We study history in different ways. One way is to see history as full of change. Another is to see history as continuous. What's going on in China is a combination of both. The past always finds way into the present, yet with new meanings and new looks.
In rural China today, there is a recent revival of ancient traditions such as the organization of villages along lineage lines, rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Red Guards and the resurgence of Daoism and qigong. According to Song Chen, assistant professor of Chinese history, social and cultural practices that seemed to have disappeared during the Cultural Revolution are now coming back and are once again in fashion as a way for Chinese people to define themselves in respect to their modern goals of prosperity, wealth and happiness.
"What we see in Chinese history is a significant influence of the past on China in two ways," says Chen. "One is an understanding of the past continue to shape the Chinese people's understanding of their present. The other is the mobilization of historical resources in building China's own national identity."
For instance, during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, more than 15,000 performers in a grand art performance showcased their nation's ancient history as well as its rise to modern power. While the ceremony was contemporary in form, the context was filled with the symbols of China's past. It featured the four great inventions of ancient China: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing.
"When we look at China today, whether we look at its self-identity, its social reality or its relationship to the rest of the world, we see that these topics are all imbued with what is understood as Chineseness. That Chineseness is constructed out of China's historical legacy," says Chen.
China, with its imperial past, its social and political revolutions under communist rule and its current transformation into a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government, proves its capability to evolve and re-evolve as a civilization that bears the imprint of both its rich legacy and its great vitality. As the renewal of traditions takes place in modern rural China, for instance, China's cultural past has once again become its cultural present.
"We study history in different ways. One way is to see history as full of change. Another is to see history as continuous. What's going on in China is a combination of both. The past always finds way into the present, yet with new meanings and new looks."
Posted Sept. 27, 2011