China must confront and learn from its postwar history

Historians/History
tags: China, Mao



Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is teaching a course on education and nationalism at NYU's campus in Shanghai.

... Chinese historical accounts emphasise the country's humiliation at the hand of foreign powers, from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion to World War II. But they mostly ignore the country's postwar history, when China's new rulers, not foreign enemies, brought untold horror and deprivation to the Chinese people.

For the past three weeks, my students and I have been visiting schools, universities, and history museums in search of this missing past. We haven't found it. The glossy Shanghai History Museum ends its displays with the Communist revolution of 1949. Even a museum marking the site of the Chinese Communist Party's first meeting in 1921 doesn't say anything about what the party actually did after it gained power.

To be sure, Mao Zedong still appears on the national currency and on kitschy tourist items like T-shirts and badges. But a revised textbook issued in Shanghai in 2006 used his name only once –  in a chapter on etiquette.

Textbooks generally omit Mao's Great Leap Forward – when an estimated 30 million died of starvation – as well as the Cultural Revolution, when millions more were vilified as "capitalist roaders" and exiled to work camps in the countryside. Nor do they make any mention of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square, where soldiers gunned down more than 200 protesters.

The only place we encountered any post-1949 history was at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which features prints of Mao leading farmers and factory labourers into a workers' paradise. The kindly gentleman who collected the posters – and who established the art centre in a modest basement apartment –  told us that he wanted future generations to "remember these difficult times".

Ironically, then, we located the most honest description of the country's recent past in a small museum devoted to its lies. Elsewhere, though, nobody wanted to talk about it. As one high school student told me when I asked her about the Cultural Revolution, "history is a sensitive topic"....





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