Telling Chinese Stories

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ This is the famous opening line of Joan Didion’s 1979 The White Album, a series of autobiographical essays about the 1960s. Individuals create narratives related to their own lives, as do groups, societies, political parties and nations. From the dying days of the Qing dynasty, the thinker and reformist Liang Qichao wrote about the need for China to have a new history, one that would both reflect its changed realities and help make it a modern nation.

History and national narratives express aspirations as well as political agendas. Australia too is a country that tells itself stories. At around the time that the Chinese Communist Party’s General Secretary Hu Jintao announced the ‘Eight Glories, Eight Shames’ (ba rong ba chi 八荣八耻) as part of the new socialist values strategy in 2006, the then Liberal Coalition Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his Education Minister Brendan Nelson championed a list of nine ‘Values for Australian Schooling’. They were part of a response to our local ‘history wars’.

Many of those who engage with the Chinese world today encounter the stories that are told about China – the monolithic narrative of the party-state, the multiple stories of individuals, companies, communities, and then there an array of accounts told about China, some that try to deepen understanding, others that evoke familiar stereotypes.

Since 2008, the People’s Republic of China has increasingly focused on ‘telling The China Story’, as the former ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Australia Fu Ying put it. Understanding the official ‘China Story’ as well as some crucial variations of it – ‘telling Chinese stories’ – is crucial to a broad-based engagement with the contemporary Chinese world.

The following essay is based on a talk presented at the University of Sydney on 1 May 2012. A podcast is available from this link.

Telling Chinese Stories

by Geremie R. Barmé*


Talking about Tank Man


This video clip is from the opening sequence of the documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace 天安门, directed by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon and written by Geremie Barmé and John Crowley (Boston: Long Bow Group, 1995). It is reproduced with the kind permission of the Long Bow Archive, managed by Nora Chang (see:

For some the events of 3-4 June 1989 represented a split in perception as well as understanding of China’s post-Cultural Revolution reform era.

China’s Open Door and Reform policies were initiated by the Chinese Communist Party in December 1978. They disavowed the politics of the Cultural Revolution era, a period that began informally in 1964 with the purge of what were called ‘those in power taking the capitalist road’ in the countryside.

For many observers and commentators the formal disavowal of radical Maoism in the early 1980s and the gradual introduction of economic reforms that undid much of the socialized economy of China presaged more dramatic change. In China, the ‘New Era’ (Xin shiqi 新时期) as it was called was hailed as a ‘second liberation’ (di’erci jiefang 第二次解放), one that was as significant as the first liberation or jiefang 解放 of 1949. For others the reform era brought China back into world history – albeit a history of global capital, rather than the global revolutionary history that the party had been involved in since it was founded in 1921.

The 1980s were a unique period in modern Chinese history, recalling for some the Enlightenment period of the May Fourth era from 1917 to 1927; for other it was akin to the Nanjing decade of 1928 to 1939. The reality was that in the 1980s, China experienced for the first time in nearly four decades economic, cultural and social change that for many would inevitably lead to major political renovation, if not an end to one-party rule and draconian control over the media. Agitation for change took various guises, the most famous and clamorous being a nation-wide protest movement sparked by the death of the former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in mid April 1989.

Those protests in Tiananmen Square and public spaces in dozens of other Chinese cities gave voice to a range of inchoate frustrations: there were demands for greater freedoms, calls for an open press, demands for an end to corruption and nepotism, and opposition to China’s involvement with the global economy. In short, the protests challenged the Party’s monopoly on power and its style of rule.

These hopes were brought to an end by the murderous events of 4 June 1989.

In retrospect, in particular following the dismemberment of the Eastern Bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s 1989 mass protests seemed like a lost opportunity for the country to become a modern, progressive westernized state, to fulfill the promise for prosperity, democracy and pluralism that had first been envisaged by the 1911 Revolution, one that had brought an end to millennia of dynastic rule.

For China’s leaders under Deng Xiaoping and for the Party propaganda apparatus, 1989 was something else entirely.

