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Seeing China through the Lenses of History

In May 1999, I found myself on a train from Beijing to Jilin City, a backwater town in China’s northeast. The weekend before, Chinese public opinion had exploded in a paroxysm of anger and anti-American vitriol over the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the U.S. State Department had urged Americans not to travel in China. I, however, had things I needed to do in Jilin and so was determined not to let events stop me.

I must admit to being a bit nervous that day as I boarded the soft sleeper car and found my berth. I had decided that, even though I speak fluent Chinese, on this trip I would hunker down with my book and pretend that I was an illiterate foreigner, all the while hoping that no one would directly ask me where I was from. Alas, it wasn’t to be. There were two gentlemen already in the compartment when I got there, and as soon as I sat down, the older of the two looked at me and said, “Are you an American?” Hmm. That was going to be a tough one to evade!  “Yes,” I replied, and turned back to the book. Before I could focus back on my reading, he took his glasses off, stared coldly at me, and said, “Ni qifu women le!,”—“You (singular) have bullied and humiliated us.”

In modern China there are two major “lenses” through which people have been taught to view historical events. The first is this notion of qifu, or humiliation. For the Chinese, the era that began with the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 is considered a century of humiliation. The outside world arrived at the shores of China at a time when she was internally weak and thus unable to withstand the pressures that were brought to bear on her. Taking advantage of her weakness, the Western powers bullied their way into China, forcing her to sign unequal treaties and relinquish sovereignty over certain coastal cities.

Even after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the humiliation of foreign domination continued. China was a member of the allied forces fighting against Germany in the First World War, but following Germany’s surrender in 1919, her colonial holdings in China were not returned to Chinese sovereignty, but instead turned over to Japan. University students in China were outraged at this humiliation and launched a series of protests and demonstrations that were part of what has come to be known as the “May Fourth Movement.” 

So why do events of a hundred years ago matter so much today? There is a saying in China, ji yi you xin, which means, “to remain fresh in one’s memory.” I have a friend who put it more succinctly— “to treat the past event as if it were yesterday.” It is often difficult for Westerners to understand how deeply Chinese today can feel the humiliations of events that took place more than 150 years ago. But it’s important to remember that 150 years ago is three percent of Chinese history, which in fact makes it quite recent history. By comparison, three percent of American history would take us to 1993. So the humiliation of the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century is as fresh to them as the Oklahoma City bombing is to most Americans.

This notion of humiliation is helpful for us in understanding how Chinese people react to world events. In 1999, the bombing of the Chinese embassy took place just two weeks after China had celebrated the 80th anniversary of the May Fourth Demonstrations. Having digested heavy doses of speeches, classes and activities hailing the May Fourth students as true patriots who had dared publicly to decry China’s humiliation by foreigners, people in China at the time were spring-loaded for the violent reactions that followed the bombing. Here it was, handed to them on a silver platter—the chance to emulate the May Fourth patriots and demonstrate against foreign humiliation. I saw it in my students the day following the demonstrations1 at the US Embassy as they excitedly told me of their participation in the rock and paint throwing.

It was fascinating to see that many of the slogans used that weekend were the very same ones that had been used during the May Fourth protests. In the minds of the people, the incidents were similar in that they represented foreign bullying and humiliation of China. Further, it served to emphasize to them how weak they felt because of the nation’s seeming inability to fight back or exact some measure of revenge in any way.

The “Spy Plane Incident” in April 2001 also represented to the Chinese people another example of US bullying and humiliation. That US planes were regularly flying off their coastline was hard enough to swallow, but that a Chinese pilot had been killed in this particular incident was almost too much too bear, given that, once again, there was nothing that China could do about it. Although there were no protests and demonstrations (they were not allowed), the rhetoric of humiliation quickly returned to the front pages of the newspapers and on the Internet.

More recently, China’s feeling of past humiliation played itself out in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US. While the public voice of China was pledging sympathy and support, a common sentiment bubbling not far from the surface was that the U.S. had finally gotten what it deserved for bullying and humiliating others.

This feeling of humiliation also remains the main sticking point in China’s present dealings with Japan. China demands that Japan own up to and apologize for the atrocities committed against the Chinese during the Japanese occupation during WW II. So this first lens— the qifu lens—causes Chinese to see their recent history through the eyes of the little guy, the one who got beat up after school by the tough guys and now wants an apology or a chance to fight back.

