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History and State: Searching the Past in the Light of the Present in the People's Republic of China

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This article explores the interaction between the state, society and the individual in the process of forging contemporary history in China. I discuss two distinctive categories in contemporary Chinese history, official history (zhengshi) and unofficial history (yeshi). By comparing and contrasting these two categories of history, I intend to show how history serves as an agent between past and present, and as a convenient tool for the state to formulate its political legitimacy in contemporary China. I do not intend to treat official and unofficial history as two exclusive categories to cover all the historical studies published in the People's Republic of China. The distinction of official history and unofficial history is made to facilitate discussion of the relationship between history and the state, and thus, these terms should be understood as representing alternate poles in a linear relation, with many other subcategories in between.

Inquiries into the relationship between history and the state become more important when we study historiography in the People's Republic of China. Although traditional concept of official and unofficial history changed in the modern era, the state has continued the practice of controlling the sources and interpretations of history. The officially sponsored/recognized history still possesses much more authority than unofficial history. In order to justify his revolutionary theory and practice and to establish a "new tradition," Mao and his Party pushed what I define as "ahistorical" practice to the extreme. The politicization of historical study has greatly changed the direction of Chinese historiography and resulted in the domination of the "ahistorical" attitude over studies of Chinese history. Not only did Mao controlled the interpretations of China's past, he also ambitiously intended to remold the worldview (gaizao shijie guan) of intellectuals and reshape the way historians conduct their research. By the end of the Cultural Revolution, the field of historiography in China had been pushed to an "ahistorical extreme." Many intellectuals were purged during the politicization of historiography to reinforce the official ideology in historical study.

In my study of unofficial history, I try to illustrate the discrepancy between the dominant official history and unofficial histories in terms of historical facts and perceptions of particular historical event. Unofficial history in contemporary China emerged as the result of the intensive politicization of Chinese society after 1949, which left little room for different opinions and even different academic opinions. Many works/manuscripts in the category of unofficial history, such as my study of the Lin Biao Incident, can still not be published in China. I will use different interpretations of the Lin Biao Incident to illustrate the interaction between official history, collective memory and individual memory in forging the history of contemporary China. I try to reconstruct the process by which particular political / social / personal events are transformed into recent history and to illustrate how different elements, official history, social memory, and individual perception, function in shaping or reshaping the recent past in the People's Republic of China.


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