“100 Years of Humiliation.” It’s a phrase so common I think most people have unfortunately stopped listening. An essay by author Lijia Zhang in The Guardian quotes 67-year old Beijing resident Xie Fengzhi: “I want foreigners to see what China has achieved. We were called the ‘sick man of Asia’. Now we are strong and rich enough to hold such a major international event.” The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Mr. Li, also of Beijing: “The history of the last 100 years has been a history of humiliation for the Chinese. Finally we are standing up, so this is a big moment for all Chinese.”
Indeed it is. Though the CCP would probably like to amend part of Mr. Li’s statement because — officially at least — the 100 years of humiliation ended in 1949 with the founding of the PRC. The violence and avarice of foreign imperialist powers in China gets full play in the educational system and in popular culture. The dark periods of the post-liberation era…not so much. After all, the CCP’s legacy as ‘liberators’ of China from the yoke of feudalism and imperialism is an integral part of the Party’s legitimizing ideology down to the present day, a legacy which has enabled the Party to survive despite the enormous suffering wrought during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
China’s educational and information environment emphasizes China’s humiliation at the hands of the foreign powers. The standard line is that the ‘decline’ of the Qing Empire was the direct result of foreign aggression and the exploitation of the people by the forces of feudalism in league with the imperialist powers. China’s subsequent ‘weakness’ in the world is thus not the fault of the Chinese people, who until recently lacked the suitable revolutionary leadership to organize and mobilize the masses in throwing off their oppressors and standing up to the world.
It hardly needs restating, but this memory of impotence and suffering at the hands of foreign aggression remains a powerful force. It is part of the reason for the bitter reaction in China to foreign criticism and international condemnation of Chinese government policies.
In the PRC — to an extent perhaps greater than in many other places — history and politics are nearly inseparable. Problems during the Great Leap Forward? Blame it on lingering feudal elements, bad weather, and subterfuge by China’s historical enemies. Problems in the Western Provinces? Blame it on meddlesome former colonizers and their traitorous lackeys seeking a way in through the backdoor.
But when history is used for the Party’s gain, it loses the nuance and complexity which make history so fascinating. Like much in China’s educational system, there is little room for counter-narratives, alternative perspectives, or theoretical complexity. My own research focuses on the destructiveness of colonialism in certain cities along the coastline of the Qing Empire. It was a a violent process by which whole societies were destabilized over time leading to resentment and, in many cases, armed resistance. I am hardly an apologist for foreign imperialism, at the same time there is much to the China’s long 19th century that cannot be easily shoehorned into the ‘standard’ narrative. History is complex. History is messy. That’s why it is such a capricious friend to those who seek to enlist it in the service of contemporary politics.
Moreover, what are the unintended consequences when history paints the world in stark Manichean terms of Inner/Outer and Good/Evil?
In Peter Hessler’s first book, Rivertown, there’s a vignette from the time of the Hong Kong handover where the author asks a young student, “Who are China’s enemies?” The student rattles off a list of names: England for the Opium Wars, Japan for the Nanjing Massacre, Portugal for Macau. One supposes had the query been a few years later, the student would have likely added the United States for the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. It’s an unsurprising list, but Hessler than stumps the lad by asking simply: “Who are China’s friends?” For that, the student had no answer.