The second major “lens” through which modern Chinese are being taught to view history is that of restoration of glory. Nearly every tourist brochure or speech about Chinese history makes some reference to China’s 3000 plus years of glorious history. They are (rightly) proud of the fact that Chinese civilization has existed in an unbroken line from antiquities to the present. Chinese today look back longingly at the Song and Tang and Han Dynasties in particular, as times when China was powerful and the superior civilization in the region, if not the world.

China’s national obsession with hosting the 2008 Olympic Games gives expression to this desire for restoration. The received wisdom is that this will allow China to demonstrate that it is a country to be taken seriously on the world stage. Its era of humiliation, isolation and backwardness will, once and for all, be put to rest. This desire for a return to glory has also been evident in China’s push to join the WTO, and other international bodies, where it can have a place at the table, so to speak, with the other great powers.

This, however, has not always been the interpretation of the past that Chinese have been taught.  Paul Cohen, in his book History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth discusses the tension between various ways in which we “know” the past. Writing about the Boxer Movement at the turn of the century, he makes this observation: 

The Boxers as event represent a particular reading of the past, while the Boxers as myth represent an impressing of the past into the service of a particular reading of the present. Either way, a dynamic interaction is set up between present and past, in which the past is continually being reshaped, either consciously or unconsciously, in accordance with the divers and shifting preoccupations of people in the present.[endnote] Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys:  The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, Columbia University Press, 1997,  p. xii.2

This is a crucial point because in an authoritarian state such as the People’s Republic of China, citizens do not simply learn history and are not simply influenced by history. Rather, they learn and are influenced by a particular interpretation of history. There are no competing interpretations available (officially), but rather one “line,” determined by the Party, is followed in the media and endless political meetings that Chinese are still occasionally summoned to attend.  Much of the history learned and taught here is in Cohen’s category of “myth,” not in the sense that it did not happen, but in the sense that “its meaning is governed to an overwhelming extent by the concerns of the present. As the center of gravity of present concerns shifts, therefore, the meaning of the past necessarily shifts along with it, sometimes to a quite extraordinary degree.”3

In modern China the “center of gravity” to which Cohen refers has seen an extraordinary shift in the past twenty years. This current official glorification of the past is vastly different from the vilification of the past that was in vogue in the Mao era. In fact, Mao not only decried the ancient culture and civilization, he sought to destroy it.

Following the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping and the promotion of the so-called “opening and reform” policy, the official line regarding China’s ancient past changed. Rather than view traditional culture as something to be destroyed, it is now promoted, and the Communist Party has been recast as the only institution able to return China to her former glory, the glory that existed before the era of humiliation. It is the current historical myth. The imperial glories have been reshaped to fit the current preoccupation of the rulers, namely the preservation of power and the establishment of legitimacy in the face of a bankrupt Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology. Again, I quote a Chinese friend, an astute (and amazingly objective) observer of his own culture:  “The emphasis on the past,” he says, “is used to encourage and emphasize the rising of China.” He even goes so far as to argue that the present popularity of Tang Zhuang (Tang dynasty style clothing—the silk jackets with embroidered emblems) is an expression of the desire to return to the glory days of the Tang Dynasty.

The Chinese, then, have two pairs of glasses that are interchangeable. They are the unfairly treated victims of the “hegemonists,” the big, powerful (read: Western) countries that routinely humiliate and exploit weaker countries. But at the same time, they are the phoenix, rising from the ashes of a century-and-a-half of destruction to a bright and noble future that is, in fact, but a return to the glorious heights of the past. It is critical for those of us who regularly engage with China to understand these two lenses.

As for the man on that train in May 1999, he was merely expressing to me his personal and communal frustration at the humiliating events of the week. China was again being bullied by the US; I was an American; so he had the opportunity to express his frustration to the responsible party—me. I responded by reminding him that I had done nothing of the sort, but instead had come to China many years ago, had learned his language, and was, in fact, a friend of China who also wanted to see his country strong, stable and respected in the world community. I told him that I understood why he and the Chinese people were angry about what had happened, but that he shouldn’t take that out on me, an American individual. I held my breath and waited for his counter-response.

He looked at me for a few seconds, replaced his glasses, and said to the younger man with him, “She’s alright. Give her some tea.”


  1. These demonstrations were not only sanctioned, but were organized by the government. My students had no choice but to board Party-supplied busses and go to the embassy to protest.
  2. Paul A. Cohen, History in Three Keys:  The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, Columbia University Press, 1997,  p. xii.
  3. Ibid., p. 238.
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Kay Danielson

Kay Danielson (pseudonym) has lived and worked in China for over 25 years. She currently works in the field of cross-cultural training and consulting.View Full Bio