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In China, ‘History Is a Religion’

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China Power

In China, ‘History Is a Religion’

The Diplomat speaks with Zheng Wang about the role of history in Chinese politics, including foreign policy.

In China, ‘History Is a Religion’
Credit: Mao Zedong mausoleum image via Shutterstock

With tensions between China and Japan continuing to fester, The Diplomat turns to regular contributor Dr. Zheng Wang to better understand how history shapes politics in China. Wang is the author of the book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, in which he argues that “Chinese people’s historical consciousness and the complex of myth and trauma are the dominant ideas in China’s public rhetoric.”

With the publication of the Japanese version of the book, what do you want to say to Japanese readers, especially given the background of rising tensions between China and Japan?

As I present in this book, historical memory is the most useful key to unlocking the inner mystery of the Chinese, as it is the prime raw material for constructing China’s national identity. As we all know, many problems between China and Japan are deeply rooted in history. Thus, I think it is extremely important for the people of both countries to be aware of other side’s perceptions and understandings of history. As long as both sides remain ignorant of the other country’s perspective and the reasons behind it, finding a solution will remain impossible. I hope this book can help Japanese readers better understand the Chinese historical consciousness.

I know many Japanese readers are familiar with Chinese nationalism. Due to the media coverage, people are also aware about China’s “patriotic education.” However, Chinese nationalism is a very complicated social phenomenon that cannot be explained simply through education or government manipulation. In fact, oversimplification has been a major reason for many misunderstandings between the Chinese and the Japanese. When people have difficulty understanding others, the tendency is to use oversimplified notions, concepts or generalizations when thinking about the other side. This book does not simply use historical grievances to explain why the Chinese are unhappy with Japan; that is far too simple a usage of the rich knowledge that can come from an understanding of historical memory.

Therefore I would advise Japanese readers to read this book as whole rather than only focus on patriotic education or history education in China. Patriotic education without a doubt is government propaganda, but the contentions of history education are not fiction. While the full picture of history may not be presented, the violence and war crimes were real and affected millions of Chinese families. I really hope this book can help readers of both countries reflect upon this part of history, particularly how to teach this violent and dark history to the younger generations in both China and Japan.

I noticed that in Japan some people in Japan zero-in on China’s patriotic education to explain China’s nationalism and resentment towards Japan, diminishing Japan’s responsibility in the matter. This kind of interpretation is wrong and dangerous because it will not help reconciliation between the two countries. It will also make Japan lose an opportunity to reflect on its own approach to history and history education. Conflict is always mutual. Without reflection of one’s own behavior and responsibility, it will not help the realization of conflict resolution and reconciliation. I hope this book can draw people’s attention to the importance of history education and historical narrative in China-Japan relations. Without addressing this deep source and tough obstacle, it might be impossible for the two countries to find a path to sustainable coexistence.

In your book, you say that “History is a religion to the Chinese.” How should we understand this phrase? Why do you think history education is important?

I used this quote in this book to emphasize the special power historical memory has over the Chinese people. Hu Ping, a Chinese writer, once wrote: “For Chinese people, history is our religion… We don’t have a supernatural standard of right and wrong, good and bad, so we view History as the ultimate Judge.” Hu made the point in his article that the majority of those in China do not practice any religion, so the influence of religion over Chinese is not as big as for some other countries, and history (including history narrative and education) has played some role as a religion in China.

It is true that the Chinese have a strong historical consciousness, and are very proud of their country, believing the Chinese civilization is the oldest continuous civilization in the world with its recorded history extending in an unbroken chain over five thousand years. The Chinese are also a group of people who regularly look backward, using the past to define the present and future. For example, President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream is his vision for the future of China, but it is also deeply connected with China’s experience of “the century of national humiliation” and based on the idea of so-called “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In my book, I also mention that historical memory is like China’s “national deep culture” and “national ideas” — “the collective beliefs of societies and organizations about how to act.” National ideas are difficult to change, as they become ingrained in public rhetoric and bureaucratic procedures that make them resilient, like all traditions that are institutionally entrenched. These ideas often unconsciously but profoundly influence people’s perceptions and actions.

