China's Interesting Times: This Year Sees a Remarkable Coincidence of Anniversaries That Tell the History of Modern China. Some Will Be Celebrated by the Authorities on a Grand Scale, Others Will Be Wilfully Ignored, but All Reveal Important Aspects of the Country's Past, as Jonathan Fenby Explains

By Fenby, Jonathan | History Today, June 2009 | Go to article overview

China's Interesting Times: This Year Sees a Remarkable Coincidence of Anniversaries That Tell the History of Modern China. Some Will Be Celebrated by the Authorities on a Grand Scale, Others Will Be Wilfully Ignored, but All Reveal Important Aspects of the Country's Past, as Jonathan Fenby Explains


Fenby, Jonathan, History Today


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If there is one major country where history is a political instrument, it is China. The treatment of the past has been a function of power since the centuries of imperial rule when new dynasties would set officials to write accounts of their predecessors to prove how the old rulers had forfeited the Mandate of Heaven and how the newcomers were entitled to ascend the Dragon Throne. That has remained the case under Communist rule. Recently, an academic got into trouble for suggesting a reexamination of the Boxer Rising of 1900, which is officially classified as a proletarian movement whereas it was actually the work of unemployed rural youths animated by hatred of foreigners rather than driven by Marxist ideology.

So an unusual coincidence of a series of historic anniversaries this year presents a particularly interesting moment both to look back over how China has evolved in modern times and to consider how the Communist Party is going to deal with some decidedly awkward events from the past. The anniversaries range across a century and a half and constitute more than a conflation of dates that happen to end in the numeral nine. They contain major themes of China's modern history, running from the intrusion of British warships into the Pearl River delta 170 years ago to the emergence of the People's Republic as a major global presence in the generation since Deng Xiaoping's market-led economic reform got going at the end of the 1970s and the crushing of dissent in Beijing in 1989.

The 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic on October 1st will be an occasion for celebrations orchestrated by the film director Zhang Yimou who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of last year's Beijing Olympics. But it will also provide an occasion for unofficial questioning of what the Communist Party stands for now that the revolutionary teachings of Mao Zedong have been placed on the back shelf and the movement he led has adopted economic improvement rather than ideology as its claim to rule the world's most heavily populated nation. The occasion will also be a reminder that, since 1949, Taiwan has been separate from mainland China and shows no sign of heeding Beijing's calls for reunification as it pursues its democratisation.

Another of this year's historical dates, the start of the great famine, which began in 1959 and is estimated to have taken up to 30 million lives, provides a terrible example of where unchecked autocracy which cares little for its people can lead. This is also the 50th anniversary of the rising in Tibet against Chinese rule which led to the Dalai Lama fleeing to India and whose consequences remain with us today.

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The emergence of China on the world stage since Deng launched his economic reforms has been so dramatic that it is easy to neglect what went before. But the events whose 20th, 50th, 60th and 90th anniversaries fall this year form part of the tapestry of the past which is an essential element in shaping today's China. If history is to be carefully controlled by the regime, the past is not another country but is present amid the gleaming tower blocks and vast infrastructure projects that mark the mainland today. As History Today's motto puts it, 'What happened then matters now.'

Even if his teachings are largely ignored, a huge portrait of Mao still looks out over Tiananmen Square and his face is on virtually all bank notes. Since 1949 the Communist Party leadership has lived and worked in a compound alongside the imperial Forbidden City in the centre of the capital. Confucianism is undergoing a revival and Daoist temples are crowded on the anniversary of the birth of its founder, Laozi, in the fifth century BC. The carefully regimented proceedings at major occasions such as the annual meeting of the legislature each March resemble imperial rituals with provincial delegates flocking to the capital to rub shoulders for a few days with the mandarins who preside over the nation's destinies.

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China's Interesting Times: This Year Sees a Remarkable Coincidence of Anniversaries That Tell the History of Modern China. Some Will Be Celebrated by the Authorities on a Grand Scale, Others Will Be Wilfully Ignored, but All Reveal Important Aspects of the Country's Past, as Jonathan Fenby Explains
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