Chinese Revisionism

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. Orwell invented the slogan for Ingsoc, but it has been standard operating procedure for thousands of years of Chinese history.

Guardian: China’s memory manipulators
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.

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