When I first went to China in 1984, my fellow foreign classmates and I at Peking University used to play a game with an old guidebook. Called Nagel's Encyclopaedia Guide: China, it was first published in 1968 in Switzerland and featured descriptions of important cultural sites visited by French diplomats and scholars. The key for us was that they had gathered the information in the 1950s and the early 1960s. In other words, this was just before Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed tens of thousands of places of worship and historic sites across China. We would look a place up in Beijing and set off on our bikes to see what was left.
I remember one trip to find the Five Pagoda Temple, which was built in the late 15th century and featured five small pagodas on top of a massive stone platform. Nagel's said most had been destroyed in the turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that the five pagodas were still there. Our 1980s maps of Beijing showed nothing, but Nagel's intrigued us. Did it still exist?
We rode down Baishiqiao Street and tried to superimpose Nagel's maps of old "Pékin" on our maps of an exhausted, post-Cultural Revolution Beijing. Eventually we had to stop and ask. After many fruitless efforts, we were led through the gates of a factory and into the temple, which was hidden in the back. All that was left was the large stone platform, topped by five stone pagodas. Tiles had fallen off the roof, and slabs of stone bearing inscriptions and decoration lay smashed on the ground. Weeds grew everywhere. Still, we walked the grounds with a sense of wonder: here was something that had vanished from today's maps, and yet it existed. In one structure we had the story of China's cultural grandeur, foreign invasions, auto-cultural destruction, but also of survival. Here, thanks to our odd guidebook, we had Chinese history in a nutshell - the past and the present.
Observing China sometimes requires a lens like Nagel's. Walking the streets of China's cities, driving its country roads, and visiting its centres of attraction can be disorienting. On the one hand, we know this is a country where a rich civilisation existed for millennia, yet we are overwhelmed by a sense of rootlessness. China's cities do not look old. In many cities there exist cultural sites and tiny pockets of antiquity amid oceans of concrete. When we do meet the past in the form of an ancient temple or narrow alleyway, a bit of investigation shows much of it to have been recreated. If you go back to the Five Pagoda Temple today, you will find a completely renovated temple, not a brick or tile out of place. The factory has been torn down and replaced by a park, a wall, and a ticket booth. We might be on the site of something old, but the historical substance is so diluted that it feels as if it has disappeared.
What does this tell us about a country? Optimists feel a sense of dynamism - here, at last, is a country getting on with things while the rest of the world stagnates or plods forward. This is always said with amazement and awe. The apex of this era of wonder came shortly before the 2008 Olympics, when the western media tripped over itself trying to trot out the most effusive praise for China's rise/transformation/rejuvenation - pick your cliche. Typical was a New York Times architectural critic, who raved upon arrival in Beijing in 2008 about "the inescapable feeling that you're passing through a portal to another world, one whose fierce embrace of change has left western nations in the dust" and concluded that "one wonders if the west will ever catch up".
Other emotions are more ambiguous. The bluntest I have experienced is this: a country that has so completely obliterated and then recreated its past - can it be trusted? What eats at a country, or a people, or a civilisation, so much that it remains profoundly uncomfortable with its history? History is lauded in China. Ordinary people will tell you every chance they get that they have 5,000 years of culture: wuqiannian de wenhua. And for the government, it is the benchmark for legitimacy in the present. But it is also a beast that lurks in the shadows.
It is hard to overstate history's role in a Chinese society run by a communist party. Communism itself is based on historical determinism: one of Marx's points was that the world was moving inexorably towards communism, an argument that regime-builders such as Lenin and Mao used to justify their violent rises to power. In China, Marxism is layered on top of much older ideas about the role of history. Each succeeding dynasty wrote its predecessor's history, and the dominant political ideology - what is now generically called Confucianism - was based on the concept that ideals for ruling were to be found in the past, with the virtuous ruler emulating them. Performance mattered, but mainly as proof of history's judgment.
