Sunday, 9 October 2011

On the Centenary of Chinese Revolution 1911

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the Chinese Revolution in 1911.

One hundred years have passed since the curtains of imperial China were drawn. Despite all the hardships and grievances brought by warfare and social upheavals that ensued, thousands if millions were looking forward to a free, prosperous and dignified China that enjoys the respect of the rest of the world - more specifically, the imperial powers of the West and Japan.

Is this noble mission achieved? How far have we succeeded? To what extent have we failed? Why did we fail and is there any remedy? If yes, what can we do and how? Are we on the right track? Or have we already steered away from the original course and change to something else that is even more cost-effective and worthwhile?

To answer these questions is by no means easy. Even more difficult would it be to come up with a consensus that most historians, politicians and other members of the community find acceptable, let alone agreeable. The current political landscape in China - most notably the antagonistic regimes on the mainland and Taiwan - just makes this important soul-searching process far more complicated and exhausting than what we are ready to comprehend. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the commemorations and celebrations have, regrettably, degraded into yet another array of political propaganda and whitewashing - although they are embarrassingly limited in scale and scope.

As in the worst times of hostility and confrontation across the Taiwan Straits, Hong Kong is still in the best position to have a more balanced and impartial review of the Chinese Revolution - although its edge may be eroding due to a number of reasons. In any event, we are in a better position than any other Chinese communities to do so partly because we have always been relatively free from political and ideological intervention in the discourse of Chinese history. We remain so 14 years after the sovereignty was transferred to communist China. Yet so many people here don't seem to care any longer. They find it more relevant and interesting to bet on who is going to run in the next chief executive elections, or to mourn the death of Steve Jobs or to lash out on Apple's disappointing release of iPhone 4S instead of iPhone 5, and its unforgivable contempt of Hong Kong by excluding it from the sales of the newly launched gadget.

Among the few local historians researching on the Chinese Revolution, even fewer are providing a fresh perspective of understanding the historical significance and implications of the incident. More are, not surprisingly, focusing on digging for new information about the leading figures like Dr Sun Yat-sen or unsung heroes such as Tse Tsan-tai, a Chinese Australian best known as the founder of the South China Morning Post. While I am confident that these research projects will add to our knowledge of those who had contributed to the success of the Chinese Revolution, whether they can offer alternative views on this ground-breaking development of Chinese history remains to be seen.

Discovering and evaluating the life and accomplishment of individuals has been a very common and traditional way of historical studies. But in my opinion, this may not be the best - though arguably easier - way to study an extraordinary event like the Chinese Revolution. In history textbooks we have already seen too much moral judgment of historical figures without actually understanding what they had done to deserve a good or bad name. Our knowledge of history is too often highly selected if distorted to comply with the established perceptions and stereotypes. And I reckon this obsession of moral judgment has deep roots in our culture that goes beyond the remote past. The same happens in drama and opera appreciation. Too often our first question about the characters is who the good and bad guys are. For those who are a bit more serious about history, however, this is a preconception that we should be acutely aware of and make every effort to overcome.

For this reason, I am so fed up with all the clichés that how great the Chinese Revolution was and how heroic the revolutionaries were. These excessively simplified rhetoric can only serve political purposes but do little to help us better understand history, only if we care. Just read the interview with Dr Joseph Ting, former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, an extraordinary civil servant and a passionate local historian whom I respect very much and was privileged to be able to sit in his class last term, published in Ming Pao Daily today. The more the journalist emphasised how "special" and "different" Dr Ting is, the more I feel, for some reason, that the journalist was actually teasing him and repeating the common rhetoric that "it is useless to study history" rather than showing appreciation.

In Western civilisation, history is one of the essential subjects of liberal arts education and thus indispensable in grooming cultured souls with a critical, independent mind but also a humble heart. Chinese historian Qian Mu also said that only those who respect and understand their national history could be regarded as "nationals". Among other things, therefore, I think the centenary of the Chinese Revolution should be leveraged to promote the value and significance of history and its proper learning. Only until then could we embark on the daunting task of providing a more balanced, impartial, honest and upright account of the Chinese Revolution. This is a mega undertaking that we still owe ourselves and our children. But a hundred years on, we are still not ready, but only if we still care.

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