Adrienne Mong/ NBC News
Chinese tourists pose in Tiananmen Square.
BEIJING—For a significant centennial, it’s not getting the fanfare we’ve grown used to witnessing in China.
Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which began on October 10, 1911.
The armed uprising ended not just the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) but the era of Imperial dynasties. It established a democratic republic—the first such government in Asia. It brought to worldwide attention Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of “modern” China.
And yet for all its significance in modern Chinese history, the anniversary of the 1911 revolution—as it’s more commonly known in the West—is garnering nowhere near the ceremonial fanfare accorded to the last two major such historic moments in China: last year’s 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and last July’s 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Consider that pre-eminent example of propaganda: film.
Re-writing history through film
For mainland China’s 60th birthday, a “special gift” was presented by the country’s film industry. Called “The Founding of a Republic,” the movie chronicled the events of the Chinese civil war, laying out how the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists to establish the People's Republic of China.
The star-studded historical epic featured some of the best-known luminaries from the mainland and Hong Kong (a famous face appeared virtually every three minutes in the movie). The likes of Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, and Jet Li helped it break ticket sales records for a domestic production.
Then to mark the 90th year of the founding of the party earlier this year, “Beginning of the Great Revival” was heavily marketed across China, again featuring top Chinese actors. Cinemas were told to clear the decks for the film’s release, and Western blockbusters like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” were rumored to be held until ticket sales for “Revival” reached $120 million.
In contrast, “1911” held its premiere in relative obscurity--in northeastern Jilin Province, part of the original homeland of the Manchus, who founded the Qing Dynasty. The other two films held splashy premieres in the Chinese capital.
Of course, the Chinese government has hosted some gala events—including the opening of a new museum in Wuhan dedicated to the 1911 Revolution and a ceremony on Sunday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where a giant portrait of Sun Yat-sen has been sitting outside on Tiananmen Square since National Day.
But the coverage and the propaganda have been carefully calibrated. Any discussion of the revolution’s underpinning theme--young revolutionaries’ dreams of democracy--could go seriously awry for a government already under pressure from a restive populace within and the Arab Spring without.
The party has at least two compelling reasons to control the historical narrative. For one, Sun Yat-sen was not only the father of modern China, he was the founder of the Kuomintang aka the Nationalist Party, which now holds court in Taiwan. It’s a rival government, by the way, which is very democratic and very open.
And then there is the Communist Party raison d’etre.
"Raising" a patriotic consciousness
“[Since the 1990s, the party] has deliberately tried to foster and associate itself with a conspicuously more patriotic consciousness among the Chinese people,” said Julia Lovell, a historian who teaches at the University of London.
Lovell most recently published a wonderfully read-able and erudite book, The Opium War, in which she combed through both Chinese and English language sources to detail the events of the first Opium War (1839-42) and to illustrate how the Anglo-Chinese encounter would define China and its later history. (The book has marvellous nuggets like Qing Emperor Daoguang struggling to come to grips with his antagonists: “Where in fact, he wondered in a communication of May 1842, is England? Why are the English selling us opium? What are the Indians doing in their army? How is it they have a 22-year-old woman for a queen? Is she married?”)
The party derives its source of power and legitimacy from a well-told chronicle—one which casts the Opium War as “the tragic curtain-raiser of modern Chinese history [and] the start of China’s humiliation,” according to Lovell. In turn, the party has cast itself as the saviors of the nation, nationalist heroes who struggled against a Western conspiracy to destroy China.
“It’s been a key way in which the Chinese Communist Party has tried to shore up its legitimacy after the debacle of 1989,” said Lovell, referring to the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, in which the Party found itself in serious crisis—its rule and its ideology challenged from all sides. “It also hints at the insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party and their need to re-invent themselves in the new era. This is something they need to keep on doing as China continues to change at a remarkable rate.”
Incidentally, owning one’s history is not a responsibility that lies solely with Beijing.
Now that the balance of power is shifting from the West to the East, “[W]e do now need to make up our minds how we’re going to approach episodes in our history—imperial misdeeds in our history—that took place in countries like China,” Lovell added.