One of the most significant cultural phenomena in Chinese society in recent years is the growing interest in history. Everyone—elite and general populace, leftists and rightists—shows an unprecedented enthusiasm for understanding China’s past. And in 2009 a series of major historical anniversaries, including the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, have pushed China’s “historical fever” to new highs. One of the major reasons stimulating the keen interest in history is that the “reforms” that followed June Fourth, returned China to a “pre-liberation” scenario almost overnight: bureaucratic corruption, moral bankruptcy, social injustice; to the point that, in some important aspects, such as higher education, the status quo in China is not as good as the KMT era, and many phenomena that people thought could not happen again, such as prostitution and the sale of official posts, not only occur, they do so on a far greater scale than in the past.
History has played a big joke on the Chinese, who having experienced countless sufferings and paid the price in countless lives, rather than gaining social progress with their bloody struggle, have turned full circle to find themselves back where they started. How exactly did this come about? Not only the elite, but also many ordinary people are puzzled by this problem. This historical puzzlement of unprecedented numbers of people is what drives China’s historically unprecedented “public history movement.”
The heroes emerging from this enlightenment are a group of intellectuals who have consciously and unconsciously enhanced the public’s knowledge of history. The role they play in promoting China’s social progress may far exceed that of the elite in control of the current political discourse. Two figures who, in my opinion, well represent these “modern heroes”, are Yi Zhongtian, and Shi Yue, who wrote Things Ming under the pen name Dangnian Mingyue [Moonlight Back Then]. One thing these two writers of very different age and experience have in common is use of modern mass media, to tell ordinary people, honestly and wittily, the true logic of the Chinese history in layman’s language. They not only subvert the “proper history” as repeatedly distorted by China officialdom, but also upgrade the “unofficial history” of China to new levels, because their telling of Chinese history is imbricated with the spirit and values of modern civilisation.
See all of David Kelly’s previous translations for CDT.