The protests were neither spontaneous nor patriotic. They were part of a canny plot hatched by local malcontents and inimical global forces, in particular the Americans. The struggle of 1989 was, in fact, a continuation of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle that China had been embroiled in since the first Opium War of 1840, a struggle that had only intensified with the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

The former Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong had clearly identified the nature of the struggle against Western domination and exploitation thirty years earlier, in 1959. Speaking to Party leaders in the southern city of Hangzhou he had warned that there was a long-term American-led international capitalist plot aimed at both the Soviet Union and at China. It was a strategy that employed economics, the media, culture and ideas to corrupt socialism. It was a plot to see countries like China transformed over time into liberal market democracies. Through a gradual process of social, economic and political change, the Americans and their allies hoped that China would go through a ‘peaceful evolution’ to become a pliant western-style state.[1]

Shortly after 4 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping reiterated Mao Zedong’s warning about peaceful evolution. He declared that people had been misled by intellectuals and agents into protesting against the government and the Party. Political education had slackened off during the boom years of the 1980s and the Party had been too soft on arrant ideas and activists. It was now necessary to silence these dangerous liberal elements and to re-educate the country, to teach people Chinese history and about China’s unique situation and the challenges that it faced in its long search for wealth and power.

The moment on Chang’an Avenue to the east of Tiananmen Square, when that unnamed young man confronted the armed might of the PLA, has become an iconic image that represents a sole voice of protest raised against state repression. Far beyond that it is an image that marks a bifurcation in contemporary understandings of The China Story.

Tell a Story!

‘Tell a story!’ — jiang ge gushi 讲个故事.

It was a simple request, as well as being a frequently heard plea, during the waning years of the Cultural Revolution. It was also a common prompt for people anxious to exchange information, tales, rumors and gossip in the declining years of Mao’s rule and the painful years of recovery that followed.

Each request for the recounting of an individual story, for the surreptitious telling of a private tale, or for the sharing of an anecdote that would entertain or inform; every account that might elicit a sympathetic response resulting from shared experience; all of the reminiscences of sufferings (or lucky escapes) tinged with a bitter understanding of the absurdist tragedies that touched nearly every family; in fact, any description of life lived outside the realm of relentless public performance or away from collective surveillance, was in breach of the greater story, the singular narrative of the nation’s life as told by the Chinese Communist Party itself.

In the 1970s, the reappearance of the individual and the endless variety of life in China, first behind closed doors through furtive exchanges about personal histories, and then in a more open and joyful atmosphere of celebration at the end of an era of totalitarian control, and finally, although always fitfully, in the mass media itself, was part of the unraveling of the story that the Communist Party told itself, one that, through its hold over the nation, it constantly reiterated to people throughout China, and indeed the world.

During the heyday of state socialism, the individual story was submerged by a collective tale of History writ large. In it the complex skein of personal lives was reduced to undifferentiated stereotypes and formulaic accounts. Living at the western extreme of the socialist world the Czech writer and dissident Václav Havel observed how this singular story came to silence all others. He said:

The uniqueness of the human creature became a mere embellishment on the laws of history, and the tension and thrill inherent in real events were dismissed as accidental and so unworthy of the attention of scholarship. History became boredom.[2]

After a period in the 1980s when stories proliferated, and following 4 June the party-state launched a campaign in the wake of the nation-wide protest movement of 1989 to tell its own story. Aimed in particular at instilling a sense of patriotic duty and mission among the nation’s misguided youth, this movement identified sites around the country that were part of a map of patriotic education. TV stations ran old revolutionary and war movies, revived patriotic and pro-Party songs were sung, led by the Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin who enjoined the nation to sing the pseudo-Party anthem ‘Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China’. It was a ‘red song’ campaign two decades before Bo Xilai, former Party Secretary of Chongqing, employed patriotic and pro-party songs in his own efforts to forge his own political future.

The patriotic education movement was focused on educating people about China’s unique national conditions, its Guoqing 国情.

Ni bu liaojie Zhongguode teshu guoqing 你不了解中国的特殊国情 – ‘You simply don’t understand China’s unique national conditions’. This common refrain is chimed with certainty, and stridency, by average citizens, just as leaders of the party-state employ it when addressing foreigners. Unless you appreciate, and accept unequivocally, China’s ‘unique national conditions’ you betray yourself as lacking insight into and empathy with the mysteries of that country’s tortured history and complex present realities.

The concept of Guoqing first appeared in the late-Qing period early last century.

You will all be familiar with the refrain made popular by the post-4 June campaign. Talk of Guoqing allows for a particular kind of Chinese exceptionalism. People employ it whether they are rejecting well-intentioned observations on social mores or when staring down the incredulity of outsiders confronted by egregious political and mercantile behavior. Not only can the criticism of outsiders be deflected in this fashion, even those with intimate ties to the country are frequently derided for failing to appreciate China’s Guoqing. Confucius Institutes have been established in recent years in part to help educate the world about China’s Guoqing as legislated by the Chinese authorities.

