Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Humiliation

I recently had the chance to speak with some young people about various historical sites around Beijing and China. These conversations revealed differences in how Chinese people and foreigners often approach the very same places and historical events.

Here's how the conversation usually goes...

Zhongguoren: Have you heard they are going to rebuild Yuanmingyuan?

[Editor's note: Yuanmingyuan is known in English as the Old Summer Palace. Around here, it is romanticized as being even grander than Yiheyuan (the Summer Palace) or the mountain retreat at Chengde (which is pretty darn spectacular...stay tuned...). It was infamously razed to the ground more than a century ago, when China repeatedly found itself at the mercy of outside powers. Click here to see and read about a previous visit we made Yuanmingyuan.)

Me: Yes, I've heard about that.

Zhongguoren: Don't you think it is a great idea?

Me: Actually, I think it would be the worst thing they could do to the place.

Zhongguoren: [Stunned.] Why?

Me: When you walk through Yuanmingyuan, and see all of those ruins, you feel like you are in a place where something important actually happened in the past. So many other historical sites in China simply do not have much of a sense of living, breathing history. Sure, they are many hundreds of years old. But they have all been restored and recently painted. They seem as if they are brand new, and not all that distinct from the tall, modern building next door. Yuanmingyuan is really interesting in a totally different kind of way. So, how does Yuanmingyuan make you feel?

Zhongguoren: I have never visited Yuanmingyuan. It would make me too sad. It represents such a humiliating period in China's past. I really think Yuanmingyuan should be rebuilt to its former splendor, so Chinese people and the world can see just how beautiful it was in its heyday.

So...There's a little East vs. West, in terms of dueling perspectives on historical sites and their role in preserving and defining the past. You be the judge...

~Steve

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