That means history is best kept on a tight leash. Shortly after taking power in 2012 as chairman of the Communist party, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping re-emphasised this point in a major speech on history published in People's Daily, the official party newspaper. Xi is the son of a top party official who helped found the regime, but who fell out with Mao, and suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Some thought that Xi might take a more critical view towards the Mao era, but in his speech, he said that the 30 years of reform that began under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, should not be used to "negate" the first 30 years of communist rule under Mao.
The Five Pagoda Temple in Beijing was a ruin in the 1980s. It has now been renovated. Photograph: Alamy
The unstated reason for Xi's unwillingness to disavow the Mao era is that Mao is not just China's Stalin. The Soviet Union was able to discard Stalin because it still had Lenin to fall back on as its founding father. For the Communist party of China, Mao is Stalin and Lenin combined; attack Mao and his era and you attack the foundations of the Communist state. Five years after the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao's death in 1976, the party issued a statement that condemned that era and Mao's role in it, but which also ended further discussion of Mao by declaring that "his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary."
But on a broader level, history is especially sensitive because change in a communist country often starts with history being challenged. In the 1980s, for example, groups such as the historical-research society Memorial morphed into a social movement that undermined the Soviet Union by uncovering its troubled past. Today's China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the government's grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history is legitimacy. Even though history is, by definition, past, it is also China's present and future.
Chinese cities are ghost towns. Not in the sense of real estate boondoggles - vast complexes built prematurely, lying empty, and crumbling - though there are some of those. Instead, the country's urban centres are built on an obliterated past, which only sometimes seeps into the present through strange-sounding names for streets, parks, and subway stops.
In Beijing, like scores of cities across the country, streets are very often named after their relationship to things that no longer exist, ghostly landmarks, such as city gates, temples, memorial arches, and forgotten historical events. In the capital, for example, the Foreign Ministry is located on Chaoyangmenwai, or the Street Outside the Chaoyang Gate. Just a few hundred metres west, the street changes name to Chaoyangmennei, or the Street Inside the Chaoyang Gate. In between is the Second Ring Road. The streets' names only make sense if you realise that the ring road was built on the site of the city walls, which had a passageway right there, Chaoyangmen, the Chaoyang Gate. The wall has become a highway and the gate an interchange. Nothing beyond the street names exists in the neighbourhood to remind you of either spectral structure.
It is always possible for a sceptic to downplay a phenomenon by saying, but wait, that exists elsewhere too. One could say that all cities have neighbourhoods or streets named after people or events long since forgotten to all but history buffs. This is of course true, but in China the cultural dislocation is greater, and the barriers to memory are higher. China does have online encyclopedias, as well as books that explain Beijing's history. Some even sell well, such as the path-breaking work City Record, by the Xinhua news agency journalist Wang Jun. But these are heavily edited, and require cultural knowledge that most Chinese people today lack. Back in the 1990s, it was still possible to find citizen activists who fought to preserve the old city because it meant something to them. Nowadays, few real Beijingers live in the old city; they have been relocated to suburbs and replaced by migrants (poor ones from China's hinterland, or rich expats) with no link to the city's past. The city has its stories, but to most residents they are mysterious.
Chinese cities are ghost towns. They are built on an obliterated past, which only sometimes seeps into the present
Another difference is that efforts to commemorate the past are often misleading or so fragmentary as to be meaningless. Almost all plaques at historical sites, for example, tell either partial histories or outright lies. A few steps east of the Foreign Ministry, for example, is the Temple of the East Peak. Out front is a stone marker, which states that since 1961 it has been a nationally protected monument. A second plaque on the wall gives a few more details, explaining how the temple was built in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and is a key Taoist temple.
In reality, the temple was completely gutted in the Cultural Revolution, its statues burned or carted off to warehouses, where they were to be destroyed. Of the roughly 50 statues now in the temple, all but five are new. These five older statues belonged to another temple, Sanguanmiao (Three Officials Temple). After the Mao era ended in the late 1970s and temples reopened, the East Peak Temple's statues could not be located so it was given the statues from the Three Officials Temple, which remains occupied by a government office.
