The Chinese Communist Party’s refusal to reconcile with its past, explained by Orville Schell


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A seasoned historian and scholar of China reflects on what it means for a great nation to grapple with its past, and why this is especially important for the Chinese Communist Party to do today.

“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 reexpress themselves in some mutant form?”

This is a question that the 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.


Orville: The works of the legendary writer Lu Xun, whose writings inspired by his love-hate relationship with the history, philosophy, and traditional culture of China remain a must-read for understanding why China is the way it is. Check out Wild Grass, translated by Xianyi Yang and Gladys Yang, and Jottings under Lamplight, a new compilation by Eileen J. Cheng and Kirk A. Denton.

Kaiser: The Amazon Echo Dot, a gadget that he uses for playing his Spotify playlists.