Why China Rewrites History

The so-called Xinjiang autonomous region of China is home to an indigenous population of Uighur Muslims. There has been friction and sometimes violence between the Uighurs and Han Chinese. Over the past year over 200 people have died in ethnic violence in Xinjiang.

Read More About the Roots of Religious Violence

But Beijing has a nifty way to plaster over such problems, or at least soothe the consciences of the Han Chinese. They generate phony happy history! False narratives about China’s past, repeated even in textbooks and scholarly histories, reinforce the belief among Chinese that the minorities among them, including the Uighurs and Tibetans, are members of an extended family of Chinese nationhood with roots going back centuries.

However, the roots are not real, and the only people who don’t realize this are the Chinese. Andrew Jacobs writes for the New York Times:

When it comes to China’s ethnic minorities, the party-run history machine is especially single-minded in its effort to promote story lines that portray Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans and other groups as contented members of an extended family whose traditional homelands have long been part of the Chinese nation.

Busloads of Chinese tourists are rolling into Xinjiang to visit a particular Islamic shrine, where an Uighur woman named Iparhan is said to be buried. The Chinese are being told that Iparhan, or Xiangfei in Chinese, was the great love of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799). He was so intoxicated with her that after she came to live in his palace, he built a replica of her village outside her window to please her. When she died, 120 men escorted her body over 2,700 miles so she could be buried in her homeland.

That’s the Chinese version, anyway. The Uighur version is that Iparhan was a sex slave who was murdered by the emperor’s mother for being insufficiently obedient. And her body was not returned. Archeologists believe she is buried near Beijing.

Which version is true? The New York Times article says the “Disney” version became popular in the early 20th century, but Chinese Communist Party historians have improved on it since. And scholarly historians who say otherwise risk having their careers destroyed. However, the Chinese story of Xiangfei is now a popular topic for plays and television dramas, and commercial enterprises from a chain of roast chicken restaurants to a line of perfume are named in her honor.

What is all this happy talk about? According to this BBC report, Han Chinese moving into Xinjiang are snapping up the best jobs. Further,

Activists say Uighur religious, commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints that the Uighurs experience severe restrictions in the practice of their Muslim faith, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published in 2013, said authorities criminalised “what they labelled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and clamped down on “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.

Last month some Uighur in civil service jobs were banned from fasting during Ramadan, the BBC says.

Be clear that the happy talk is not intended to placate the Uighurs. Instead it is entirely aimed at Han Chinese, who are persuaded that the benevolent rule of China is a great blessing to their more backward minorities. It also is intended to absolve Chinese policy when violence breaks out. Chinese citizens are persuaded that the violence is the result of crazed separatists who are too unreasonable or ignorant to appreciate what China is doing for them.

Disneyfied versions of Tibetan history are used to the same effect. China must maintain the fiction that Tibet has been part of China for centuries in order to persuade the Chinese that the takeover in the 1950s was not just the bare-assed invasion that it was. The New York Times story mentions Princess Wengchen, a daughter of a Chinese emperor given in marriage to the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (d. ca. 650). Historians say there was no such princess or marriage, but her story fuels a folk belief in an ancient alliance between China and Tibet.

Beijing has gone so far as to build a Tibetan “Disneyland” in Chengde, which is in Heibei Province northeast of Beijing. Chengde was the site of the summer residence of the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722), and it is a popular tourist destination for the Chinese today. Many of the exhibits and spectacles at the park portray a visit to the Kangxi emperor by the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682). During this visit, the exhibits say, the two rulers agreed that  Tibet was a province of China. Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Review of Books,

Kangxi’s achievement is celebrated in Chengde in an ultra-high-tech theatrical extravaganza called the Kangxi Ceremony that plays nightly in a vast open-air amphitheater about ten miles outside the city. The show begins with several dozen uniformed horsemen galloping across the turf in front of the audience and taking up positions in the suddenly illuminated hills that surround a large circular stage. Amplified drums and a throaty male chorus fill up the night air as an actor playing Kangxi, dressed in lustrous robes of yellow brocade, gallops onto the scene, his horse rearing, cheered on by dozens of surrounding horsemen.

The tourists eat this up. However, the event being so spectacularly portrayed could not possibly have happened. The 5th Dalai Lama did make a well-documented state visit  to Beijing, not Chengde, probably arriving in January 1654. But this was a few months before the Kangxi Emperor was born.  It is documented that during this visit His Holiness was treated as a visiting head of state, not a vassal. And the Great Fifth never went back to China.

See also The Disneyfication of Tibet.

One thought on “Why China Rewrites History

  1. n. yeti

    “However, the Chinese story of Xiangfei is now a popular topic for plays and television dramas, and commercial enterprises from a chain of roast chicken restaurants to a line of perfume are named in her honor.”

    Fair enough, but let us neither forget the West does this too (in different ways). For example the Buddhist monk Ikkyu is today more widely recognized as a manga character than Zen master. The past, as the future, resides in the imagination, and perhaps this could be said of the present as well. Notice how divergent are the views and retelling of the recent events in Ferguson. To find truth we must first penetrate a dense screen of false thought which seems larger than any of us, and even larger than an entire nation’s efforts to manipulate ideas.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *