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Modern China's founding legend: heavy on myth?

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Some China experts say that as the nation rises and becomes more influential in the global arena, a lack of honest history has consequences beyond China's borders. They argue that, just as health issues like SARS or the environment transcend national borders, a population weaned on a false or incomplete version of the past is not good for China or the world.

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"Chinese youths don't know that millions died in the 1950s, or that the CCP ordered a famine in Changchun [Jilin province] that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, far more than died in Nanjing [a Japanese Army massacre]," says Wang Fei-ling, a Chinese-born historian now at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "To head off a repeat of the historical tragedies of many past rising powers ... the Chinese people must not be misled about their own history any longer; there must be a marketplace for competing ideas, open discourse, and judicious reasoning."

Most accepted history on China is conducted by foreign scholars. Yet some new shafts of light are seen in the dark corridors of China's recent past, from the inside. A scattering of scholars are shifting away from a purely "party" view of history, to a "people's view." Independent writers have been moving carefully, talking with eyewitnesses of events like the Great Leap Forward where intellectuals were decimated and killed, and the great famine of the late 1950s - which may have claimed as many as 30 million. Such research is still rare. Still, authors from China can now cross into Hong Kong and purchase an ISBN number for $275 - and finance small press runs of 2,000 to 3,000 copies. Hong Kong, in some ways, has become the memory of mainland China. The papers of Mao's Premier Zhou Enlai were recently published there.

In the early 1970s, as Cultural Revolution terror hit new highs, the infamous "gang of four" forced history to be written as a "class struggle" - as if 4,000 years of Chinese culture had culminated gloriously in the forming of the Communist Party. But today, "social history" of peasant life is under way. Scholars will look at land reform - regarded as the central problem of Chinese history - separately from the party verdict. Historian Yu Xiguang edited "Great Leap Forward, Bitter Days," a sharp look at the crackdown on intellectuals. People's University historian's Gao Wangling study, "On the 'Anti-behavior' of Chinese Peasants," is an unstinting look at how, in a reversal of the official story, peasants in pockets of China murdered landlords on party orders.

But for now, a stone is rolled across the official doorway to the past.

Take the Long March. As a founding narrative, it is rousing: Mao and his followers were forced out of their stronghold in south China by bad military decisions made by a German tactician named Otto Braun, who was foisted onto the Reds by Moscow. Some 200,000 soldiers in three armies wandered like the children of Israel over mountains and rivers, hungry and attacked, backtracking, until only 40,000 survivors arrived at Wuqi in the north two years later. This was the core of a new China.

Today, Long March is like apple pie. It's the name for missiles, military hospitals, and schools. On "Red tourism" vacations, Chinese walk parts of the march. Chinese journalists retrace the footprints of the march, blogging all the way.

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