Guoqing is hard to define at the best of times, but it includes an official menu of factoids and attitudes: China has an unbroken recorded history of 5000 years; it has always been a multi-ethnic nation incorporating peoples as varied as the Han, Tibetans, Uyghurs and Dai; historical necessity and contemporary realities determine that only the unified leadership of the Chinese Communist Party can maintain stability and enable China to pursue a unique path to modernity that will ensure economic prosperity for all. Guoqing theory also includes such nebulous claims that there is a particular ‘Chinese’ ways of doing things, that Chinese people have a special purchase on the world of the spirit, something attested to by its ancient culture and arts, and that although China is a global culture only Chinese can really understand it.

Saturating textbooks, films, TV programs and the news media, Guoqing awareness has become part of the fabric of Chinese life and thought. The success of the two-decade long Guoqing campaign is nowhere more evident than in the patriotic (and often splenetic) outpourings common on the Chinese Internet.

Re-entering History

The 1990s’ re-education campaign built on efforts launched in the late 1970s to emphasized the spiritual civilization of China, something that thought to have been imperiled by the nihilism and anarchy of the Cultural Revolution period.

In 1979, as the party prepared for the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October that year, Ye Jianying, the Minister of Defence declared that a revolution-weary society scarred by years of relentless political campaigns, crises and conflict needed to pursue not only economic reform and material welfare but to pay attention to building ‘spiritual civilisation’ (jingshen wenming 精神文明).

What started as a speech and a concern was in the following years codified into a formal program, one aimed at building a Chinese ‘spiritual civilization’ that was based on the Party’s understanding of the nature of China, its history and its particularities.

Over half a century before Ye Jianying made his speech in 1979, the famous late-Qing thinker and historian Liang Qichao (梁启超, 1873-1929) had first spoken of the need for China to embrace a modern world view, one that included ‘both “material culture” (human instruments and general conditions of existence) and “spiritual culture” (language, ethics, politics, religion, aesthetics, and scholarship) that constitute that “valuable accumulation created by the energy of the human mind.”’[3]

Liang Qichao was initially an advisor to the Guangxu Emperor whose attempts to reform the government of the Qing dynasty in 1898 failed, later he became a monarchist reformer, agitator, publisher and writer. He was one of the first Chinese thinkers to argue that modern-style history writing was intimately bound up with the creation of a modern country.

Having been forced into exile following the failed 1898 reforms, Liang travelled to raise money and awareness about China’s dire predicament. In 1900 to 1901, Liang visited Australia at a unique moment in this country’s modern history. It was the year of Australian federation. Liang even attended a gala function at the Sydney Town Hall on 12 January 1901, held to celebrate the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia. The first prime minister of the nascent country, Edmund Barton, was also present.[4]

It was a foundational period for this country, but it was also one linked profoundly with the story of the Chinese in Australia, and Australia’s engagement with China. For, as Gloria Davies has noted, ‘[t]he formation of the Australian Federation in 1901 introduced further restrictions to Chinese migration when the Immigration Restriction Act became the first major piece of legislation to be passed by the new federal parliament in December that same year.’[5]

Ironically, as a White Australia was being legislated, thinkers like Liang Qichao were trying to imagine an expansive and progressive future for China, in particular by reconsidering its past. During his time in Australia national attention had also been focused on China, in no small part due to the reporting of the Australian-born former British subject George E. Morrison for The Times. Morrison wrote from the front-line on the dramatic Boxer rebellion in the Qing dynastic capital of Beijing and the eventual ignominious flight of the court to Xi’an. This was then followed by the repression of the Boxers (or the relief of the embattled foreign embassy district by allied aggressors, depending on how one saw the conflict) and protracted peace negotiations that involved an international invading force, including Australian troops under British command.

For his part Liang continued to raise funds for political activities and reform in China. He was interested in trade and the wealth it could generate to support the Chinese manufacturing industry. Like so many others, he saw economic might as being the path to China’s self-strengthening and as a key to the Chinese no longer suffering the humiliations, individual and national, that they had experienced at the hand of foreigners.

In her study of Liang’s Australian sojourn Davies speculates:

For Liang, the founding of the Australian Commonwealth would have been an event of significance since it inaugurated the political unity of six previously separate ‘colonies’ into a single colony and provided the basis for the effective implementation of uniform legislation. One is tempted to draw links between Liang’s positive experience of the Commonwealth’s formation, from his privileged vantage-point as a distinguished guest of the colonial government in New South Wales, and the nationalist values and rights he later espoused in the New Citizen Journal, founded months after he left Australia.

