A Year of Some Significance РGeremie R. Barmé

The following essay by Geremie R. Barm√© originally appeared in the Review weekly supplement, The Australian Financial Review, 31st March 2006. Published without notes under the title “Historical Distortions”. Thanks to Mr. Barm√© for allowing CDT to reprint it here.

A Year of Some Significance

By Geremie R. Barmé

History matters. It matters in Australia where, in January this year, John Howard declared that the teaching of history in high schools is of national importance. He also claimed that, “too often, history has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.” [1]

Just as the Prime Minister was exercising us with his historical lament, Hu Jintao, China’s president and the head of its ruling Communist Party, was also taking a stand on history, one that was against those who presume to question and repudiate official accounts of that country’s past. Leaders with a certain afflatus come to think that their tenure in power gives them a right not only to direct their nation’s future, but that it also bestows upon them a droit de seigneur over the past.

Hu took the extraordinary step of involving himself in the suspension and reorganization of Freezing Point (Bingdian), a leading magazine known for its thoughtful articles on politics, culture and society. In January, it was deemed that the editors had gone too far when they printed an incisive critique of the kind of biased historiography favoured by party propagandists and hack educators.

The offensive article was authored by Yuan Weishi, a noted historian at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. Yuan expressed his dismay on reading some of China’s modern history high school textbooks. In them he found dangerous distortions of the historical record. Highly selective and ideologically-driven descriptions of events leading up to the infamous razing of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the imperial Manchu demense outside Beijing which was destroyed by Anglo-French forces in 1860, and the Boxer rebellion of 1900, were not only incorrect but, Yuan warned, serve only to inflame nationalistic passions among impressionable teenagers. Yuan also cautioned that the irrational spirit guiding history teaching in China endangers the country’s mature and rational participation in the global community. He recalled that the xenophobic violence of the Red Guard generation was bred by just such a biased education. [2]

Inculcated with a sense of patriotic ire through their school days, and convinced that the outside world was a malevolent enemy set on corrupting the purity of China’s revolution, the Red Guards attacked all things foreign during the early months of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Countless people would lose their lives in the ensuing m√™l√©e, although today very few people will admit to being involved with murder. The US-based writer Rae Yang is one of a handful of former Red Guards who is candid about her past. She recalls that her teachers were astounded by the visceral fury of the young rebels. Why should they have been so surprised that we acted like wolves, she asks. After all, we had all been fed on a constant diet of wolves’ milk at school. [3]

In his article on teaching history in China today, Yuan Weishi observes with dismay that “Our children are still being fed wolves’ milk!”

II

April 5 next week is Chinese All-souls Day (Qingming Jie), a hallowed festival for remembering the dead. On that day thirty years ago thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn for the late Premier Zhou Enlai (he had died on 8 January that year). But they were also there to protest against Zhou’s enemies, the revolutionary extremists later known as the Gang of Four, and even Mao Zedong himself. “The people weep while jackals laugh,” read one of the many protest poems stuck up on the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the centre of the Square. Those protests, spontaneous, sorrowful, and unprecedented, were soon crushed and the participants denounced as counter-revolutionaries.

To this day, people still debate just when the Cultural Revolution and the experiment with radical socialism that it represented came to an end. For many, the denouement came not with Mao’s death in September 1976, or the arrest of the Gang of Four the following month. Rather it was the Tiananmen Incident of 5 April 1976, a sullen protest enveloping the symbolic heart of Maoist China, that marked the bankruptcy of the Great Helmsman’s ideas more clearly than any other event.

Eventually, the Tiananmen Incident would be lauded by party leaders who came to power after Mao. They claimed the popular outrage aimed against the Gang of Four and their august backer as part of their political capital; they hinted that new freedoms would change China forever. They made no similar claim over the outpouring of grievances against the Communist Party-and themselves-that had occurred ten years earlier, during the early months of the Cultural Revolution, a momentous event that marks its fortieth anniversary this year.

In official commemorations of that era of chaos this year, it is most likely that the party’s commentators will sidestep the fact that, intermixed with the calculated violence and youthful anarchy of 1966, there were also moments of genuine popular protest aimed against a corrupt and unresponsive one-party dictatorship. That raw mass outrage remains unsettling for China’s authorities today.

Yu Luowen was a youthful activist and publisher at the time. He sums up what happened in the following way: “The people in power had always suppressed the masses, while taking good care of themselves. So when Mao said to overthrow ‘officials taking the capitalist road’, all those in authority were dumped. The masses couldn’t care less who was taking what road. Initially at least, it was liberating.” [4]

Luowen’s older brother, Yu Luoke, was a recent high-school graduate. Refused entry to university despite his academic brilliance-he was penalized because his parents were classified as petty capitalists-he had to take a job in a factory. But in his spare time he wrote, lambasting Mao and all of his works.

