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China's changing views of its past

Subtle shifts in Shanghai reveal a greater change in historical perception.

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It is obvious that China is a radically different place than it was 20 years ago. But it is equally clear that not everything about the country has been transformed. The tricky part is figuring out which things deserve to be put in the "dramatically altered" category and which belong in the "surprisingly unchanged" one.

Some calls are easy: China's global economic significance goes in the first column, while the Communist Party's enduring monopoly on power goes in the second. But other calls are tougher. For example, in what category do Chinese ideas about the past fall?

If the only information on China you get is from front-page stories in US newspapers, you might conclude that Chinese views of history belong in the "surprisingly unchanged" box. But you'd be wrong. True, there are continuities, some of them unsettling, relating to official history. Chinese leaders still insist that Japan should go even further in atoning for World War II atrocities. And as the 18th anniversary of the Beijing Massacre nears, the "Big Lie" holding that large numbers of unarmed civilian demonstrators weren't killed near Tiananmen Square remains the official orthodoxy.

But a peek behind the headlines reveals that on the issue of historical understanding, the ground has shifted in China. This is particularly true about local history. No longer are the histories of individual cities and provinces folded neatly into national narratives that focus exclusively on the rise to power of the Communist Party.

Most striking to me has been the seismic shift in treatments of the history of Shanghai, a city I lived in for a year two decades ago and have visited periodically since then. In the 1980s, the "treaty-port century" (1843-1943), during which Shanghai was divided into Chinese-run and foreign-run zones, was still presented as a time of humiliation. It was a time when native residents chafed at being treated as second-class citizens in parts of their own metropolis. Although individual Shanghainese differed in their private views of the past, this line was put forward in all books and on all plaques at tourist sites in 1980s Shanghai.

Flash forward to 2000, though, and the city was filled with nostalgia-themed venues that recast the treaty-port era as an exciting warm-up to Shanghai's resurgence as a global city in an era of increased engagement with the West.

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