China's cultural memory can't be contained



Two major religious feasts were held recently, namely Passover (or Pesach) and Easter. At their core, these are celebrations of remembrance, of bringing to mind long ago events.

Students rally in support of the May Fourth movementYet through the annual re-telling of the story individuals and communities are also renewed for their days ahead. Memory works double time, bouncing from past to future to invigorate the present. While commemorations are static in that they deal with the dead, they are also dynamic in that their symbolic heft falls upon the living.

Just as Notre Dame's tumbling spire came to represent despair, and the preservation of the rose windows has come to represent hope, major acts of remembrance combine symbol and word, thought and emotion. Governments and major institutions worldwide are well aware of the power of memory and use multiple ways to seek to control the triggers of it.

In China, commemorations exist in abundance and the government promotes them with the fervour of an old-time preacher. Coincidentally, years that end in '9' have had a frequent way of being the occasion for events of high drama. Thus 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic of China and 20 years since the Falun Gong was outlawed. In June it is 30 years since tanks entered Beijing, and it is the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama fleeing Tibet.

Some of these events will be celebrated with grand pageantry; over others the government will seek to exert rigorous control. In some cases the act of remembering will itself be repressed. Louisa Lim's book, The Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, details how one world event has become a date of no significance within China while often being marked quite passionately outside of it, thereby illustrating that when anniversaries hold together memory and symbol in a vital bond they are more than mere digits.

But can memory in fact be choreographed? Who determines what is and is not to be recalled? Whose birth and death, which clash and conciliation?

Even when commemorative events are staged to the final wave, there is no guarantee that other imaginings do not occur. They most certainly do. Thus, this year of all years, China's government would have contended with thoughts of memory and acts of public commemoration. Yet, for all the importance of the anniversaries listed above, there is one other '9' year that pre-dates them all.


"It will be fascinating to watch how the centenary plays out in China, especially in contrast to the anniversary of the People's Republic later in the year."


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. This refers to the predominantly student-led campaign that was protesting the then Chinese government's acquiesance with territorial demands put forward by Japan and subsequently enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. German colonies in China were not to be returned to the new Republic, but were placed under Japanese control. Outrage ensued.

Patriotic students, harnessing the collective will of an angry people, marched from their university in Beijing and made their way through the city streets to the gathering place in front of the Forbidden City. This ancient space for the airing of grievances took its name from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen.

As they gathered protesting in the square, these youth represented the desire of China to be in control of its own destiny and not at the mercy of foreigners without or corrupt leaders within. In consequence, in the decades since then, the Movement and the students have come to be celebrated as the harbingers of a brave new China, one that first resisted Japanese aggression, and then overcame the larcenous ineptitude of the ruling Guomintang (Kuomintang).

The establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, accompanied as it was by a symbolic gathering of Mao and fellow leaders on top of Tiananmen in front of throngs of liberated citizens below, was seen to have received the legacy of the earlier student activists. In fact, many of those in the square and on the dais were of that same generation.

One hundred years on, given what has transpired during other '9' years, the power of symbol lurks uncomfortably. To honour students rallying for the nation then cannot but bring to mind other students marching through Beijing. To celebrate young protestors in Tiananmen in 1919 is to invite memories to stir forcefully within. And yet, given the historical weight of 4 May, the government must commemorate it all the same.

It will be fascinating to watch how the centenary plays out in China, especially in contrast to the anniversary of the People's Republic later in the year. The Party has to celebrate its legacy in symbol and deed, but can it determine the path of memory's march? Only time will tell.



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. His company also leads people on immersions through China.

Main image: Students rally in support of the May Fourth Movement

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Tiananmen Square, Communism, Mao



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Existing comments

Jeremy, you mention Tibet, Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong as worthy of remembrance. However what China's Marxist philosophy dislikes, it eliminates. Mao's army said they were reforming Tibet in 1952, which led to the deaths of at least 87,000 Tibetans and the destruction of 6,000 Buddhist Monasteries. Anyone who mentions the Dalai Lama as a valid leader in exile, will be howled down by Chinese Diplomats. In reality China wanted the mineral riches of Tibet. Meanwhile the Falun Gong followers languish in prisons making toys for McDonalds until such time as they are required for live organ harvesting (another lucrative CCP sideline). As for the 30 year anniversary of the tanks, China wants no resurrection of that pro democratic demonstration. It has been buried as securely as if it were dropped into the Mariannas trench. Of recent times the militarization of the South China sea reefs and atolls is another dramatic about face. And our politicians leap to sell our infrastructure to them, ports, farms, mines, real estate. Now 6 huge bases with military runways have been built without permission in Australia's Antarctic territory. In reality China selectively commemorates events if considered useful to control its burgeoning population.
Francis Armstrong | 23 April 2019

It's lovely to have you as a contributor Jeremy. I enjoyed reading Francis' comment as well. The brutality of the regime requires that we talk about it with brutal honesty such that all might see its utter ugliness.
Patrick | 03 May 2019


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