched in the Chinese consciousness; the 'stinking ninth" epithet attached to intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution echoes the Mongol gradation that placed Chinese Confucian scholars below prostitutes. Yet despite the almost palpable anger that can be aroused by reference to Mongol rule, Chinese students still see Genghis Khan's conquests in Asia and Europe as Chinese achievements.

A similarly contradictory attitude has been instilled in regard to the Manchu, the nomad people who conquered China in the 17th century and founded China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing. 20th century revolutionaries such as Sun Yat Sen denounced the Manchu as foreign invaders, and they are still seen as barbarian invaders - in some respects. But the destruction of the Manchu Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops in 1862 is conversely regarded a national humiliation even though ordinary Han Chinese plundered the ruined palaces of their Manchu rulers after the European troops had left. The contradictory views of the Manchu as barbarian oppressors and as wronged Chinese are left unreconciled in contemporary history books.

In some respects, the Chinese view of history echoes the famous encounter in 1793, when Lord Macartney arrived at the Qing court to propose a trade treaty. The Qing Emperor was quite unable to conceive that the British ambassador might represent an independent power; the Emperor, after all, was the ruler of the world. Something of this extreme "Sino-centricism" lingers in the modern attitude to Mongols and Manchus; many students seem quite unable to conceive that these peoples were not always (and are not entirely) Chinese minorities.

Functional History

The teaching of history in modern China is, of course, intended to foster patriotism. It is this that allows China to lay claim to the achievements of Mongols and Manchus while attacking them as enemies or oppressors at the same time. But while patriotism can often lead to ugly nationalism, there are good grounds in China for encouraging a sense of national pride. The twentieth century witnessed violent rejections of China's heritage, with tragic results. The Cultural Revolution, with all the horrors that it entailed, was targeted at "old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits." Earlier, the May 4th Movement of 1919 also condemned much of China's traditional culture in its hunger for modernization. The Movement was a reaction both to the Treaty of Versailles, which handed portions of China to Japan, and to the late Qing period, which had taken Chinese cultural self-confidence to absurd heights, with scholars spurning "Western" science to concentrate on obscure classical Chinese etymologies. Although essentially anti-foreign, the Movement demanded modernization and the adoption of foreign technologies. Four years later, the writer Wu Mi commented on the selective introduction of Western culture that had followed:

"This mode of introducing Western culture has had serious results: it has not only aggravated the Chinese people's sense of intellectual bewilderment and doubt, of spiritual unrest and pain; but it has also made the young generation as a whole innocent pretenders to knowledge, unwilling to learn, attacking everything Chinese, despising our national culture, agitating many unnecessary and even harmful changes in social life and customs, looking with scorn and contempt upon all religious and moral teaching, tending toward ignorant and bigoted and licentious individualism and away from any discipline, system and order."

In an age when many young Chinese are again looking to the West and embracing its consumer culture of McDonalds and Nike, there are real grounds for instilling some measure of national pride. Many older Chinese people think so. Lu Xun might be largely accurate in his statement that:

"In the end the simplest and best way to describe Chinese history would be to distinguish between two types of period: (i) the time when the people vainly yearn to be able to have the stable condition of slaves; (ii) the times when the people temporarily get to enjoy that stable condition of slaves."

But his view is so overpoweringly pessimistic that its realities need to be tempered with some emphasis on Chinese achievements, just as the squalor of Renaissance Europe is balanced in Western history by the splendour of its artistic peaks.

The Future of History

There are signs of improvement in Chinese history teaching. The Allied contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II is now mentioned in Chinese high school classrooms, as a "new theory". Students are told that the Korean War, or “Patriotic Struggle to Resist American Imperialism and Defend the Motherland” is not particularly important, and will not be examined. And, most significantly, the Guomindang contribution to the defeat of the Japanese invaders is now acknowledged alongside that of the Communists. But there is still a long way to go.

The great problem with the teaching of history in China in recent centuries has been that it has inflated the Chinese idea of China's power and importance. This has led to shattering national traumas in the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s and the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 and the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles. The rejection of traditional culture caused by these traumas led in turn to the disasters of the Cultural Revolution. This cycle of overconfidence in Chinese history and culture, trauma, and subsequent loss of confidence, has been deeply harmful to China.

What China now needs to do, as it opens to the world, is adopt an objective middle ground in looking at its history. Inflating its glories and importance will lead once again to destructive disillusionment; concentrating overmuch on the disasters will result in neglect of the treasures of Chinese heritage. Only through accepting that "Middle Kingdom" is as subjective a term as "Mediterranean", and realizing that it is one nation amongst many with thousands of years of history, can China hope to adjust psychologically to its position in the 21st century.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus, Issue 10, 2001

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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