It was in the pages of the New Citizen Journal (Xinmin bao 新民报) which appeared in Tokyo eight months after he left Australia in May 1901 that, among other things, Liang Qichao issued his famous 1902 tract, ‘On New Historiography’ (Xin shixue 新史学). In it he declared that history was ‘the most vital discipline of all knowledge. It is the mirror reflecting the nation; it is also the source of patriotism.’[6]

There is not time in a public lecture to recount the ways that historical discussions and debate, many of which had a profound impact on how the Qing empire was moulded into a modern Republican nation-state and then, eventually, into a socialist People’s Republic. Nor is there time to discuss the crucial importance of imperialism and war, in particular the Japanese War, in the creation of today’s China. For indeed, many elements of the post-4 June Guoqing education campaign bear an uncanny resemblance to the war-time history education campaign launched by the Education Ministry of the Nationalist Party at the Qingmuguan 青木关 Conference of 1941.[7]

It must suffice to say that after Ye Jianying’s 1979 call for China to construct spiritual, as well as material civilization, constant efforts have been made by the Chinese party-state to codify and narrate the elements, ideas, personalities and forces that have led to China’s present.

This is hardly unique to China. For years we ourselves had seen governments or cultural authorities (elected or self-appointed) energetically engaged in defining or articulating cultural nationhood and boundaries. This search for national selfhood may be relatively benign in the eyes of some, but attempts to codify and delimit the national essence of a territory, a people, or a linguistic realm is invariably fraught not only with difficulties but also dangers. For to define what culture is, to define the essence of something that by its nature is in constant flux, something that is n reality a co-creation of numerous individuals, groups or collectives can be a deadening activity.

Stories and accounts of triumph and loss, warfare and adversity, the forging of national identity in the blood of martyrs are common items in the cultural repertoires of many modern nation-states.

On the anniversary of the disastrous Gallipoli landing on 25 April this year, speaking at the dawn service in Turkey the Prime Minister Julia Gillard remarked that Anzac Day has organically grown into something of significance for all Australians. Corporal Roberts-Smith, awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan and a soldier who had four relatives at Gallipoli in 1915, said that Gallipoli is ‘about the founding of our Australian values and our Aussie spirit.’[8]

Julia Gillard went one step further when she told us that Gallipoli was even more significant that the creation of an independent nation at the time of Federation in 1901. Daresay, the famous polemicist Liang Qichao, a man appalled by the havoc of World War I and the moral bankruptcy that it signified for the West may well have chosen to take Gillard to task, although that would be the last thing an embattled prime minister needs right now: a feisty Chinese thinker giving her a history lesson.

China and Australia are by no means alone in this recent obsession for codifying what it is to be but ourselves – you might recall that just as China’s party-state leader Hu Jintao was outlining his ‘Eight Worthies, Eight Shames’ (barong bachi 八荣八耻) campaign in Beijing in 2006, our then Australian Prime Minister John Howard along with his Minister of Education, Brendan Nelson, were concocting a set of ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling’, along with Simpson and his donkey of Gallipoli fame. The slogan of the Howard campaign was ‘Character is Destiny’.

Many other polities faced with real and perceived threats in this age of heightened nation-statism are doing the same. What is particular is not the actual content of the values, but the political will to undermine the civic and the civil, to cavil and create what political power-holders regard as being acceptable norms and standards for society as a whole in consultation with themselves. This is a process that has unfolded at the other end of economic reforms that have seen the rapid privatization, or one could argue re-privatization, of social life and community.[9]

Time Starts Now

Shortly after the inauguration of the new socialist state of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949, the literary critic and poet Hu Feng (胡风, 1902-1985) wrote a paean to the new state, and its leader Mao Zedong, entitled ‘Time Starts Now’ (Shijian kaishile 时间开始了).

In part it reads:

The great circular auditorium
Is like a globe floating in the universe
All around it
Countless red flags
Dance and flutter in joy
It is as though they are singing
Dancing redder still and more brightly
Like jumping flames
They light up
The 30,000 fighting hearts
Near them
They have been washed by the storm
Blown by the wild winds
Fluttering with joy
Redder ever still.[10]

Hu Feng was not unique in celebrating the rebooting of time, the marking of a Year One, in the way that he did. Just two decades earlier, in 1929, the original socialist state of the Soviet Union had ushered in what had been hailed as a ‘cultural revolution’. It was a revolution within a revolution that would see the proletarianization of culture, a process that that would ‘propel the country…to a postbourgeois culture system’, one which would instill in the populace ‘a truly socialist consciousness and way of life.’[11]

Hu Feng’s poem, ‘Time Starts Now’ recalled, intentionally or not, Joseph Stalin’s declaration at the advent of the Soviet Union’s 1929 cultural revolution that it was a year of the ‘great breakthrough’ (bol’shoi perelom), one that represented ‘a total break in time’.[12]

In China, the split in time, between the old and the new, was as stark as it would be relentless.

