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China's changing views of its past

Subtle shifts in Shanghai reveal a greater change in historical perception.

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom / May 14, 2007



Irvine, California

It is obvious that China is a radically different place than it was 20 years ago. But it is equally clear that not everything about the country has been transformed. The tricky part is figuring out which things deserve to be put in the "dramatically altered" category and which belong in the "surprisingly unchanged" one.

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Some calls are easy: China's global economic significance goes in the first column, while the Communist Party's enduring monopoly on power goes in the second. But other calls are tougher. For example, in what category do Chinese ideas about the past fall?

If the only information on China you get is from front-page stories in US newspapers, you might conclude that Chinese views of history belong in the "surprisingly unchanged" box. But you'd be wrong. True, there are continuities, some of them unsettling, relating to official history. Chinese leaders still insist that Japan should go even further in atoning for World War II atrocities. And as the 18th anniversary of the Beijing Massacre nears, the "Big Lie" holding that large numbers of unarmed civilian demonstrators weren't killed near Tiananmen Square remains the official orthodoxy.

But a peek behind the headlines reveals that on the issue of historical understanding, the ground has shifted in China. This is particularly true about local history. No longer are the histories of individual cities and provinces folded neatly into national narratives that focus exclusively on the rise to power of the Communist Party.

Most striking to me has been the seismic shift in treatments of the history of Shanghai, a city I lived in for a year two decades ago and have visited periodically since then. In the 1980s, the "treaty-port century" (1843-1943), during which Shanghai was divided into Chinese-run and foreign-run zones, was still presented as a time of humiliation. It was a time when native residents chafed at being treated as second-class citizens in parts of their own metropolis. Although individual Shanghainese differed in their private views of the past, this line was put forward in all books and on all plaques at tourist sites in 1980s Shanghai.

Flash forward to 2000, though, and the city was filled with nostalgia-themed venues that recast the treaty-port era as an exciting warm-up to Shanghai's resurgence as a global city in an era of increased engagement with the West.

There were also sites such as a wax museum devoted to local history that portrayed the treaty-port era in a relatively positive light. The main impression I got from the museum's displays was that the period was a mixed blessing. Yes, it was a time when Chinese residents were sometimes slighted by foreigners but also one that gave Shanghainese the cosmopolitan outlook and entrepreneurial spirit that were serving them well at the dawn of this new century.

While visiting Shanghai this past March, I saw signs that Chinese visions of the past had shifted again. This time a bookstore made the biggest impression on me. Shanghai's City of Books has long had a large section devoted to local topics, with shelves arranged in a V-shape. On one side of the V are books about "Old Shanghai" and on the other are those about "New Shanghai." The difference this time was that the historical break between "old" and "new" was no longer 1949, the year of "Liberation" that saw the Communist Party take power.

Now, a map of Shanghai in 1956 was included in the "old" section. Some of the decades following 1949 are slipping into the "Old Shanghai" category. Soon, I think, only events and buildings that postdate the 1990s will be seen as belonging to the "new" side of the local-topics section. The '90s are when Pudong (East Shanghai) was transformed from a district without tall buildings to one distinguished by its forest of modern skyscrapers.

I saw further evidence of this shift in historical perception in two recently published books. "A Changing Shanghai" and "A Changing Shanghai II," show black-and-white shots of local settings as they looked in bygone times paired with color photographs of the same places today.

Similar publications have been appearing in Shanghai for at least a dozen years. But previously, the black-and-white photographs always showed the city before liberation in 1949. In these new books the black-and-white shots were all taken around the time I first went to Shanghai just 20-odd years ago.

Though China hasn't been completely transformed, its society and economy have come a long way since the '80s. In Shanghai and other rapidly changing parts of China, even the past is not quite what it used to be.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom's latest book, "China's Brave New World – And Other Tales for Global Times," will be published in June. He's a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.

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