Disclaimer: China files are essays about my experiences living and working in China. Mostly thoughts about things I’ve learned, or interesting experiences and conversations I had in this fascinating country.
“Chinese civilization originates in an antiquity so remote that we vainly endeavor to discover its commencement. There are no traces of the state of infancy among this people. This is a very peculiar fact respecting China. We are accustomed in the history of nations to find some well-defined point of departure, and the historic documents, traditions, and monuments that remain to us generally permit us to follow, almost step by step, the progress of civilization, to be present at its birth, to watch its development, its onward march, and in many cases, its subsequent decay and fall. But it is not thurs with the Chinese. They seem to have been always living in the same state of advancement as in the present day; and the data of antiquity are such as to confirm that opinion.”
Évariste Régis Huc, French missionary and traveller
I came across this passage while flipping through Henry Kissinger’s On China in a bookshop. Just yesterday, while relishing in spicy Yunnan cuisine in an old quaint Hutong restaurant after an idle afternoon walk through the Forbidden City, one of our friends of Manchurian descent began telling us stories, a mix of history, myths and legends, of the Qing dynasty. Every now and then, I would interrupt with questions such as: “When did this happen?” “Is it during the 17th century?” pressing for specific dates, or better details. These questions were often greeted with exasperation. Stop asking us for specific dates, I don’t remember them, who does? That’s us, the Chinese, we can’t remember the details.
But even events happened much closer to date, with heavier significance and colossal consequences to Chinese history, like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, were merely remembered or known as ‘something bad happened’. For one of course, these are sensitive topics that are heavily censored, what was surprising was their nonchalance. One of them told me her husband once met a Japanese protesting outside the Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall, denying that he was a massacre negationist, but that the Japanese had counted and recorded each individual’s name, and the death tolls claimed by the Chinese were exaggerated. When asked why the Japanese were able to track down and record every victim but the Chinese had no solid documented evidence, them simply replied, “It’s just not us, we don’t delve in the specifics.”
They tried to explain this mentality to me through other aspects of Chinese cultures, from culinary to Science. Just look at Chinese cooking, one of them said, its guiding principle is ‘适量’ (suitable and moderate amount), much in the spirit of 儒家思想, never to the precision of grams and ounces. The Chinese have also never developed the subjects of Science, or Mathematics, they were later imported from the West. Confucianism differs drastically from Western philosophy underpinned by logic and reason and a kind of zeal to find the ultimate truth. I remembered someone I met a few months ago once said, “The Chinese just don’t like to really look at anything or a thing and trouble themselves with questions like ‘what is a chair?'”
Any important events seem like vignettes of faded memory with no specific beginning or ending, no supporting figures or evidence, no attempts to explain how and why they happened. They are disparate, fragmented, and many times do not reflect the truth. For a ‘Western-brainwashed liberal’ (as accused by my mother many times) like me, I find this deeply disconcerting. How do we know who we are, make sense of the present, if we do not remember the past? While there’s a saying too much forgetting does an injustice to the past, and too much remembering does an injustice to the present. It is one thing to be perpetually haunted by the past, it is another to remember so little, or worse, be implicit in allowing this collective memory to be manipulated, or even manufactured. Perhaps it is the lack of remembering that helps catapults China to become the world’s second largest economy in such stunningly short time, without being burdened by the weight of her 5000-year history. This might be a good thing, but I am not convinced.