Visitors also learn nothing about how the temple's area was greatly reduced during the Cultural Revolution because it was occupied by military and public security agencies. When the Mao era ended, they vacated the central core of the temple - the three courtyards and buildings that one sees today. The rest was occupied by the Public Security Bureau until the 1990s, and eventually torn down and turned into commercial real estate in the early 2000s. The remaining structures barely function as a temple. When the military and public security moved out, the Ministry of Culture moved in and turned the temple into a museum of folk culture. It was only after a protracted struggle that the China Taoist Association retook partial control of the temple in the early 2000s, but it still must share the space.
Of course, the plaques explain none of this. Instead, one gets the impression that the temple is as it always was - an 800-year-old relic of China's great past. This history that I have sketched out is not definite or grounded in solid documentary evidence, but rather something that I have reconstructed by observing the temple over two decades and talking to Taoist priests who now work there. But until municipal archives are opened, this is probably the best we can hope for.
The Communist party does not just suppress history, it recreates it to serve the present. In China, this has followed the party's near self-destruction in the Cultural Revolution, which led to a desperate search for ideological legitimacy. At first, this was mainly economic, but following the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the party began to promote itself more aggressively as the defender of Chinese culture and tradition.
One way it has begun to do this has been to position itself as a protector of "intangible cultural heritage", a term adopted from Unesco, which keeps a country-by-country list of traditions important to specific nations. As opposed to world heritage sites, which are physical structures such as the Great Wall or Forbidden City, intangible heritage includes music, cuisine, theatre, and ceremonies.
Qianmen Avenue, rebuilt in the style of the the Ming and Qing dynasties. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images
As late as 1990s China, some of these traditions were still labelled "feudal superstition", a derogatory term in the communist lexicon synonymous with backward cultural practices. For example, traditional funerals were widely discouraged, but now are on the government list of intangible culture. So, too, religious music that is performed exclusively in Taoist temples during ceremonies.
Since taking power in November 2012, Xi Jinping has cloaked himself in the mantle of tradition more thoroughly than any Chinese leader since the imperial system collapsed in 1911. Building on the work of his predecessors, especially Hu Jintao and his call for a Taoist-sounding "harmonious society" (hexie shehui), Xi's ideological programme includes an explicit embrace of traditional ethical and religious imagery.
In 2013, according to a news report on 5 December of that year, Xi visited Confucius's hometown of Qufu, picked up a copy of The Analects - a book of sayings and ideas of the great sage - as well as a biography of him, and declared: "I want to read these carefully." He also coined his own Confucianesque aphorism - "A state without virtue cannot endure." The next year, he became the first Communist party leader to participate in a commemoration of Confucius's birthday. Speaking at the International Confucian Association, Xi said, "to understand today's China, today's Chinese people, we must understand Chinese culture and blood, and nourish the Chinese people's grasp of its own cultural soil". His classical allusions have become so numerous that on 8 May 2014, People's Daily published a full-page spread explaining them.
Soon into Xi's tenure as party chief, traditional rhetoric came to dominate the public space of China's cities. In mid-2013, for example, posters began going up across China that cleverly appropriated traditional Chinese art, coupling these images with references to the "China Dream".
The China Dream was to be Xi Jinping's contribution to national sloganeering - every top leader has to have at least one. Most refer to esoteric theories, such as Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents", which had to do with the party representing a broader swath of society than in the past. By contrast, Xi's idea was simple to grasp - who doesn't have a dream? The slogan would become associated with many goals, including nationalism and China's surge to global prominence, but domestically, its imagery was almost always linked to traditional culture and virtues.
In China, most traditional propaganda has a tired look: often red banners with white or gold lettering exhorting people to follow a Communist party policy, comply with a census, or make their local district more beautiful. The China Dream posters, however, were colourful, bright, and cute. Many of them featured paintings of clay figurines fashioned by "Niren Zhang" (Clay-man Zhang), a well-known folk artist as popular and well-known in China as Norman Rockwell is in the US. Traditionally, these clay figurines show scenes from daily and religious life, or entertainment, such as characters from Peking Opera, or gods such as Lord Guan. Sets of the figures were sent to world's fairs during the latter years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as examples of Chinese arts.