The Old China (Jiu Zhongguo 旧中国) also known as the Old Society (Jiu shehui 旧社会) was one in which the peoples of China – and it was the territory of the former Manchu-led Qing dynasty – had been crushed under the oppressive weight of what Mao Zedong had called the ‘three great mountains’ (sanzuo dashan 三座大山) of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic-capitalism.

Time started anew with the birth of New China (Xin Zhongguo 新中国), created as a result of the 1949 liberation when the people of China had stood up. It brought to an end what was to be called ‘a century of humiliation’ that had started with the first Opium War in 1840 after which ‘China’ had fallen prey to the incursions of imperialism and, over time, had been reduced to becoming a semi-feudal semi-colonial society. As the propagandists would tell it, certainly, the 1911 Xinhai Revolution had brought to an end two millennia of dynastic feudal rule, but China’s benighted state did not thereby fundamentally change. The May Fourth movement of 1919 marked the beginning of a new democracy revolution. But the epoch-making event was the founding in 1921 of the Chinese Communist Party. Following twenty-eight years of struggle, and under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Party-led new democracy revolution finally celebrated its victory with the establishment on 1 October 1949 of New China.

The historians of New China, influence profoundly by Republican-era debates and the historiographical timescape of the Soviet Union and the stages of social change and revolution, now set about creating a periodization and logic for the onward flow of Chinese history.

Starting from pre-history they melded the myths of legendary founders of Chinese civilization with scientific fact. And the progress of history and time was marked by delineating dynastic-feudal times (gudaishi 古代史), through to late-feudal and early capitalist history (jindaishi 近代史) from 1840 to 1911 and then into the modern (xiandaishi 现代史) era from 1911 to 1949, culminating in the eternal present of the contemporary period (dangdaishi 当代史), dated from 1949 onwards. From 1949, when the Chinese people were liberated from the past, now time started.

A Conflict of Caricatures

As I remarked earlier, time was rebooted in 1978 with the launching of the Communist Party’s New Era Open Door and Reform policies, China’s ‘second liberation’.

In China the story of the reforms was one about how history was being realized; how the struggle for a strong, wealthy and modern country dating back to the Qing era was now possible under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Mistakes had been made, lessons had been learnt. China was back on track.

In the 1990s, outside China (and including in Hong Kong and Taiwan) popular characterizations of the mainland readily invoked a grand narrative that told another story, one about how following the disasters of Maoism the last bastion of recalcitrant one-party rule would inevitably be undermined by economic reforms and the liberating pressures of technology, social change and global markets. It was a view that presented us with an inexorable logic: market diversity will result in increased commercialization and embourgeoisement; the growth of new social forces as well as of a general liberalization will in turn engender political, social and cultural pluralism.

In China reasoned and self-reflexive analysis among popular writers and academics is all too often stymied not only by the fiat of publishers, but also by mass sentiment. Perhaps that is why the West, that is Euro-America, often doesn’t appear to have much of a chance in China. For as the script there goes, the United States is the sole surviving global hegemon in a unipolar world; it is the policeman of the planet that is in cahoots with NATO and the European Economic Union. The monolithic power of US Inc., even in its present enfeebled state, will go to any lengths to impose its will on others, especially those who would dare challenge its international droit de signeur. In the name of national security and capitalist dominance it succours a commercial empire and, even in decline, it furthers the imperial domination pursued by its multi-national companies and regional minions.

This is what I call a ‘conflict of caricatures’, be it found in China or the United States, Asia or Euramerica, and it infiltrates and mediates the mainstream and streamlined ‘China story’ at every turn.[13]

The mass media storyline that all too often has China, not to mention the US, in its grip is one of Manichaean simplicity. The Communist apparatus of China (both in its bureaucratic machinations and ideological pronouncements) is readily cast as being hide-bound, out-of-touch, in decay and incapable of adjusting to the fast-pace of economic change, or the unsettling and pluralistic realities of its own society. How can the creaky Marxism-Leninism of early modernism cope with the frenetic pastiche of the post-modern age, it is asked. ‘China on the verge’ is a conceit that feeds off narratives determined by the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, a country of permanent political and economic stagnation that was the yesterday of Russia’s today. In this view of the Far East, the notion of an unchanged and challenged autocracy that is conflated neatly with abiding mythologies about oriental despotism, eternal Cathay, and political Chinoiserie. For China, no matter how one makes concessions to its rapid transformation, complex social reality and restive economy, is a country caught up in over two centuries of stereotypes.

