Sunday, September 6, 2015

Chinese History and Me

In my school days, Chinese History was my favorite subject, apart from Chinese Literature and English Literature. Over recent years, I've developed a passion for reading historical fiction set in different parts of the world. While doing research on Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang for my historical epic, which I've just finished writing, my passion for Chinese History was rekindled. For me as a writer, the distant past is a hidden treasure trove of countless riveting human stories, in particular China's dynastic past.

Several years ago I read Xiao Jiansheng's Chinese History Revisited (中國文明的反思), which I found emotion-evoking as well as thought-provoking. I've just stumbled upon an English translation of the Foreword to the book and would like to share an excerpt of it:-

"In the 1980s, when I was writing the biography Xiong Xiling, Chinese Premier of the Republican Period, I started to systematically re-examine Chinese history. In those days just after China's reforms started, many continued to view history in terms of class struggle, forcing it into this straitjacket of revolutionary proletarian struggle even though it did not apply. Everyone was either a revolutionary or reactionary, even though these overly simplistic distinctions were clearly irrelevant. I reacted against this kind of analysis, and thought a more deeply thought analysis of Chinese history was needed.

Over the past twenty years, studies of Chinese history have improved much. But, on many major questions, the official versions of Chinese history have not made major improvements, and it could be said that they are even incoherent and inconsistent. Many Chinese are unwilling to take a hard look at Chinese history; this means that they do not have a clear understanding of our accomplishments, and are not able to learn from our own mistakes. There is not a clear consensus on what we should throw away, and what we should keep and preserve. As a result, what should have been discarded has been kept, and the core assets of our culture have been thrown away and treated as garbage.

For example, in ancient Chinese times, Laozi's (Lao-tzu) philosophy of respecting and following the ways of heaven, and governing without force; the Confucianists' philosophy of love for fellow humans and treating others as one would have them treat you; the Moists philosophy of universal love, equality and anti-violence were pushed aside as being overly idealistic and unrealistic. Instead violent authoritarianism and the way of the marshes (translators note: local powers which took over local responsibility for order when central authority was weak) were instead praised and prospered. Because the best parts of Chinese culture were not preserved, Chinese culture and civilization did not develop on a healthy path.

Every people needs to have a correct understanding of its own history and culture. Only through this understanding can it judge what is good and what is bad, setting it on a healthy path of development. It is very hard for a people which does not have a clear grasp of its past to have a bright future. If it does not have this understanding and consensus about its past, how can it face the future with confidence?

Even to this day, most Chinese view the Spring and Autumn Warring States period as a chaotic and dark period in Chinese history. If it was indeed such a dark period, then why was this a period where many competing schools of thought and philosophy competed in an open market of ideas? Why did so many philosophers, political and military theorists, scientists and writers flourish during this period? Why did Chinese society grow so much on the political, economic, and cultural levels all at the same time?

Even to this day, many view the Emperor Qinshihuangdi's political unification of China in the Qin Dynasty as a great political act, even though it was a violently totalitarian state. But these people fail to ask that if the Qin unification was such a great act, then why was it that China no longer produced such great political thinkers such as Laozi, Confucius and Mencius? Why has China been condemned to cycles of violent change which have repeated regularly for more than 2,000 years? Why did the Chinese live so miserably under the Qin Dynasty? And why did the Qin Dynasty have such a short life, and in the end, collapse so violently?

Even to this day, many view the Song Dynasty as authoritarian, corrupt, backward and weak, negating any of its contributions. But they forget to ask that if the Song Dynasty was so authoritarian, corrupt, backward and weak, why was it one of the leading cultures and civilizations of its time? Why did it produce gunpowder, the compass, movable type printing, just to name a few of its accomplishments? Why did Song political thought and its bureaucracy focus on worrying before the rest of the people, and celebrating after the rest of the people? Why did the Song produce the great concept of 人生自古誰無死,留取丹心照汗?

Even to this day, many praise the rules of the Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong as great periods of Chinese imperial history. But they forget to ask that if this was indeed such a great period in Chinese history, why was it that only 41 years later, China would come under attack from Britain, giving up Hong Kong to British rule, and having to recognize unequal treaties which humiliated China? Why did China become the sick man of Asia, with Chinese men wearing their hair in pigtails like idiots? Why did Gong Zizhen write 九州生氣持風雷,萬馬齊喑究可衰,我勸天公重抖擻,不拘一格降人才。

Now, many Chinese speak of a "revival of the great Chinese culture and civilization". But when they speak of this, have they really thought through what this great Chinese culture and civilization really is? Where has this greatness shone through? What are the parts of this civilization which they want to show? Who is really clear about this, and understands the real issues? If we are not even clear about what are the great parts of our own culture, then how can we even begin to talk about revival?"

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