The most famous of the China Dream posters features a Clay-man Zhang figurine of a chubby little girl, dreamily resting her head. Below it is a poem that conflates personal and national dreams:
A fragrant dream
The author of this poem was Yi Qing, the pen name of Xie Liuqing. Xie is an editor of the magazine The World of Chinese and head of Salon Famous Blog of China, a blog that deals primarily with nationalist issues and is registered under the ministry of propaganda's official website. Xie also writes dramas and musical plays, all glorifying the party and especially Mao. Several dozen of his works based on big historical events have been published, made into movies or television shows, or staged in theatres. Some of his blog posts have been published by the party's chief ideological magazine, Seeking Truth.
On one level, Xie could simply be seen as a government apparatchik, cranking out material for the state's latest campaign. But when I went to visit him in 2013, his story turned out to be more interesting, and revealing of the sophisticated propaganda techniques used by the Communist party during the 2010s to create an ideology that can link traditional communism with traditional values.
Xie invited me to his office. This turned out to be a room at the Ordos Hotel in Beijing. I was surprised to learn that Xie lacked a proper government office as he was not the government official I had imagined, but instead a freelancer. We chatted for a while and he told me he was from Mao Zedong's home province, Hunan. Most of Xie's work was about Mao, who he said was a hero of modern China. "You can criticise him but you can't deny that he was important," said Xie. "This is my firm belief."
The 'China Dream' is the signature slogan of President Xi Jinping. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
We were joined by Zhang Jiabin, an editor at Red Flag Publishing House, a Communist party company that had just published a collection of the posters, and also of Xie's poetry. Xie showed us a short video of a ceremony honouring the China Dream posters. In the clip, Xie explained that he had seen the signature statue of the chubby girl while at an exhibition in the Beijing suburb of Huairou. He posted pictures online with a few couplets of poetry.
In early 2013, when the civilisation office, a government body, was planning a campaign to promote Xi Jinping's idea of a China Dream, they saw Xie's poems and the pictures of the figures. He met with officials and they brainstormed, coming up with the idea of broadening the campaign to include many forms of traditional culture, including peasant paintings and woodblock prints.
"They said, hey we need more poems, so I just dashed them off quickly and now they're up," he said as the video segment ended. "It's supposed to be a 60,000km campaign. That's how many kilometres of highways there are in China - we joke that every metre of every road will be covered with it."
The Comminist party has used sophisticated propaganda techniques to link traditional communism with traditional values
That was hardly an exaggeration. It was hard to avoid the posters. They sometimes advocated traditional values such as filial piety ("honesty and consideration, handed down through the generations"), other times outright admiration for the Communist party ("feet shackled, hands cuffed / sturdy grass withstands strong winds / the Communist party members on the road / the mountains can shake; their will is unshakeable / hot blood and spring flowers will write today's history"). Sometimes they just advocated patriotism or nationalism ("Our country is beautiful" and "It's springtime for our father's future"). All showed how for today's government, there was no better ally than history.
Sometimes the resurfacing of history into the public consciousness is inadvertent and apolitical. This was driven home to me one day in 2014 when I went to hear a talk at the main office of the National Archives, next to Beihai Park in Beijing. The speaker was Liu Guozhong, a professor at Tsinghua University with a heavy accent and small eyes that often disappeared when he laughed. Liu spoke freely, without notes, for 90 minutes about something that might seem obscure but that was slowly shaking China's intellectual world: the discovery of long-lost texts from 2,500 years ago.
The earliest-known Chinese texts are called oracle bones. Written on tortoise bones, they usually concern a narrow set of topics: should the crops be planted on such-and-such a day, should the king launch a war? Marry? Travel? Through them, the nitty-gritty concerns of a king's life could be fathomed.
The texts we were here to learn about had been written a millennium later on flat strips of bamboo, which were the size of chopsticks. These writings did not describe the miscellanea of court life - instead, they were the ur-texts of Chinese culture. Over the past 20 years, three batches of bamboo slips from this era have been unearthed. Liu was there to introduce the third - and biggest - of these discoveries, a trove of 2,500 that had been donated to Tsinghua University in 2008.
