From The American business magazine, on 'the China model,' this week:

The CPC is replacing old-style communist values with nationalism and a form of Confucianism, in a manner that echoes the "Asian values" espoused by the leaders who brought Southeast Asian countries through their rapid modernization process in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and elsewhere. But at the same time, in its public rhetoric, the party is stressing continuity and is assiduously ensuring that its own version of history remains correct. Historian Xia Chun-tao, 43, vice director of the Deng Xiaoping Thought Research Center, one of China’s core ideological think tanks, says, "It’s very natural for historians to have different views on events. But there is only one correct and accurate interpretation, and only one explanation that is closest to the truth." The key issues, he says, are “quite clearly defined” and not susceptible to debate. "There is a pool of clear water and there’s no need to stir up this water. Doing so can only cause disturbance in people’s minds."
From John Derbyshire's tour of Hangzhou, 2001:
Some political scientist — I forget who — has coined the phrase "pre-critical society" for those cultures that have not attained the ability to look objectively at themselves and their history. Fifty years of Party-line government and "thought control" have left China stuck firmly in the pre-critical stage of intellectual development.

This unhappy little fact was brought home to me at the mausoleum of Yue Fei in Hangzhou. Yue Fei is a national hero. He lived in the early twelfth century, a time of great crisis for the Chinese nation. The Song dynasty (960-1279: it was, by the way, arguably the most progressive and creative of China's 24 imperial dynasties) was under assault by the savage Jin barbarians of the far north. Yue Fei was commander of the Chinese armies fighting against the Jin. He won many brilliant victories against them, and was hugely popular with his troops and with the common people. At the court of the Song emperor, however, there was a faction that wanted to make peace with the Jin, and cede to them the large area of North China they had conquered. This faction was led by a senior official named Qin Hui. Yue Fei, of course, wanted to fight on, to regain the lost territories. Qin Hui, however, had the emperor's ear. He arranged a frame-up of Yue Fei, who was recalled to the capital and executed. North China was ceded to the Jin (and the dynasty is thereafter known as the Southern Song, with its capital at Hangzhou).

This incident is regarded as an outrage by all patriotic Chinese, and seems even to have aroused strong feelings at the time. The following emperor had Yue Fei posthumously rehabilitated. The great warrior was re-buried in a grand mausoleum, which is now a popular tourist spot. Statues of Qin Hui, of his wife (who was involved in some way I have forgotten), and two of Yue Fei's subordinates who had co-operated in the frame-up were set in front of the tomb, all in a kneeling position — kneeling humbly before the patriot they had wronged. It used to be the custom for visitors to the mausolem to spit on the statue of Qin Hui. This has now been forbidden, however, and when I saw it, the statue was spittle-free. (The only surface area of its size anywhere in China of which this could be said.)

Strolling around the pleasant grounds of the mausoleum, I wondered aloud to Rosie — who can be taken here as a sort of lay figure, a representative well-educated thirty-something mainland Chinese — whether any bold historian had tried to make a name for himself by arguing a revisionist view of the Yue Fei incident, showing that Qin Hui was right and Yue Fei really a dangerous plotter.

Rosie was scandalized by this notion. "If anyone wrote such a thing, his statue would be put next to Qin Hui's for people to spit on." I persisted, with all the usual arguments about the difficulty of getting to the bottom of historical matters. President Kennedy was shot less than forty years ago. We have film footage of the event, and independent judicial inquiries have been carried out at vast expense, yet people are still arguing about what happened. Are we quite sure we have all the facts about a palace intrigue of nine hundred years ago?

Rosie wouldn't hear of it. Yue Fei was a great national hero, she sniffed. Qin Hui was a contemptible traitor, who sold himself and his country for cash. "Everybody knows." No use to point out (though I did anyway, from sheer force of habit) that until quite recently, "everybody knew" that the sun revolved around the earth, but that careful inquiry had showed this not to be the case. No use: I had hit the Wall.

This failure to develop a properly critical attitude to one's culture and history is a natural consequence of despotic government, with all its grisly apparatus of propaganda and intimidation. At any give time there is only one correct "line" in a despotism. To present any alternative version of things is at least anti-social, and may be seen as treasonous.

Yet Qin Hui must have been a man of great intelligence and ability. He had risen to the highest rank in government via stiff competitive examinations, and no doubt had survived many savage and complex court intrigues. Are we really to suppose that he would have no arguments to bring to his defense? After all, in any conflict there is a peace faction and a war faction, and the peace faction is sometimes right. King Alfred made peace with the Danes and ceded half of England to them: he is revered as the savior of his nation. And powerful, popular generals sometimes do have designs on the throne — most disastrously, in Chinese history, An Lu-shan, whose rebellion in the middle of the eighth century wrecked the Tang dynasty.
My wife and I lived in Hangzhou for a while. I can confirm the truth of the story about the statues.

Today's question: does this make for a stronger or a weaker society? We have a few national heroes left: Martin Luther King, Jr., being a clear example. We haven't got any national traitors that we are all willing to agree to scorn. Is that a strength or a weakness for our culture, compared to China's? Why do you say so?

No comments: