By David Bandurski — Not long ago, I sat like a fly on the wall and listened to a group of Chinese editors talking about the political challenges they had faced in 2008. One young editor spoke enthusiastically about how journalists might make some headway covering the topic of history as pursuing hard news became more and more difficult. [Frontpage Image: Bian Zhongyun, the first schoolmaster to be murdered by Red Guards at the outset of the Cultural Revolution. SEE below.]
The next editor to speak, who had a few more grey hairs on his head, pulled out his own quick breakdown of the proportion of shake-ups at media in recent years accounted for by various types of off-limits coverage. History topped his list, with actions like that against China Youth Daily‘s Freezing Point supplement in 2006 standing out.
He turned with a smile on the young editor. “You see, history is very dangerous,” he said as the room rustled with general laughter.
This exchange has particular relevance this year, as China is nettled with sensitive historical anniversaries, from the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet to the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
If 2008 was a great big year because China sought to make its mark on history, 2009 is a great big year because China will (or won’t) choose to mark history.


[ABOVE: Photo of a ceramic figure depicting the persecution of a “capitalist roader” during the Cultural Revolution, by t-salon available from under Creative Commons license.]

In the most recent issue of Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋), a liberal history-related journal that met with some official resistance late last year, Chinese scholar Zi Zhongyun (资中筠) urged China to reflect on its suppression of contemporary history.
Zi, director of the American Studies Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the former editor of the journal American Research (美国研究), writes of a recent example of how history must be erased in China even as it is commemorated.
The example centers around the anniversary of a local Beijing school and the 1966 beating death of schoolmistress Bian Zhongyun by Red Guards at the outset of the Cultural Revolution.
The essay offers an excellent reference as China sets off on what might be called its “Year of History.”