Given this group of people with strong historical consciousness, history education no doubt plays a big role. In fact, history education is important to every country, democratic and authoritarian. History is not just one of the normal subjects at school; it plays an important role in constructing a nation’s identity and perceptions. History education not only has shaped the younger generation’s understanding of their own country, but it also deeply influenced their view of the outside world, especially those countries that had historic problems with China. The recent rise of nationalism in China is an example that the change of history education can significantly influence a generation of people’s attitudes and perceptions.

In this book you describe Chinese nationalism as “fundamentally a myth-trauma nationalism.” What do you mean by this? What caused the recent rise of nationalism in China?

By saying Chinese nationalism is fundamentally myth-trauma nationalism, I emphasize a special symptom of the “myth-trauma complex.” On the one hand, this group of people is very proud of their country’s past achievements, especially its ancient civilization. On the other hand, due to education and social discourse, special national experiences like the century of national humiliation became unforgettable national traumas. The complex of myth and trauma played a very important role in shaping this group of people’s national identity. It is true that China is no longer as weak and isolated as it once was. It is now a strong state that has the power to impact global affairs. However, the Chinese people have not really moved forward from their past humiliation. In fact, China’s new accomplishments and growing confidence often serve to strengthen this historical consciousness by activating, not assuaging, people’s memory of the past humiliation. Today, the Chinese are even more sensitive about other countries’ attitudes towards China and whether China receives good treatment with proper status.

Nationalism is a complex phenomenon. There are different types of nationalism, which can be expressed along civic, ethnic, cultural, religious, or ideological lines. Compared with other countries, China’s new nationalism is neither religiously, ethnically, nor ideologically based; it is tied to China’s national experiences and strong historical consciousness. It is largely based on this special myth-trauma complex.

To understand the cause of recent rise nationalism in China, we need to go to 1989. After the students’ movement and the military crackdown, the Chinese Communist Party was in a huge legitimacy crisis. People no longer believed in socialism, communism, and the Party. Thus, the Party’s big decision was to use nationalism and patriotic education in order to strengthen the Party’s legitimacy as the ruling party and primary source of social cohesion. The change to historical education and social narrative after 1989 has proved to be very effective, judging by recent events. Influenced by patriotic education and nationalist narratives, the younger generation has grown more nationalistic, and their rising confidence from China’s rapid growth has further strengthened nationalistic sentiment.

Another reason worth mentioning is that during Hu Jintao’s tenure the government lacked long-term plans and integration of foreign policy, creating a huge foreign policy vacuum. The government was found to be very passive in handling international affairs, which many Chinese found unsatisfactory. Thus, when Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, his administration found that there was a strong voice at home for tougher foreign policy and support for taking more actions over sovereignty issues (i.e. the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku). Unsurprisingly, it would be attractive for the new leadership to please their domestic base by adopting a more nationalistic foreign policy.

It’s easy to see how the narrative of national humiliation affects China’s perceptions of the West and the imperial powers (including Japan). But what about China’s neighbors who were also victims of imperialism? How does China’s historical memory affect its relationship with ASEAN, India, Korea, and other neighbors?

This is an interesting question. Many Chinese have strong sense of victimization, of China being a victim of imperialism. However, many are not sensitive about China’s neighboring countries’ historical memory of China, especially countries that may consider themselves as victims of the Chinese empire. Historical memory is always selective. Many of today’s Chinese know nothing of the war between China and India in 1962, but this war was a national trauma for many of today’s young Indians. Also many Chinese believe that China is a peace-loving country and consider the ancient tribute system as a form of Chinese generosity and kindness to its neighbors as the Chinese empires did not impose direct rule. However, Vietnam’s narrative of being resistant to Chinese invasions and their ancestors’ heroic behavior against Chinese forces have been an important myth-trauma complex and played an important role in the formation of Vietnam’s contemporary national identity.

