So again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted, as we hit the busy stages of the academic year- controlled assessment, exam and revision prep and much more besides! How can I show you just how busy I’ve been- I’ve only just started watching this series of Top Gear! (No spoilers please!)
Last night I watched as Clarkson, Hammond and May made another rather predictable but still intensely amusing mess of the situation presented to them- this time on set of the new “Sweeney” movie with Ray Winstone, Plan B and one very angry director.
Richard Hammond’s “attempts” to provide a Hollywood-style car chase in a UK caravan park were particularly entertaining, from the 1 foot jump that turned into a giant flip of the car, to his planting of explosives in the wrong caravan- no idea what I’m on about? “Let’s take a look” (said in a Clarkson style voice!)
Hammond’s attempt at “sorting it out at the edit” leave a lot to be desired (but obviously that’s the point). So- what’s this got to do with History?!
I read yesterday at “History Today” about how China teaches history (this is linked, honest!). I’ve always loved looking at Chinese history, ever since I studied it in my second year at university (thanks mainly to the legendary Greg Benton!), and teaching Sino-Soviet Relations and Rapprochement to Year 13 is always a highlight of the year. Anyway, the History Today website discusses an article by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times. In it, he discusses the importance of understanding the emerging superpower that is China and it’s history, and how the version of Chinese history that is being taught is quite worrying. There is no mention of the controversies and catastrophies under Chairman Mao and the CCP- as Rachman states:
The treatment of China under Communism is even more heavily-edited. A vague mention of “setbacks” in the early years of Communist party rule is the only reference to the “Great Leap Forward” – the man-made famine that killed more than 20m people. The turmoil and terror of the Cultural Revolution is not discussed. Nor is the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Instead, Chinese history focuses on how “their country was once ruthlessly exploited by rapacious foreigners”. It’s quite startling that as China rises to superpower status, as a leader in world economics, and an exporter of pretty much everything, that they could omit such important, if negative, aspects of their history. Great pieces of history are effectively stories, and they undergo constant edits- but can we really treat history in the same manner?
China aren’t alone- many countries have, either now or in the past, edited their own historical narrative. Hitler’s Germany is an obvious example, where students were only taught about the unfair Treaty of Versailles, the superiority of the German race and the Jews being the reason for all their ills. Stalin’s “Short Course” rewrote history- giving Stalin a much more important role in the October Revolution and portraying his rivals as ‘enemies of the people’.
We aren’t exempt either- in our crammed national curriculum we have little time to teach the true nature of the Opium Wars with (ironically) China, or internment and other Northern Ireland related controversies, to mention a few. We do, however, look at our role in the slave trade and the abuses of our power during the height of the British Empire.
Why rewrite history in your favour, focusing rather on the faults of your rivals? The answer is pretty clear. If a government has a keen interest in shaping their population to believe a certain mantra, or support them in pursuing a particular political/economic/social course, then certain aspects of history may prove to be stumbling blocks. It also explains China’s tight control of accessing the internet- where a few clicks would soon reveal a whole other side of Chinese history to their students. By writing this, I imagine that “historC” is now officially blocked by the powers that be in Shanghai!
But the peaks of historical narrative must be accompanied by the troughs. Many philosophers, religious speakers, even Jeremy Kyle acknowledge that we learn most about ourselves and those around us when we walk through the valleys of life or travel the wastelands of human existence. The same is true of our history- it shapes and moulds a national consciousness. Germany don’t celebrate their existence in the 1930s or 40s, but they don’t hide away from it any more either. Although apologising for the actions of your ancestors is, in my opinion, deprived of purpose, it acknowledges one very simple fact- history shapes us. To ignore some of the past’s experiences- on a micro-personal level or in a national, even global context- would be to only tell half the story. It’s like watching Comedy Central or E4 in the daytime- the best jokes are too rude for pre-watershed television, but the edit takes out the punchline- and it’s just not funny.