The NY Review of Books has this decent piece about China’s rebuilding of its past. Specifically, it’s about a place in Shanxi, a northern and desolate province, whose famous Yungang Buddhist grottoes date back to the fifth century. As this place, Datong, is becoming more prosperous, thanks to its coal reserves, it’s starting to rebuild ancient walls and undertake large-scale beautification of its Yungang grottoes and historic Buddhist temples. This seems to be the opposite of the normal construction boom that has happened in China over the past decade, demolishing ancient buildings and creating vast and enormous modern, and in some cases, soulless and obscene, structures and infrastructure. Yet while it’s great that Chinese officials such as Datong’s mayor are putting money and effort into refurbishing and renovating historical sites, the danger is of excessive refurbishment turning said historical sites into Disneyfied tourist meccas devoid of the poignancy, as the author brings up, and serene reverence that such history deserves. The author touches on this point but then moves away, as if reluctant to be too critical. He wrote a good article though with good commentary on China’s modern construction drive and about the actual turn of events at Datong itself, so go ahead and look at it.
However, I’ve got an issue with his final point that these efforts are partially an effort to reclaim the glories of the past of Chinese civilization – “People are interested in the past and, flawed as these efforts now are, they are trying to recapture something of the old glory of being Chinese”. It bothers me because comments like these reinforce the notion that before the Communists came to power, Chinese civilization and culture was pristine and magnificent. It wasn’t. There were tons of serious problems with Chinese society, for instance the mere fact it had been under non-Chinese rule for over 200 years before the 1911 revolution, and a civil war in the 19th century that killed infinitely more people than the American Civil War. Don’t take me for a Communist lover because I’m fully aware of the tragedies that occurred in the 20th century and having grown up in democratic societies my whole life, I have a strong appreciation of the rights and privileges that that brings. It’s just it drives me crazy when I hear about China being barbaric, uncivilized and not Chinese anymore due to the events that led up to 1949, this last being a favorite contention of some Taiwan and even Hong Kong residents. Going back to the article, I think that preserving and even renovating the past is great for China. But don’t be lulled into thinking that this will solve the deep problems in China. There’s no making a great future by bringing back the past. This comment below the article sums up my feelings well: mainland chinese can try to rebuild some semblance of the past, but was the past really that glorious? what about the backwardness, humiliation under imperialism? the future is still unknown. either pessimism/optimism can’t suffice for that.