The Four Disconnects

Since the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the late 1970s, there have been what I think of as four major ‘disconnects’ between China’s official account of itself, and international perceptions of Chinese reality. The reflect different concepts of reality, trajectories of history, social reality and media representation.

An initial ‘disconnect’ between China’s self-narrative and international perceptions of the country’s new era occurred at the very outset of the reform and opening up policies launched in late 1978.

Around the time of the plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party that would see China turn away from the radical politics of class struggle and concentrate instead on economic reform and modernisation in December 1978, public protest found a voice when individuals and groups started posting complaints about Party rule on at the Xidan intersection of Chang’an Boulevard in central Beijing. The ‘Beijing Spring’ of 1978-1979 saw people from disparate backgrounds put up ‘big-character posters’ to express their complaints. Some were prosaic and practical in their demands, others used the lyricism of poetry and fiction to call for change, or to urge caution. Among the posters one in particular gained local and international fame, that written by a young man by the name of Wei Jingsheng that called for the modernization of China’s political system and democratization. In 1979, the ‘Xidan Democracy Wall’ (Xidan minzhuqiang 西单民主墙) as it came to be known was shut down, and eventually bulldozed. Wei Jingsheng had been detained and he was gaoled for fifteen years. International (mostly Western, but also Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japanese) hopes for China to move away from authoritarian government were frustrated, but the newly launched economic policies of the Communist Party promised gradual transformation and greater openness, if not substantive political change.

The year 1989 saw another bifurcation in the understanding of China and its trajectory dating from the inauguration of the 1978 reforms, and I began this discussion of with an example from 4 June of the clash in perceptions that marked that year. A third disconnect in China’s official account and international reports and perceptions occurred in 1999. First, in April that year, there was the mass protest of Falun Gong practitioners outside the party-state compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing, followed by the repression of the meditative sect as an ‘evil cult’. Then, later in the year, the supposedly ‘accidental’ bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US-led NATO forces led to an outpouring of nationalist outrage. The fourth dissonance in perceptions about contemporary China occurred came nearly a decade later, in 2008, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

Zhengyou 诤友

In the year leading up to August 2008, widespread hopes were expressed internationally that with the global spotlight focussed on China in an unprecedented fashion, and given that the Olympics would be celebrated as that country’s ‘coming out party’, surely it was inevitable that we would witness a period of greater openness, increased freedom and an expression of the best that the Chinese system had to offer. Such hopeful views brought to mind the optimism regarding the potential for openness and change in China that had been abroad first in the late 1970s, and again in the late 1980s. Once more such views were underpinned by a near axiomatic belief that great economic liberalisation and market freedom would invariably enhance political and personal freedoms and indeed hasten systemic changes to China’s authoritarian system. If history wasn’t bunk, at least it would be shoved aside by the invisible hand of the market.

The murderous events in Tibetan China in March-April 2008 dashed these hopes. Protests and then violence first in Lhasa, then throughout parts of the People’s Republic with large Tibetan populations threatened to become the main focus for China’s Olympic year. For the international community human rights in China were once again a major concern, and for the fourth time in thirty years an ‘us versus them’ clash in reporting and understanding contemporary China erupted.

An interesting chapter was added to the story of Australia’s involvement with China shortly after the suppression of the Tibetan riots. In April 2008, on his first formal visit to the People’s Republic, our then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd caused something of a stir when, in addressing a Peking University audience, he voiced concerns about China’s human rights record and the situation in Tibet. Although his speech was predominantly concerned with the numerous positive dimensions of the bilateral relationship, he was the first foreign leader to address an audience in Chinese, and to pointedly, if politely, dare to disagree with official China over a matter of internal politics that was also one of pressing international concern. Ever the diplomat, Rudd couched his comments in terms of trying to be a zhengyou 诤友 to China. Using this ancient term, he said his comments were part of an effort to be ‘a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.’

International protests during the Olympic Torch relay shortly thereafter marked what some commentators called the ‘April Nineteenth Movement’, one that unlike the May Fourth Movement of 1919 was emblematic of a new Chinese assertive presence on the world stage. Some Chinese writers hailed in particular the anti-CNN stance of protesters who cast the US-based broadcaster CNN as the symbol of international Western media bias and neo-colonial attempts to distort Chinese realities for their own nefarious, neo-colonial ends. The noted leftist nationalist writer Gan Yang declared that, ‘the outpouring of the Chinese people of the world on 19 April told CNN and the like that I-DO-NOT-BELIEVE your reports.’ In such a strained environment there was little room for even zhengyou-esque disagreement.

