History, as we generally understand it, is the study of past events, especially those relating to human affairs. Apart from the ‘what, when and how’ historians also ask ‘why’. As a consequence, there is no final version of history. New information is discovered and novel interpretations applied to events. The ‘history wars’ are neverending. In Paul’s famous expression, we are looking ‘through a glass, darkly’.
This is not so in China, where a Marxist interpretation of history is mandated. Influenced by his philosophic predecessors, including Hegel and Fichte, Marx adapted a dialectic method which is revealed in the writings of the Chinese Communist party. A consequence is that the three eras of the PRC, namely the rule of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping are a journey to a higher form of communism. Mao’s era represents a thesis, Deng’s the antithesis, to which Xi is now delivering the synthesis. History is only a record of the past insofar as it is a reflection of the CCP’s narrative about the present and the future. In the hands of Xi, it brooks no other interpretation. Any apparent contradiction, such as Deng’s embrace of more capitalist economics, is explained as a stage through which the country advanced without any concession that the communist path had taken a different direction.
Utilising the Marxist approach to history, Xi’s socialism with Chinese characteristics is the inevitable outcome of the work of the party. Equally, this approach mandates that there is only one future, as determined by the party. Being cognisant of this perspective about history is central to understanding the CCP’s official version of the party which was adopted in November 2021. Titled the ‘Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century’, it is only the third such document in almost a century, the previous two being released under Mao in 1945 and Deng in 1981. The document places Xi Jinping at the apex of the communist triumvirate. As this document has become mandated study for the Chinese people, knowledge of its narrative is important to understanding the CCP’s intentions.
The document contains numerous assertions that are untrue or questionable. The most obvious are the claims, oft repeated by Xi, that the nation has a glorious 5,000-year history, only interrupted by the 1840 Opium War and foreign subjugation. Hence the resolution records: ‘With a history stretching back more than 5,000 years, the Chinese nation is a great and ancient nation that has fostered a splendid civilisation and made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilisation.’
‘After the Opium War of 1840, however, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society due to the aggression of Western powers and the corruption of feudal rulers. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to untold misery, and the Chinese civilisation was plunged into darkness.’
There in two paragraphs is the motif of the CCP: a great civilisation soured and destroyed by Western imperialists. True, this narrative was not confined to the communists, but it is exploited by their nationalistic fervour.
Xi’s history of China is part truth and part fiction, not intended to accurately record the events of the past, but to serve the Marxist cause of defining the future.
China’s history is a product of its geography. 94 per cent of modern China’s population live on the rich, fertile plains of the south and east of the country, despite the fact that this is only 43 per cent of the total land mass. This is the region through which China’s three great river systems run – the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Pearl – before flowing into the Yellow and China Seas. It is also the region that receives the most rain. It is the fertile land which the Han settled and developed over centuries. Indeed, an imaginary boundary, known as the Hu Line, separates this sought-after region from the rest of China. To the west is the high Tibetan plateau, and beyond that the Himalayas, the great mountain range formed by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Being so fertile, the region to the east and south of the Hu Line was subject to regular incursions and invasions, particularly by the Mongols, who established the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), although they had ruled China for many previous decades, and the Manchus whose Qing dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1911. For much of the second millennium, China was not ruled by the Han.
There was not one uninterrupted flow of Chinese history. The Han Ming dynasty, which replaced the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty in 1368, was for three centuries a citadel of great culture and civilisation, but in its latter period, suffered large-scale civil conflict and ultimate financial collapse. As the Russian American sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin noted, civilisations tend to move from the ideational to the sensate over time. As Cicero observed of Rome, it was ‘the enemy within’ that destroys civilisations.
Despite significantly expanding the Great Wall as a defensive structure across the north of the empire, the Han were defeated by Manchu armies which in 1644 founded the Qing dynasty. The claim that Western nations, led by Britain, were unfair to China is true, but overlooks the fact that the Qing dynasty sunk into a wanton state of corruption, sclerosis and internal conflict. Some 20 million people were killed in the Taiping civil war between Manchu and Han forces between 1850 and 1864. Nor was it the communists which replaced the Qing. Rather, it was Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the nationalist Kuomintang and the inaugural president of the new Republic of China in 1912, and his compatriots.
The historic consequences of this geographic reality are deeply ingrained in the generational consciousness of the Han who in various ways have endeavoured to build a wall around their homeland. The Great Wall of China, which was expanded and significantly fortified under the Ming dynasty, was a barrier against Mongol and Manchu invaders. More recently, the annexation and occupation of Tibet, the oppression of the Uighurs in East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and the attempt to claim parts of the Himalayas from India create a further barrier to invasion. The incursion by European powers is singled out by the CCP, but China engaged in other wars including with Japan and Vietnam in the 20th century. For Xi and the CCP, the majority Han are China, and China the Han. Xi’s narrative plays well to the Han, but it is historically inaccurate. Contrary to the CCP’s official version, China’s history is a long tale of military conquest and usurpation. But it does help to explain the historical paranoia which Xi Jinping manifests.
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