Observing China sometimes requires a lens like Nagel’s. Walking the streets of China’s cities, driving its country roads, and visiting its centres of attraction can be disorienting. On the one hand, we know this is a country where a rich civilisation existed for millennia, yet we are overwhelmed by a sense of rootlessness. China’s cities do not look old. In many cities there exist cultural sites and tiny pockets of antiquity amid oceans of concrete. When we do meet the past in the form of an ancient temple or narrow alleyway, a bit of investigation shows much of it to have been recreated. If you go back to the Five Pagoda Temple today, you will find a completely renovated temple, not a brick or tile out of place. The factory has been torn down and replaced by a park, a wall, and a ticket booth. We might be on the site of something old, but the historical substance is so diluted that it feels as if it has disappeared.
Other emotions are more ambiguous. The bluntest I have experienced is this: a country that has so completely obliterated and then recreated its past – can it be trusted? What eats at a country, or a people, or a civilisation, so much that it remains profoundly uncomfortable with its history? History is lauded in China. Ordinary people will tell you every chance they get that they have 5,000 years of culture: wuqiannian de wenhua. And for the government, it is the benchmark for legitimacy in the present. But it is also a beast that lurks in the shadows.Ian Johnson
Interesting perspective on China’s troubled relationship with the past, the tension between its millennia-old traditions and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The current leaders are trying to reconcile them and consolidate their legitimacy on Confucian teachings, but the whole effort reads like a benign version of the fluent, state-controlled history in 1984.