In the pages of his 1966 diary Yu Luoke called Mao’s purge of top leaders a “palace coup”, and he satirized claims that Mao Zedong Thought was some omnipotent ideological cure-all. He condemned the hypocrisy of the nation’s media and derided clumsy distortions of historical fact used to stir up mass dudgeon. He declared the Red Guards to be dangerous extremists, and predicted that the movement would never survive the test of time. Yu Luoke was one of the first people to quip that Mao’s enterprise was neither ‘cultural’ nor ‘revolutionary’.

In the short period of anarchic freedom that resulted from the collapse of party rule in 1966-67, Yu Luoke published a weekly paper expressing ideas that were truly radical for their time. However, as order was restored the paper was closed down, its editors investigated and, finally, Yu Luoke himself was arrested. His diary was found and confiscated. After years of obfuscation, the authorities told his family that he had been executed in early 1970. Although today he is a prescient hero for China’s independent intellectuals and informed readers, Yu Luoke remains a fragmentary spectre. Only a few scant pages from his extraordinary diary have ever been returned to his family. [5]

III

In September this year Mao Zedong’s death thirty years ago will doubtlessly be acknowledged by Hu Jintao with due pomp and circumstance. After all, on the occasion of the celebration of the 110th anniversary of Mao’s birth in 2003, the present Chinese leader declared: “the banner of Mao Zedong Thought will always be held high, at all times and in all circumstances”.

But this year marks the passing of another important figure, one who will not be commemorated by the country’s officialdom. For it is forty years since the leading publisher and writer Chu Anping, like Yu Luoke a tragic figure in the history of free speech in China, disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Chu was a noted journalist and social democrat trained by Harold J. Laski at the London School of Economics in the 1930s. He returned to China and, as the battlelines were being drawn between the contending Nationalists and Communists in 1946 and civil war erupted (an historical turning point that marks its sixtieth anniversary this year), he founded The Observer, a weekly that soon became the major forum for independent political debate in the country. Although his advocacy of a Third Way between the political extremes represented by the Nationalists and Communists failed, Chu Anping stayed in China after the communist takeover of 1949. His magazine was reborn under communist rule, but The New Observer lacked entirely the independence of its forerunner, and Chu no longer wrote the kind of powerful critique that had made him famous. However, a luxury that people did not enjoy under Maoism was the right to remain silent.

As the party insinuated itself into every aspect of Chinese life, Mao and his colleagues became aware that their draconian rule was unpopular with many segments of the society. In mid 1956, with the denunciation of Stalin in the Soviet Union and as opposition to communist rule spread in the Eastern Bloc, Mao Zedong decided to pre-empt a similar eruption of discontent in China. He launched the “Hundred Flowers” campaign during which people were urged to criticize the party. In what was supposed to be a “blossoming of a hundred flowers and contestation of a hundred schools [of thought]“, a kind of freedom of expression was encouraged. While young workers and students put up critical posters and published independent magazines, many older people, like Chu Anping, remained wary of the party’s motives, and for months they held back.

Eventually, even the most cautious individuals were emboldened to air their discontent. Chu Anping also reconsidered, and he made a speech at the Guangming Daily, where he then worked as editor. The title of his remarks remains famous to this day: “The Party Empire: Some Advice to Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou”. He declared that the communists treated the country as though it was their personal property. By so doing, he said, they had reneged on their pre-1949 promises to bring freedom and democracy to the nation. [6]

Like Chu, tens of thousands of men and women had similarly abandoned their caution and availed themselves of the rare opportunity provided by 1956 to make articulate and spirited critiques of the party’s inept policies and destructive style of rule. Mao, however, was outraged by the candour and accused these critics of launching a “frenzied attack on the party aimed at turning China into a bourgeois country”. Many were demoted, jailed, or sent into internal exiled. While the vast majority of these wronged individuals were exonerated after the Cultural Revolution, Chu Anping is one of a handful of prominent figures (six in all) who were never rehabilitated. To this day he stands guilty of conspiring against the party.

IV

In 1986, thirty years after the Hundred Flowers campaign, twenty years after the start of the Cultural Revolution, and ten years since the 1976 Tiananmen Incident, a group of Beijing journalists and academics decided to organize a commemorative symposium. Ostensibly about the Hundred Flowers, it would feature leading liberal intellectuals and writers who were agitating for the legal protection of free speech in China. The proposal for the symposium came at a time of openness and public debate not seen since 1949. In every sphere there was a frenzy of activity; it would become known as “cultural fever”: an avant-garde art movement was beginning to flourish, academics revitalized a tradition of debate about modernity and China’s place in the world, and writers of all persuasions published manifestoes, held readings and became literary stars. Among them was the journalist Dai Qing. Famous today as an environmental activist, back then she worked for Chu Anping’s old newspaper, Guangming Daily. Invited to speak at the symposium, she prepared a lengthy study of Chu’s career as an independent journalist and his advocacy of social democracy. With neither warning nor explanation, the symposium was banned.

