China’s Vast History Can’t Be Caught in the CCP’s Net
There are 10,000 stories of China. The government wants to tell only one of them.
China, the Orientalists said, was ancient, unchanging, and unchangeable. That’s a view long dropped by scholars. But it’s one that survives in the language of the Chinese Communist Party itself—a version of China’s history too often thoughtlessly reproduced in the West. As the party celebrates its anniversary of seizing power, that history is on full display.
The CCP’s allegiance to the unchanging never-never land of a timeless past is clear in its delineation of China’s borders, based on the furthest reaches of a Manchu-led empire, the Qing, but claimed to be eternal and perpetually “Chinese.” Yet more insidious is the mythologizing of Chinese identity itself as exotic, inscrutable, and fixed. “China” has been “this way” forever and thus must always be this way. Ideas like “democracy” are fundamentally alien to the Chinese character, which formed around constellations of ancient sages and untranslatable concepts.
Distortions of history are not unique to the Chinese Communist Party. A toxic current of white supremacy has dogged European historians, leaving, for instance, medievalists today struggling to shake off the fascists who haunt their fringes. But Western critics of imperialism are often more attuned to the ways in which their own history is distorted than the manner in which the Chinese government bends Chinese history to its will.
These ideas still linger in the standard terminology used in both Chinese and English to describe Chinese history. The Qin emperor is described not as creating an empire, nor conquering it, but unifying it, as though China was an ageless ideal he was merely making manifest. That’s an idea that was repeated by philosophers such as Confucius, who fantasized about a lost and glorious empire.
It permeates China’s telling of its past; the long walls, often built to enclose newly conquered territory, became a single Great Wall defending a nation. Hence quasi-historical epics such as Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, in which Matt Damon’s character abandons his mercenary philosophy and accepts the superiority of the vast, regimented machinery of the Chinese empire. The wall is presented as a microcosm of fetishized efficiency and selflessness within the film, as the traitorous white foreigners scheme to steal the wonders of gunpowder and find their minds blown by the very concept of loyalty and belonging.
This ageless Chinese-ness also becomes the backdrop of popular mainland TV serials such as Eternal Love, a syrupy 60-episode drama about immortals reincarnating and falling in love, where tens of thousands of years can pass within its plot and the clothing, culture, and even the very layout of a tavern remain unchanged.
But this mythic, monolithic China is just that: a myth.
From the Vietnamese architect of the Forbidden City to the Muslim eunuch who led Ming China’s celebrated treasure fleet, a multitude of stories and figures contradict and complicate that simple narrative.
Dynastic timelines have a way of obscuring how fragmented what we now call a singular “China” was. Just as ancient Greece was a mess of warring city-states rather than a singular unified mass, premodern China was a vast sprawl of warring peoples and territories with fuzzy borders and fuzzier claims. And in ordinary life, a multitude of folkways and languages prevailed, with literary Sinitic the (written) language of a small elite.
Even when the region was unified at the top, it was often led by non-Chinese—from the part-Turkic Tang to the Mongol Yuan to the Manchu Qing. Local leaders often ran autonomous kingdoms within a nominal greater power, sometimes no more unified than the Holy Roman Empire. Rebellions like that of the Miao chaotically carved quasi-independent regions out of the empire, but they are all too often brushed aside in the telling of peaceful, stable dynasties succumbing to decadence and corruption.
But the CCP presents itself today as the inheritor of a single, fixed Chinese identity. An 18th-century Manchu emperor taking a Uighur concubine becomes a symbol of how Xinjiang is rightfully China’s. A Central Asian heroine of the Northern Wei becomes a tale of patriotic unity. A Muslim admiral leading a fleet to depose a Sri Lankan king becomes a tale of China’s peaceful rise. Past empires’ imperial expeditions are thrown down the memory hole—by the Chinese government, if not by its neighbors.
Yet this long history of both Chinese imperialism and cultural exchange has created significant diaspora populations across Southeast Asia and beyond—and with it a commonality in traditions and mythologies. These, too, are part of the multitude of traditions stemming from a shared past—but they are too often erased.
Mainland Chinese are framed as the arbiters of authenticity. Food cooked by the diaspora is presented as knockoffs of a more true, more real Chinese version, even when the mainland versions themselves are modern inventions. Mainlanders are cited to shut down conversations about cultural appropriation held by the diaspora. And diaspora writers are treated as gateways and windows to the culture the diaspora originated from rather than worthy objects of interest in themselves.
In the mainland, the great richness of tradition was gutted by the CCP itself—in the campaigns against religion and superstition, in the imposition of linguistic uniformity, and in the destruction of local writers. Among the cultural casualties of the CCP were the nomadic Oroqen of northern China, who were made to conduct a final three-night-long ritual in the summer of 1952 to beg their gods to leave them forever. They weren’t the only ones. While many use the term “Beijing” as a metonym for the CCP, the city itself has been torn down, hollowed out, and remade, with its longtime inhabitants displaced.
Yet some of this survives in the diaspora. The practices of feng shui were largely abandoned in mainland China, but they have shaped Hong Kong’s skyscrapers for decades. The simplified characters of the mainland are often scorned by the users of what is known as traditional Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan—and Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese have an even more complicated historical relationship with Chinese-forged character sets.
And tales have a way of remaking themselves, especially when they spread. Take the story of mooncakes, the festive food of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Folk history claims that during the Yuan dynasty, rebels would hide secret revolutionary messages within them, unnoticed by the Mongol rulers. The story seems to have been invented, or at least become popular, in the 19th century, when revolutionary modernizers were fomenting rebellion against another set of northern rulers, the Manchu Qing. In its modern telling, it becomes a tale of Han resistance to foreign conquerors, implicitly justifying the current rulers who present themselves as defenders of the Chinese nation.
Yet that is not the only way to understand the story. One can also embrace a tale of revolution and overthrow of tyranny. Hong Kong has seen no small number of mooncakes tapping into this theme with protest slogans such as “No withdrawal, no dispersal” and “Be water” molded into them. These same revolutionary mooncakes have claimed even Chairman Mao Zedong himself, as his face is printed on mooncake boxes boldly stating, “To rebel is justified.”
The CCP does not own the idea of being Chinese, however much it would like to claim it does. Much like the party, many in the past have claimed to be the singular inheritors of great traditions, but such claims cut both ways. Ideas everywhere subvert themselves. Generation after generation of scholars may have read the Confucian classics, but among them was also Yuan Mei, who wrote What the Master Would Not Discuss, a subversive and eventually banned anthology of raunchy anti-establishment anecdotes.
The great river of Chinese traditions does not flow from one source, nor can it be contained by a single teller. Who we valorize from the past, whose stories we deem important, and the lessons we take from them are all our own choices.
The scholars of the past knew this. They saw history as a vessel for moral storytelling, compiling anthologies of virtuous lives. But there were always those whose versions of virtue differed. I would prefer to take as my exemplar not chaste widows or Maoist martyrs but the late Ming courtesan, historian, poet, and playwright Liang Xiaoyu. She hung a plaque in her room to the Three Queens of the Flowery Altar, three famous courtesans, and dubbed herself the main priest of this cult of fallen women.
The shrunken vision of the CCP is not the only way to see the Chinese past. There is no one true way of being Chinese. Chinese culture can’t be reduced to a single description. As the Dao De Jing says, the way that can be spoken is not the way.