A guard stands by the illustration of a project to renovate Beijing's Qianmen street, in 2012. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The project to catalogue and study the slips is led by China's most famous historian, Li Xueqin. Li has headed numerous big projects, including an effort in the 1990s to date semi-mythical dynasties from roughly 5,000 years ago, such as the Xia and Shang, which are seen as the earliest dynasties in Chinese civilisation. For millennia, their existence was taken for granted, even though no texts or archaeological material relating to some were traceable (the historicity of the Xia in particular remains in doubt). In the early 20th century, historians in China started a "doubt antiquity" movement that challenged the existence of these dynasties, positing that they were merely myths. That was more than an intellectual dispute; it challenged the deeply cherished certainty among Chinese that theirs is one of the oldest civilisations on the planet, going back as far as ancient Egypt. Li's efforts essentially pushed back against this scepticism, marshalling evidence that these dynasties did indeed exist.
The bamboo slips that Liu was describing are from a much later date, but they challenge certainties of Chinese culture in other, possibly more profound ways. The texts stem from the Warring States period, an era of turmoil in China that ran from the 5th to the 3rd centuries BC. All major Chinese schools of thought that exist today stem from this era, especially Taoism and Confucianism, which has been the country's dominant political ideology, guiding kings and emperors - at least in theory - until the 20th century.
The bamboo slips change how we understand this era. Some have compared its impact on China's understanding of the past to how the past was viewed in Europe's Enlightenment, a period when western core texts were for the first time analysed as historical documents instead of texts delivered intact from antiquity. "It's as though suddenly you had texts that discussed Socrates and Plato that you didn't know existed," Sarah Allan, a Dartmouth university professor who has worked with Liu and Li in the project, told me a few months before I heard Liu speak. "People also say it's like the Dead Sea scrolls, but they're more important than that. This isn't apocrypha. These texts are from the period when the core body of Chinese philosophy was being discussed. They are transforming our understanding of Chinese history."
One of the surprising ideas that comes through in the new texts is that ideas that were only alluded to in the Confucian classics are now revealed as full-blown schools of thought that challenge key traditional ideas. One text, for example, argues in favour of meritocracy much more forcefully than is found in currently known Confucian texts. Until now, the Confucian texts only allowed for abdication or replacement of a ruler as a rare exception; otherwise kingships were hereditary - a much more pro-establishment and anti-revolutionary standpoint. The new texts argue against this. For an authoritarian state wrapping itself in "tradition" to justify its never-ending rule, the implications of this new school are subtle but interesting. "This isn't calling for democracy," Allan told me, "but it more forcefully argues for rule by virtue instead of hereditary rule."
Back in the auditorium next to Beihai Park, Liu continued to talk about the new findings. He flashed newspaper headlines on the screen. Media interest in China has been intense, he said. After each volume is released, the Chinese media rush to discuss the findings, while blogs and amateurs try their own hands at interpreting these new finds. The audience listened carefully to Liu as he outlined their Tsinghua team's publishing schedule.
"We think we have another 15 volumes, so that's another 15 years - until I'm retired," Liu said, laughing. "But then you and others will be debating this for the rest of this century. The research is endless."
Liu concluded and bowed to the audience. He had gone on past the allotted 90 minutes and the janitorial staff was eager to go home. No sooner did he leave the podium than they began to turn off the lights. But the audience rushed the stage, bombarding Liu with questions. There was a man from the I Ching Research Society asking how they should treat the new texts on divination. A graduate student from Peking University eagerly asked about the political implications of abdication. Liu answered them all, while handing out business cards. When the last of his stack was gone, people began to pass them around, snapping photos of his card with mobile phones. The room was now lit only by the dim winter sun. The guards at the back waited to lock the door but the crowd of two dozen would not let Liu leave. For them, he held a key to the present: the past.
This essay is adapted from The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, which will be published by OUP on 23 June
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