This gap of understanding has actually impacted China’s current relationship with its neighbors. Where China sees itself as a victim of imperialism, neighboring countries tend not to share this kind of brotherhood with China as they were both victims of Western imperialism. They see China as past invaders, and it is difficult for them to avoid using this historical lens to look at today’s China. That is the reason for the high level of anxiety and vigilance towards China. Unfortunately, many Chinese do not understand this. Chinese tend to believe that this understanding is part of an American conspiracy wherein the U.S. is pushing these countries against China.

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Dream has become the new ideology of the CCP. How does historical memory and the humiliation narrative provide insights to better understand Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream narrative?

What is the Chinese Dream? Xi believes that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history.” Even though Xi is the first Chinese leader to promote the “Chinese Dream,” the concept of national rejuvenation has been used by many Chinese leaders. Actually, almost every generation of Chinese leaders, from Sun Yet-sen to Chiang Kai-shek and from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, has used the national humiliation discourse and the goal of rejuvenation to mobilize the Chinese populace to support their revolution or reform. Compared with previous usage of the rejuvenation narrative, however, the Chinese Dream narrative focuses more on making China a better place, with more strength, prosperity, and advancements. This is a more positive attitude compared with the past emphasis on grievances. Therefore, the Chinese Dream can be considered as an updated version of the rejuvenation narrative, even a transition to a new narrative in the future.

It is an oversimplification to view the rejuvenation narrative as solely a propagandistic or ideological campaign. The concept of national rejuvenation is deeply rooted in China’s national experience and collective memory. Rejuvenation represents the shared desire of the Chinese who want their country to be strong, prosperous, and free of foreign invasions, as was previously discussed. National rejuvenation is a concept essential for the construction of China’s national identity, having embedded itself in China’s education, popular culture, and social narratives. Because the rejuvenation concept is so ingrained in the Chinese understanding of history, it is important for China watchers, especially those not physically immersed in Chinese society, to grasp the concept of rejuvenation and its relationship with Chinese historical consciousness and national identity formation in order to identify the real meaning of the Chinese Dream.

Historical memory is not set in stone. In the book, you note that the CCP under Mao Zedong didn’t emphasize national humiliation in historical education. What factors might cause the CCP to alter its current view of history?

History is often like a little doll; you can dress it in any way you choose. In the past two or three decades, we have witnessed dramatic changes to the historical narrative in China, from Chairman Mao’s victor narrative to Jiang Zemin’s victim narrative, from Mao’s class struggle narrative to the post-Tiananmen imperialism narrative. We have also witnessed the dramatic impact of the narrative changes in China. It partially explains why China’s social movement changed from anti-dictatorship democratic movement of the 1980s to anti-Western nationalism in the 1990s. For the foreseeable future, the CCP is most likely to continue and to further strengthen patriotic education. For example, China’s People’s Congress recently approved making the Nanjing Massacre and the end of World War Two national anniversaries. It will also conduct numerous activities in 2015 to memorialize the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. The Chinese government clearly believes these anniversaries and activities will help bolster the people’s historical consciousness about this part of history. Also, importantly, it also wants to use historic anniversaries as tools to influence foreigners’ perceptions about history and as part of the strategy to deal with Japan, especially historical revisionism in Japan. Using anniversaries and historical events as tools for diplomatic rivalry is no doubt a new approach.

It is probably easy for people outside China to say that China should “move forward” from historical grievance. However, for the Chinese themselves, historical memory of past humiliation is not just a psychological issue or something only related to perception and attitude. It is a key element of constructing the Chinese national identity. But it also does not mean the CCP and the government will continue this historical narrative indefinitely. Dramatic change may happen again. We will not be able to predict what type of and when political change will occur in China, but one thing is certain: whenever there is major political change, there will be concomitantly a change to China’s historical narrative and history education. From this stance, probably we can still say that history is a religion to the Chinese people. The only thing is that the bible of this religion can be rewritten and reinterpreted as time passes.

Zheng Wang is the Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. His book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations won the International Studies Association’s Yale H. Ferguson Award for the best book of the year. The Japanese version of the book 中国の歴史認識はどう作られたのか was published by Toyo Keizai Inc. in May 2014.