By Avinash Godbole
China and Taiwan recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, which ended the dynastic imperial rule in China and established the first Republic on the Mainland. The Xinhai Revolution had ushered in what is known as ‘the Modern China’ in the chronology of the study of China. Therefore, it is not just a commemorative event but also a celebratory event of the journey of the last century.
In East Asian studies, modern history is subject to multiple controversies. Be it the case of Japanese textbooks or the celebration of the Geisha tradition or even the ongoing war of words over the sovereignty of islands and islets in the South and East China Seas, history has been subjected to interpretations by contemporary rulers and winners. And in that sense, East Asia is no different from other parts of the world. However, what is unique to East Asia is not how different countries have diverse interpretations, but how all want to hold onto them for their current projects of national identity construction. This is nowhere more evident than in the way in which the Centenary celebrations commemorating 1911 were conducted in China and Taiwan.
The Chinese news agency Xinhua remembered the revolution as the one that “not only rid Chinese men of humiliating ponytails and women of the excruciatingly painful foot-binding, but also removed the people’s blind faith in the emperor, as well as the fear of foreign powers. The event has since been emancipating people’s minds from thousands of years of oppression and self-enclosure.”1 This is an unmistakable representation of selective facts that are consistent with the Chinese history authorised by the Chinese Communist Party; it does say what was achieved but it does not say what was left out from the promises of Sun Yat-sen to the people of China. For example, while Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (San-min), nationalism, democracy and livelihood for the people, find a place in the democratic institutional structure and national symbols of the Republic of China2, the CCP has taken its own liberty to interpret these that too only in the recent past. In addition, this interpretation has obviously been in accordance with the political philosophy of the party, which, in an ironic way, is as far as it could get from the democratic belief of Sun Yat-sen. The People’s Republic is not close to a democratic system by any stretch of the imagination while its welfare policies are overpowered by the pro-market strategy. The only thing that exists of Sun’s principles on the mainland is nationalism. However, its manifestations have been chauvinistic and aggressive and have been directed mostly at creating a pan Chinese identity that aims to absorb Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic. In addition, this nationalism inspired by history is ethnic nationalism and not the civic nationalism advocated by Sun Yat-sen.
Despite this, Chinese President Hu Jintao praised Sun Yat-sen as “a great national hero, a great patriot and a great leader of the Chinese democratic revolution”.3 Many have criticised this to be only a lip service, especially since an opera showcasing the life and achievements of Sun Yat-sen was recently banned in the PRC. Moreover, Sun does not regularly feature in the emblems of the PRC, whereas in the case of RoC he does. In addition, RoC celebrates the 10th of October, the day of the Xinhai Revolution, as its National Day, while for PRC, the 1st of October, the Founding Day of the CCP, is the National Day.4 Therefore, praising the 1911 Revolution as well as Sun Yat-sen exemplifies the compulsion that the CCP faces in sharing the national history of China. In addition, the sudden embracing of the symbols that it once ignored also exemplifies its uncomfortable struggle in not letting the RoC appropriate an important juncture of the modern Chinese history.
President Hu Jintao also used this occasion to appeal for Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. This in turn was turned down in no uncertain terms the very next day by the Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who instead expressed his preference for the status quo and peaceful evolution of deeper engagement with the mainland.
This example shows that while the PRC does acknowledge the role played by the 1911 Revolution in the construction of the identity of modern China, it is also cautious enough not to over-emphasise the importance of 1911. The PRC will always hold the 1949 Communist Revolution as the bigger landmark and obviously so. This ‘can’t hold can’t let go’ kind of relationship with history also exemplifies the unsettled cross-strait politics between the PRC and ROC. Until the tone and tenor of this relationship is settled permanently, history will continue to be reinterpreted and remain subservient to the political ambitions of dominant politics. This has been the irony of China since 1911.
1. Xinhua (2011), “China will continue to swim with tide of times”, 9 October, Accessed on 12-10-2011, available at http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2011-10/09/content_23574515.htm
2. For example, Sun’s Three Principles are part of the RoC’s national anthem.
3. Xinhua (2011), “China commemorates centenary of end to imperial rule”, 9 October, Accessed on 12-10-2011, available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-10/09/c_131180784.htm
4. Hannah Beech (2011), Awkward Anniversary: China Marks the Centenary of the 1911 Revolution, 10 October 2011, Time Magazine Online, Accessed on 12-10-2011, available at http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/10/10/awkward-anniversary-china-marks-the-centenary-of-1911-revolution/
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/HistoryandPoliticsCritiquingthePRCsApproachtothe1911CentenaryCelebrations_agodbole_131011