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“Can a society which has not…come to terms with its own past go on to have a successful future, or do the sins of the past somehow…come back to haunt it and re-express themselves in some mutant form?”
This is a question that seasoned historian and scholar of China Orville Schell has been thinking and publishing academic articles about in recent years, and is now writing a book on. Schell has stated that “nowhere is history more relevant to the future than in China, a nation that has for millennia seen its destiny inextricably connected to the dynastic record of what has preceded.”
On the one hand, the idea that a psycho-reconciliation with the past is necessary for a country is a very Western, and a very Freudian, concept. But partly, that’s because it seems to have worked in the West — if Germany had not recognized its own past atrocities, could it have amicably dealt with its neighbors and become a leader in today’s Europe?
But the Chinese Communist Party’s official position is that no reconciliation is necessary. A Party communiqué called Document No. 9, which was leaked in 2013, made clear that certain historical events and ideas were strictly off limits, and that discussing them publicly was nothing but “historical nihilism.” That is not to say that there haven’t been attempts in China — by intellectuals, activists, and even the government, particularly in the 1980s leading up to 1989 — to critically analyze the past to avoid similar mistakes in the future. But the status of historical inquiry in China today is bleak, and Schell has a lot to say about what that may mean for the country’s future.