The China Story

Despite the hopes and fears surrounding the XXIXth Olympiad, the Beijing games went on. The song-and-dance extravaganza staged on 8 August 2008 for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics offered an entertaining account of China’s great traditions and its aspirations. It was the third such production since the founding of the People’s Republic. The first was ‘The East is Red’ (Dongfang hong 东方红) produced in 1964. That production concluded with a rousing choral rendition of ‘Without the Communist Party, There Would be No New China’ (Meiyou gongchandang jiu meiyou Xin Zhongguo 没有共产党就没有新中国).

In 1990, the Party leader Jiang Zemin had led the nation to sing this song once more; it would feature prominently around the time of the ‘Sing Red’ campaign of Bo Xilai twenty years later, one that was until early 2012 strongly endorsed by Bo’s fellow leaders in Beijing.

The second history production was ‘Ode to the Revolution’ (Zhongguo geming zhi ge 中国革命之歌) staged twenty years after the ‘East is Red’ marked the new reform era. The 2008 ceremony, named ‘The Beautiful Olympics’ was an account of China created for a global audience. (In 2009, the latest version of the story would celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of New China. ‘The Path to Revival’ [Fuxing zhi lu 复兴之路] was first staged on 29 September 2009.) These lavish productions present various versions of China’s modern history.

It was just after that opening ceremony that I was invited on 9 August 2008 by Kevin Rudd to join him in conversation with a number of Chinese officials and individuals. They included a leading propagandist who emphasized how the events of 2008 had demonstrated how important it was for China to tell more efficaciously what he called Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事, that is ‘The China Story’.

As is so often the case with such encounters, the Party bureaucrat was interested in using the foreign to serve China. Indeed, he enjoined us in the tired language of friendship diplomacy so incisively studied by the scholar Anne-Marie Brady, to act as bridge between China and the world. Having spent my professional career as an historian attempting to understand, question, translate and relate ‘Chinese stories’ and not just to replicate a monolithic ‘China Story’ I remarked that it was the plurality of Chinese stories, be they in the People’s Republic or globally, and how they commingle with regional and global stories that form the natural bridge to understanding.

But the creation of a national narrative for China is not recent invention of the Communist Party. Telling national stories has been part of the creation of nation-states since the nineteenth century, and many history projects have been devised as part of, or at least under the umbrella of creating narratives for political purposes.

The China Story, Zhongguode gushi, has in recent years become part of the official narrative of the Chinese party-state, intrinsic to China’s ‘propaganda state’. And, since 2008 in particular, the Chinese authorities have lavished funding on telling the official version of The China Story more efficaciously and more persuasively to the global community.

It is important to understand the officially engineered ‘Chinese world view’, just as we need to be mindful of how the guided Chinese media (from print to electronic) and educational practice have created what I have elsewhere called ‘China’s Flat Earth’.[14] As people engaged intellectually with China, we particularly need to understand both the official discourse and its historical and ideological underpinnings…. But to get a grip on larger Chinese realities, possibilities, uncertainties and to gain insights into how the past and the present will sculpt the future, it’s necessary to go well beyond simply a developing an ability to grasp party-state programs and formulations.

In approaching The China Story today our role as scholars and educators is complex. It behoves us to bring an empathetic understanding to the task. That is we are alert to a scholastic pursuit for facts and contextualization as well as being sensitive to understanding how the often-raw emotions generated by history and the uses of history today function in creating perceptions, and responses in current affairs. We are also aware of the nature of our own stories, individual, scholastic, social and national. For our engagement with The China Story is underpinned by and refers constantly back to all of these.

As academics, we have a different perspective – or range of perspectives – from more narrow-bore pragmatists, focus-group-driven politicians, or even effective business people and judicious diplomats. As I have remarked before my own vision of our work is one that is driven by humanistic thought, by, to quote Clive James, ‘its hunger, its scope, its vitality and its inner light – an inner light produced by all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding.'[15]

It is the environment of the university, where contending ideas are expressed, discussed and debated, that properly provides a free forum in which received beliefs and attitudes are subjected to rational analysis and discussion. Our relationships with colleagues, with students, with the various intellectual traditions of which we are custodians, and to which we are contributors, are in their essence often that of the zhengyou. We expect to be challenged: it is integral to learning and to the cultivation of the engaged, scholastic mind.

Following the establishment of our Australian Centre on China in the World we began preparing a way to account for The China Story. This Internet-based initiative is part of our an effort to engage with The China Story, to reflect on discussions of China’s Guoqing and various aspects of that country’s realities. We hope that The China Story site will provide an easily accessible source for researchers, students, journalists, diplomats, business people and the interested public to the key words and concepts that generally define China today. It also features a China Story Yearbook, and an Archive of related research materials.