Only a Nation that Can Reflect on its Past Can Have a Bright Future
I saw in the news recently that the BBC polled 3,000 members of the [British] public on major historical figures and found that 23 percent of those polled believed Winston Churchill was a fictitious character, and 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes was a real person. A number of other historical figures, including Gandhi, were thought by many to be fictitious. This is certainly startling news. I noticed that many of our country’s newspapers reported this story, some in tones of mockery, others with exasperation. Shanghai’s Wen Hui Bao ran a small article under the headline, “To Forget One’s History is Betrayal,” and even talked about how the Japanese knew nothing of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and how our own Romance of the Three Kingdoms covered up the truths of the History of the Three Kingdoms, etc. The article urged educators to reflect on these lessons.
That British citizens would not know who Churchill is certainly invites surprise. Still, we don’t know the ages of these 3,000 people polled, their cultural backgrounds, or whether they are a representative sample. And as we laugh mockingly at others, as we invoke our ancient ancestors’ knowledge of history, perhaps we should take a hard look at our own understanding of contemporary history.
A recent matter comes immediately to mind . . .
It was several months ago that The High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University celebrated its 90th anniversary. The school dragged out former Red Guard Song Binbin (宋彬彬), one of the first to rise up in the red ferment of the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, and lionized her as a “friend of the school.” They even displayed that photograph from the time when she stood beside Mao Zedong, as they did a photograph of Bian Zhongyun (卞仲耘), the schoolmistress they [the Red Guards] cruelly murdered. Bian’s surviving husband wrote an open letter to the school’s current principal to express his opposition to this. But as you can imagine, this letter came to nothing, and there was of course no way the story was going to make its way into the media . . . Did the school’s ceremony take this course out of ignorance, or was this intentional? As to what Song Binbin might have done subsequently to be honored by her alma mater as a “friend of the school” I have no idea. As far as Chinese know, Song is “famous” for that particular photograph with the Leader, and for the title of honor [Mao Zedong] bestowed upon her, “Yao Wu” (要武) [NOTE: One translation of this name might be “essential weapon.”].
In the period that followed, the slogan urging people to “use culture to struggle, not weapons” (要文斗不要武斗) fell on deaf ears. The entire country was engulfed in an orgy of violent “persecution” in which bodies were broken and spirits crushed. Not only the murder of schoolmistress Bian Zhongyun was tacitly accepted — many other schoolmasters and teachers died at the hands of the students they had once taught and cherished. And of course the vagaries of the Cultural Revolution were not confined to the world of education.
It can of course be said that there were tens of thousands of so-called “Red Guards” . . . that this was the product of a particular time in history and that there is no point in chasing after personal responsibility [for such violent acts] . . . But the special situation here was that schoolmistress Bian Zhongyun was the first school head in China to be brutally beaten and killed by Red Guards from her own school, and this served as a precedent in blood of what was to come.
I have no evidence to suggest that Song Binbin participated directly at the time, nor do I wish to discuss her personal culpability. It has to be said also that there is an important sense in which she and her classmates were also victims. But she was the leader of the Red Guards at the school, and in that respect her responsibility is undeniable. More important is the fact that she later received a visit and commendations from Mao Zedong. I know nothing of Song Binbin’s thoughts or her heart’s journey. She eventually set aside the nickname “Yao Wu,” and she does not seem proud of this distinction. As an individual, even if her path changed afterwards, her participation in acts of cruelty stands as a black mark that cannot be wiped away by any number of “brilliant deeds.” . . .
If the school had not held this commemoration, Song Binbin and the others would not have been dragged out under the public eye. The problem is that over the decades The High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University must certainly have turned out students who achieved all manner of things and made contributions to society. Why then should they bring out this particular “famous” alumnus on such a momentous occasion? Was this a spur-of-the-moment decision, or is there some other explanation? And if she had made some other form of contribution [to the school] in the intervening years, why was this not emphasized? Why was her experience during the Cultural Revolution stressed and that symbolic photograph dragged out? How do the present-day leaders of the school approach that bloody episode in the school’s history, or the insults and violence visited on schoolmistress Bian Zhongyun? More than that, how to they approach an historical episode that was a great calamity for the Chinese people?
German author Günter Wilhelm Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and yet it was later disclosed that he had a dark past [as a member of the Nazi Waffen-SS]. As to his subsequent admissions, people might have had different reactions, some blaming him for keeping his secret so long, others welcoming his good conscience or forgiving him for the foolish indiscretions of his youth. But no one would have contended that these admissions he made were things to be proud of. German fascism was a scourge of mankind, but the German people have risen with hope from this experience because they have shown throughout a capacity for self reflection and repentance.
There are many different views on China’s history under Mao, and I’m afraid this debate will go on for another century. But as for the Cultural Revolution he set into motion, the CCP long ago rendered its own conclusion — it was a calamity for the people, particularly in its destruction of the spirits of the nation’s young people, something of which those above the age of 50 [in China today] have direct experience. That famous photograph [of Song Binbin and Mao Zedong] and the matter of the naming [of Song by Mao] stand as evidence with powerful symbolic meaning.
For a long time, whether in our propaganda [or media] or in our education system, the history of the Cultural Revolution has been avoided, and whether secretly or in the open a tide of reversing the verdict [on the Cultural Revolution] has roiled up. Recently, some people even said the verdict should be reversed on the Gang of Four, and they advocated another round of cultural revolution.
In part, these new ideas stem from lies that twist and disguise the truths of history. In part, they capitalize on the maladies facing our society today and entirely deny the accomplishments of reform and opening. They pull the wool over the eyes of impressionable youth and ordinary people.
As far as I know, The High School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University holds a special place in Beijing. Its endowments and facilities are first-rate, and it manages to attract both the highest achievers and the progeny of the business and political elite. After these students graduate, in other words, they have ample opportunity to mark themselves as “distinguished” alumni. I have no idea why, at such a school, leaders would show such contempt for history and defy conscience in such a way. In objective terms, this commemoration ceremony suited the purposes of the camp that pushes for a reversal of the verdict on the Cultural Revolution, and so it cannot be treated lightly. If an entire generation of elite youth know absolutely nothing of the history their parents and teachers experienced, if they are catered to with lies and upturned facts, what direction will education in our country go?
I also saw news recently that the Ministry of Education plans to add Beijing Opera to the music curriculum in order to promote the national spirit. They will begin with pilot programs and then roll it out nationwide. Of the 15 dramas to be taught, roughly half will be drawn from the Model Plays (样板戏) of the Cultural Revolution. To say nothing of the issues raised by forcing Beijing Opera on the youth of our country, these eight Model Plays are symbols of the weeding out of traditional culture and of a cultural despotism that brought about cultural desolation in the first place . . . I remember old cultural figures saying that every time they heard the Model Plays they thought of the wrongs they suffered during the Cultural Revolution and felt a shudder of cold fear. Isn’t it confusing night and day to use these to promote traditional culture? That those responsible for selecting the repertoire would give a special nod to the Model Plays when there are so many to choose from in the Beijing Opera tradition is even further cause for anxiety . . .
On both a personal and national level, it is only through facing history straight on and having the courage to reflect [on our experiences] that we can ensure for ourselves a bright future. And so, facing this episode [at the school anniversary commemoration] and sensing this unhealthy trend [toward historical lies], my heart feels unsettled and I sense danger for the coming generation and for the future of our people. We must understand history, and we must understand contemporary history all the more.
Ridiculing others for their minor ailments is of less help to us than tending to our own grave condition.

UPDATE: February 6, 2009
Uln commented below on how interesting the comments below Zi’s piece were at QQ. As of 11:36am today 190 comments were shown on the site. For a bit of perspective, that’s not a great deal at QQ, where comments on really hot pieces generally climb to several thousand. But it is worthwhile to make sure some of these are saved, as they stand the risk of being removed at any moment.
We’re pasting as many as we can below:
[热帖]腾讯网友: 老先生所言不差!国风以歪,谁能正之
属七和弦 [等级一]:历史那些是真实的,一般的平民根本都弄不清楚。真正可恶的是掩盖历史的真相人!
腾讯网友:[可惜我们这里喉舌说历史是公共汽车]他们想上就上 还把它开到了悬崖边上。
腾讯网友:偷梁 换柱 ,我只看见资你在狞笑
无限飞猪/zt [等级一]:历史是有权人手中的玩物,说改就改…………
腾讯网友: 历史那些是真实的,一般的平民根本都弄不清楚。真正可恶的是掩盖历史的真相人!
来自:上海市 2009-02-02 16:42:33腾讯网友:谁能力挽狂澜?谁能扶大厦于将倾?
属七和弦 [等级一]:历史那些是真实的,一般的平民根本都弄不清楚。真正可恶的是掩盖历史的真相人!
[Posted by David Bandurski, February 4, 2009, 5:06pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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