As I thought about why I collect what I do, I really began to think about what these things mean. You may remember that my collections are teapots, refrigerator magnets, and ceramic figures from the Cultural Revolution period in China. I hope that my feelings about history help give you some perspective on what the Cultural Revolution figures mean to me and how and why they matter.
Sadly, the China that exists today chooses not remember the Cultural Revolution; it is hidden in the skirts of the country’s attempts to be accepted by the rest of the world, not unlike how Dickens describes the evils of Ignorance and Want hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.
The results of those events have shaped this country as much as the thousands of years of history this country has experienced before. This monumental impact is evident in the many cases of restored landmarks and monuments left by those before them. It is evident in the lack of collectibles that are available from recent eras as these were destroyed as decadent and lavish. Unfortunately, the failure to acknowledge this era and history hinders the China of today. The author Syd Moore has said, “Disregard for the past will never do us any good. Without it we cannot know truly who we are.” The Chinese rightly claim to have thousands of years of history that define them and help know who they are; yet, without the relative history of the Cultural Revolution, they cannot truly know who they are, TODAY.
In my mind these figures and related items are the items that define China, even if China isn’t willing to talk about the period or what it meant or means to the country. It doesn’t take a lot of historical knowledge about China to recognize that China has lived and died by conflict; centuries and centuries of conflict. The cycles of conflict are etched in the faces and psyche of the people and their country. The fortified cities, houses, Dialous, and regions protected by walls that required magnificent examples of engineering efforts and human sweat and blood are only part of the story in the middle kingdom. There are conflicts that continue to occur as class struggles and smoldering conflicts. The failure to recognize the past, including the recent past, will most certainly continue to haunt this country.
The world has recently witnessed the tinder-dry conditions of which I speak in the conflicts in China as they protested the actions of the Japanese Government that “infringed” on their perception of ownership and control. We saw the people rise up and protest by destroying private property of individuals and companies that could be perceived to be associated with Japan. This recent example is what concerns me about China, the volatile situation that seemingly hides beneath the surface, smoldering.
What I can begin to see in the world around me is that the future is unsure; the calm and secure situation may only be a facade. The façade of history is not solely what is shared and taught, it is not consistent; history is a victim of those in charge. It is shared through the glasses and perceptions of the politically correct historians. While their perspective is influenced by the events within their lifetime, it isn’t an arbitrary event that can be recorded without context to events around it. Within history there are also fundamental and absolute truths that should not and cannot be defined by today’s views. The View and Perspective of history must retain some of the historical context in which it occurred in order to be understood. Historians frame the story, that we see as history, by what they understood and what they believed. The further we get from those events (any event) and the longer we wait to begin to document and record then the less likely we are to understand them and benefit from them.
We see, today, the history we have learned being modified and changed. Those stories and accounts are changing around us; the changes are often no better than the original, yet we herald them as if we discovered something wonderful and splendid. When in fact we have probably only shown them in a different light and perspective. There is no guarantee that the current version is any better than the previous.
What I hope, is that the opportunity for China to look closely at its recent past will allow the new government leaders to learn from it. I hope that they will recognize the challenge that they face and will take a different approach than those in charge in 1989. The country is becoming more open and with that openness the human desire to self-destiny. I am still on the outside looking in on China even though I live here. But my view and opinion tells me that something is coming, the government is changing and in this country one never really knows what that means. We often look at those changes in government to be progress. I hope that means progress, I hope that means a proper dose of self critical evaluation of past events and actions.
I hope that we, that have a front row seat to China; living and working here, will see something that firmly indicates that the leadership is learning from the past. Author, philosopher, poet, George Santayana states it best:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As I contemplate the future of the middle kingdom I hope that the government that is going to be in charge for the 12th “5-year plan” will learn from their recent past and the other 5000 years of history that makes China so unique. I truly believe that if they don’t then this country will indeed repeat it. And the changes to the Middle Kingdom will be far more devastating and destructive than those experienced during the Cultural Revolution. The suffering will be immense. The publicity and condemnation from the international communities will destroy whatever fabric of this culture remains. I am certain that it won’t be pretty.