In that contrastive atmosphere of openness and dark repression, it is little wonder that one of the most talked about books that year was the Chinese version of the historian Ray Huang’s 1587, A Year of No Significance. [7] In his highly readable account of decadent court life in the late Ming dynasty, Huang evoked a world of political rigidity and unbounded corruption, although it was also one of philosophical foment and cultural efflorescence. It was a tale 400 years old, but it struck a powerful chord with readers in contemporary China.

At the end of 1986, the mounting tensions in urban China exploded in mass protests against the government. University students in Beijing and Shanghai rallied to demand media freedom and democratic reform. They, too, were crushed.

IV

And so it is that 2006 is a year of some significance for China. It is a year in which historical anniversaries, as well as uncomfortable commemorations, crowd the calendar. Some will be duly acknowledged, others will pass by subjected either to a frosty silence or ridiculous distortion.

For his temerity in questioning the content of China’s high school history texts, the historian Yuan Weishi has been attacked for “grievously hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”. The bile of his critics might rise even further if they chose to read some of his other work. For in 2004, Yuan published a book entitled Farewell to the Middle Ages, a selection of major essays by China’s leading progressive thinkers and political activists of the 1910s. [8] It reflects the first tumultuous decade of the Republic of China and the nation’s fitful century-long experiment with democracy, free speech and cultural innovation.

In the entries for 1916, Yuan recalls events of great moment that in many ways resonate with the years of significance that will be commemorated in 2006. For 1916 saw the culmination of the career of Yuan Shikai, an imperial general who through guile, might and betrayal became president of the nascent Republic of China. He had also used assassination to achieve his ends-he was implicated in the death of the important democrat Song Jiaoren (d.1913), as well as of the outspoken journalist Huang Yuansheng (d.1915). Buoyed by murderous success, he proclaimed himself emperor on 1 January 1916. National outrage and military opposition led to the collapse of this dynastic interregnum, and Yuan died shortly thereafter in ignominy.

The year 1916 saw imperial ambition thwarted, and it also witnessed the flourishing of a new and independent press. Ninety years later, and in a vastly different world, authoritarian rule in China continues to assert itself, while free speech and journalistic independence are frustrated. Earlier this month, Freezing Point resumed publication under a new editor. It may have been tamed for the moment, but the issues raised by its closure, and by Yuan Weishi’s remarks on historical distortions in education, are not so easily shunted aside.

When it comes to China, there is a lot of history to recover before questions of veracity and achievement can be productively explored. History might not repeat itself, however the stymieing of basic rights means that the histories of years past continue to haunt the present.

Geremie R. Barm√© is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at The Australian National University. He co-directed the film Morning Sun (Boston, 2003), and his latest work is Sang Ye’s oral history, China Candid: the People on the People’s Republic (University of California Press, 2006), edited with Miriam Lang.



Footnotes:

[1] John Howard, “Australia Day Address to the National Press Club”, 25 January 2006. See http://www.australianpolitics.com/news/2006/01/06-01-25_howard.shtml

[2] For both Chinese and English versions of Yuan’s essay, “Modernization and History Textbooks”, see
www.zonaeuropa.com/20060126_1.htm Yuan Weishi does, however, stop short of providing crucial historical detail regarding the real reasons behind the sacking of the Garden of Perfect Brightness. It is an incident regarded as marking the turning point in China’s relations with the West. Today the site is used for patriotic education. For the details of the history and destruction of the garden, see my “The Garden of Perfect Brightness, a life in ruins”, East Asian History (June 1996), pp.111-158.

[3] See Rae Yang (Yang Rui), Spider Eaters: A Memoir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[4] From an interview with Yu Luowen in the documentary film Morning Sun (Boston: Long Bow Group, 2003). See
www.morningsun.org

[5] See Xu Xiao et al., eds, Yu Luoke yizuo yu huiyi (Beijing: Zhongguo wenlian chuban gongsi, 1999).

[6] In 1999, a group of independent editors published a volume of editorials, articles and speeches gleaned from the pre-1949 communist press in which repeated assurances were given by party leaders and thinkers that under their rule China, unlike the Soviet Union, would be an open democracy. See Yingzi, The Herald of History”solemn promises made fifty years ago (Lishide xiansheng”bange shiji qiande zhuangyan chengnuo, Shantou: Shantou daxue chubanshe, 1999).

[7] Huang Renyu, Wanli shiwu nian (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986, 2nd impression); Ray Huang, 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

[8] Yuan Weishi, ed., Gaobie zhongshiji: Wusi wenxian xuancui yu jiedu (Guangzhou: Guangdong renmin chubanshe, 2004).