The Mirror of History

Shortly after Kevin Rudd had the temerity to speak of a relationship with China built not on simple friendship, but rather on the basis of being a zhengyou, I observed that:

The most famous zhengyou was Wei Zheng [魏徵], a friend and critic of the Emperor Taizong [唐太宗] of the seventh-century Tang dynasty. Wei told the ruler that ‘if you listen to wise counsel all is brightness; if, however, you give in to bias darkness falls.’ When Wei died, some years later, the emperor bitterly mourned his passing. He offered this tribute: ‘One looks at a reflection in a mirror to see if one’s dress is in order. One studies history to understand the changing fortunes of time. And one seeks wise counsel to avoid mistakes. Wei Zheng has died, and I have lost my mirror…. To have a zhengyou is to be fortunate indeed.’ The metaphor is used by China’s leaders and the media even today. One can only hope that when they look in the mirror they do not do so with eyes wide shut.[16]

When writing about the need for a new practice of history 110 years ago, the thinker Liang Qichao also referred to mirrors. He said:

What is history? It is that which records both the subjects and objects of the continuous activities of human society, assesses their general achievement, seeks the relationship of causality therein, and serves as an auxiliary mirror for the general public in modern times. That which specializes in narrating the activities of ancient Chinese to provide the modern Chinese nation with an auxiliary mirror is called Chinese history.[17]

The China Story Project aims at provided a series of such mirrors that reflect not only what the party-state hopes to see when it gazes into the mirror of its carefully constructed history, but also through various refractions to provide those who see Chinese history as part of the broader global enterprise of humanity with the dimensions that allow for a nuanced, informed and complex understanding of China’s telling stories.



* My thanks to David Goodman, China Studies Centre, The University of Sydney, for inviting me to address a Sydney audience on 1 May 2012. This version of The China Story has featured in my work since the late 1990s, although it actually developed in tandem with the post-Cultural Revolution era of China. In this talk I draw on essays, speeches and academic writings that I have published or made over the past thirteen years.

[1] See Qiang Zhai, ‘1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution’, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18 (June 2009); and, Geremie R. Barmé, ‘The Harmonious Evolution of Information in China’, China Beat, 29 January 2010.

[2] Václav Havel, ‘Stories and totalitarianism’, Index on Censorship, 1988:3, p.16. Material in this section is drawn from my introduction to Sang Ye, Barmé and Miriam Lang, China Candid: the people on the People’s Republic, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

[3] Xiaobing Tang, Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity: The Historical Thinking of Liang Qichao, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp.216-17.

[4] See Gloria Davies, ‘Liang Qichao in Australia: a sojourn of no significance?’, in East Asian History, no.21 (June 2001): 65-111.

[5] Davies, ‘Liang Qichao in Australia’.

[6] Liang Qichao, Xin shixue, quoted in Xiaobing Tang, p.62.

[7] Wai-keung Chan, ‘Contending Memories of the Nation: history education in wartime China, 1937-1945′, in Tze-ki Hon and Robert J. Culp, eds, The Politics of Historical Production in Late Qing and Republican China, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007, p.174-181.

[8] ‘Anzac Day represents all our nation is now – PM’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2012.

[9] From my keynote address on China to the Oriental Society of Australia Fiftieth anniversary conference, Sydney University, 5 December 2006, published as: ‘Shared Values: A Sino-Australian Conundrum’, JOSA (Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia), vol.28 (2006): 60-67, which appeared in 2008.

[10] Hu Feng, ‘Shijian kaishile’, Renmin ribao, 20 November 1949.

[11] Katerina Clark, Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011, p.44. For more on the Soviet cultural revolution, see Katerina Clark, Petersburg, Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995, esp. p.261ff.

[12] Katerina Clark, Moscow, ibid.

[13] See Barmé, In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p.367.

[14] Barmé, ‘China’s Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008‘, The China Quarterly, 197 (March 2009): 64-86.

[15] Clive James on the French writer Jean Prévost in his Cultural Amnesia, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007, p.576, quoted in my Inaugural CIW Annual Lecture, ‘Australia and China in the World: Whose Literacy?’, 15 July 2011, ANU.

[16] Barmé, ‘Rudd Rewrites the Rules of Engagement’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2008. The original reads: ‘夫,以铜为镜,可以正衣冠;以史为镜,可以知兴替;以人为镜,可以知得失。魏征没,朕亡一镜矣!’.

[17] Xiaobing Tang, Global Space and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity, pp.206-207.