Chinese accounts of American history

When the New York Times reported on the re-opening of Beijing’s National Museum of China in 2011, the headline read “History Toes Party Line.”  The museum descriptions of the US, the article said, supported “The general story line, ingrained in every Chinese student… that China was humiliated by Western powers.”

For example, one of the largest exhibits, “The Road to Rejuvenation,” included these exact words:  “Beginning in the 17th century… Western Capitalist countries developed rapidly and entered into a period of large-scale expansion and plundering…. After Britain started the Opium War in 1840, the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.”

When discussing World War II the exhibit said:  “In the 1930’s, the Japanese imperialists launched a war of invasion to subjugate China… The Communist Party of China (CPC) became the nation’s tower of strength in the war of resistance. After 14 years of bloody war, the Chinese people won their first victory in resisting and repelling the invasion of a foreign enemy in its modern history.”

There is no mention of the fact that the CPC and other Chinese forces fought side by side with United States and allied forces, nor that in 1945 the Japanese controlled more Chinese territory than they had in 1940, nor that World War II ended only when Japan surrendered to the US.

The same sort of historical bias is widespread in Chinese classrooms.   “Every high school student in China today learns to feel the shame of [the] ‘century of humiliation.’  The lesson is unmistakable: Never forget and never again.”  (Destined for War, p. 112)

An earlier New York Times article entitled China’s Textbooks Twist and Omit History quotes Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai as admitting “Quite frankly, in China there are some areas, very sensitive subjects, where it is impossible to tell people the truth…  in China, history is still used as a political tool, and… we still must follow the doctrine.”

The details of censorship vary from time to time based on the political climate, but become much stricter after 1989, when China’s leaders watched student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square quoting the Declaration of Independence and displaying replicas of the Statue of Liberty. Beginning the next year, “textbooks [were]… rewritten to cast America as China’s archvillain.. and new policies and regulations ensured that only this official view of America made it into China’s classrooms and libraries” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 104). 

According to Mao Zedong, American villainy started in 1844 when President John Tyler  imposed “the first unequal treaty signed as a result of US aggression against China.”

Wait a minute.  Is that the same John Tyler who was ranked number 39 out of 43 presidents by a group of historians?  Yes it is.  The same John Tyler who has been described by another historian as “unsuccessful with domestic, foreign and economic policies”?  Yup.  From the American perspective, Tyler’s Treaty of Wangxia set tariffs and gave foreigners the right to learn Chinese and to buy land in five ports, among other things.  Admittedly, this was during a period of worldwide imperialism, and it was not the high point of US-China relations.  But still, it is hard to agree with Xiong Zhiyong, a Chinese historian who described Tyler as “an evil genius, laying the groundwork for America’s plan to assert complete hegemony over Chinese civilization.”

The next major “anti-Chinese mastermind [was] Abraham Lincoln”  I would have thought Honest Abe was a little busy, what with the Civil War and freeing the slaves.  But in his spare time apparently Lincoln was dreaming of “control of the Pacific.”  He sent a diplomat named Anson Burlingame to China, which ultimately led to the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868.  According to the Office of the Historian of the US Department of State, this treaty aimed “to reinforce the principle of equality between [China and the US].”  Among other things, it “promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States… in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle [and]… gave the citizens of the two nations reciprocal access to education and schooling when living in the other country.”  Chinese historian Shi Yinhong described this same treaty as an attempt to force China “to follow Western cultural norms.” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 105)

The list goes on.  When Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided American support to the Chinese in World War II, Tang Qing explained that his rationale was that it was “good for the United States to keep the Chinese fighting Japan… so that the US could someday completely dominate China and the entire world.”

When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 to end 23 years of diplomatic isolation of Mao’s government, according to Xiong Xianghui it was actually a “sinister American plan… to provoke a nuclear war between [China and Russia]” by fracturing the Communist bloc (ibid, p. 106).

Do most Chinese historians actually believe all this?  Of course there are no published surveys listing the relative percentage of believers and  skeptics.  But when Michael Pillsbury, the author of The Hundred Year Marathon, visited Beijing in 2013 and asked one history professor about the gap between Chinese and American accounts of the same events, he “looked out the window, sighed, and explained…’I do not pick the text materials.  The entire faculty is Party members and the Central Committee keeps files on us.  Deviating from the approved teaching materials would end our careers” (ibid, p. 108).

Surely one would hope that this type of censorship is counter-balanced by the large number of Chinese who come to the US to study:  over 360,000 by the latest count.  But it’s almost impossible to know.  360,000 sounds like a large number, but it seems vanishingly small when you divide it by China’s total population of 2.4 billion.  And how many of that 360,000 study US history as opposed to science, engineering or business management?  Finally, and most importantly, after they return to China, how freely can they speak about what they learned if it goes against the Party line?

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