U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University

China Blog

Day 1 - Travel

Bryant students who have traveled with me in Europe or in China over the past few years can testify that I really do believe in thorough preparation for travel. Knowing where you’re going, and what you want to accomplish saves time, and it also helps you get to places and see things you’ll miss when you just go with the flow. Guidebooks, travel blogs, visitor reviews, and your travel itinerary – these are the tools that get us beyond the tedium, confusion, exhaustion, and boredom that are among the most frustrating perils of travel. Personally, I live in fear of coming home to hear a chorus of people saying, “you walked right past the best things!” I genuinely enjoy new sites and new experiences, but I want to have some sense of what to expect.

This is my fourth trip to China. So far, I’ve enjoyed every minute of my travel in China. On the first visit I realized we can never “see it all.” More importantly, I think, as a professional historian I was stunned to discover that I had so much to learn about how the Chinese understand their own history. The Opium War Museum in Humen Town in Dongguan particularly impressed me on this point. The Chinese have very definite views on the significance of the Opium War, where the war came from, and what happened as a resulted from their interactions with the West during the 19 th century. Those Chinese views are strikingly different from what appears in most western histories – and what had appeared in the textbooks I’ve used teaching world history.

The memorial to Lin Zexu at the Opium War Museum. Lin was the provincial administrator who worked to eliminate the opium trade. For his trouble, the Qing demoted him and exiled him to the frontier. In the Chinese account, Lin Zexu is the unsung hero and supreme patriot of the Opium Wars.

Returning from that first trip, I enrolled in a Chinese class at Bryant, and I began a reading program trying to understand how the Chinese see their own history. On that point, I need to make a brief disclaimer. I didn’t come home thinking that, as a historian, I would shift my focus to China. My own background as an historian lies in early-modern Europe, the history of science and technology, and U.S. industrialization. To get even a basic grasp of Chinese history would mean a complete “reset” of my academic life. Not possible!

Instead, what I set out to do involves using my knowledge of Western Civilization as a reference point for trying to understand how the Chinese see their own history and culture. This is enough of a task! The Chinese express a very complicated set of views on their own history. At once, we need to understand the depth of this history in order to understand China, but we should not dwell to much on the events, or the details, of history, especially the modern history of China. For the Chinese, the past shapes what’s possible in modern China, but it is also something we need to put aside as we try to understand what’s happening in contemporary culture.

As part of my preparations for this trip I tried to talk with friends and colleagues who grew up in China, asking what they can tell those of us who did not about how we should understand modern China. More particularly, I asked what it is they would suggest as the most important thing for a first time visitor to China should understand? What do the Chinese really want us to see in their history and culture?

The memorial to the forces that opposed the British during the First Opium War, 1839-1842. According to the Chinese view, the Qing left these patriots unsupported, without reinforcements or adequate supplies.

These seemed like simple questions. In several instances, however, they produced extensive discussions, even becoming an ongoing dialogue in some cases.

So, what should outsiders understand about the ways the contemporary Chinese present their history and themselves to the world? Overall – as I thought about the World Confucian Conference in Qufu -- three key points emerged:

  • Visitors need to understand that the history of China is very deep. Everything that happens in modern China has referential dimensions shaped by that fact.
  • It is Chinese culture that shapes contemporary events. History and culture are parallel dimensions. They are not the same. They exist together, but in the end it is the culture that governs. People can ignore, or forget, the history. Even so, the habits of thinking and ways of doing are firmly imprinted on the Chinese people.
  • The Chinese are masters at performance, presentation, and the creation of illusion. They can make you see anything they want you to see.
Perhaps I’ve been naïve, but when these three points came together they seemed to clarify a number of points about things we “outsiders” see when we visit China. Perhaps the most important of those is the way in which the struggles over some troubling moments in China’s modern history are playing themselves out in a redefinition of the relations between culture and history. The same person who pointed to the depth of China’s history as an inescapable point for understanding modern China also told me that China’s culture is currently undergoing dramatic transformations – “transformations you can see every day.” At first, the seeming contradiction of these two points surprised me, but as I’ve thought more about this, I think that maybe these ideas are not so far apart. Certainly, the tension between China’s history and the scope of cultural change is something that I want to look for over the next two weeks.

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