China's favorite radio serial, "The Story of Ue Foi," celebrates not a socialist hero, but a 12th century general who smashed vile officaldom. It has become such a sensation that stores have sold out their stocks of cheap radios and an attempt to suppress it caused a mild scandal.
"It wasn't very revolutionary, was it?" one office worker here said with a sneer, explaining the attempt by one high-ranking official to suspend the show. Instead it gave the Chinese a bit of their past, real and fanciful, and thus fed a national obsession for history that has given political discourse here a sense of time warp.
At the National People's Congress and other meetings now under way in Peking, Chinese authorities are restoring the reputations of Communist officials, some of them dead for decades, and blackening the once-honored memories of persons such as the late secret police expert Kang Sheng, who died in 1975. The Chinese call it "whipping the corpse," recalling the actual ancient practice of exhuming and flogging the bodies of officials whose enemies came to power after their deaths.
While shoving such former honored personages as the Qin emperor, age 2,239, adn empress Lu of the Han, about age 2,210, back into the dustbin of history, China's leaders in the 1980s have restored the good names of ill-treated men such as Genghis Khan and Confucius.
For reasons of language, history and race, the Chinese may take a longer range view of the momentary events in their lives than any other people on earth. The American China scholar, John K. Fairbank, called history China's "model for the present and the primary source of information on human society, the subject that concerned them most."
History has so captured political reality that the Chinese sometimes have difficulty separating the two. Joseph W. Esherick, a historian from the University of Oregon doing research here, notes that "the game even extends to poetry. You see an ancient Tang Dynasty poet describing a cassia blossom, and the Chinese historians insist this is actually a comment on the corruption around the emperor."
These days the communist press has been carrying articles about the advisers to the Qing emperors who fell into corruption, an apparent warning to senior officials thinking of maintaining their hold over younger men by taking similar so-called "adviser" positions.
"All the way back to Confucius, scholars would write historical articles about previous dynasties that were in fact commentaries on the present, so this isn't new," one former official here said. "We Chinese love history, and this makes it even more interesting."
It is, in some ways, a form of harmless recreation to twist historical facts around to suit modern day political problems. Yet it also provides a way to undermine authority without directly confronting the powerful men being accused, and thus carries certain dangers that historians in the West do not ordinarily encounter. Sima Qian, still considered 2,000 years after his death as one of China's greatest historians was castrated by an emperor when he intervened on behalf of a general who had done poorly in battle.
More recently, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s actually began with an attack on the historical work of Wu Han, a writer, historian and politician. Wu's descriptions of Ming Dynasty court officials Hai Rui's conflict with an emperor sounded supiciously to chairman Mao Tse-tung like an attack on the way a forthright defense minister, Peng Dehuai, has been dismissed by Mao in 1959. Wu was savagely attacked by Red Guards and died in 1969 of undisclosed causes.
China's fascination with history moves forward as well as backwards in time. The Chinese speak often now of the year 2000, and their plan to develop their country into a key industrial power by then. That thought leads many of them to reminisce about the golden days of Chinese science before Christ.The Chinese invented paper, rockets, movable type and navigational instruments, but lacked the wanderlust of the Europeans that turned invention into world power.
The Cinese affection for their own history probably grows in part from the fact that they appear to have the longest continuous records, going back nearly 4,000 years, and the oldest intact writing system. They are putting some of those historical treasures to use.
Teams of meteorologists at the national archives are plowing through voluminous weather records of the last 300 years to try to discover patterns that might help them predict, for instance, the next major drought in the Yellow River basin. Another team is checking past breaks in the Yellow River dikes. "Nobody but the Chinese keeps records like these, or has the discipline to sort through them like that," said a Chinese Historian here who has worked in the West.
It is when historians here mix modern politics with ancient truths that trouble starts. Two sets of historians, one based here in Peking and one in the Shangdong provincial captial of Jinan, are battling now over the proper interpretation of the 1898-1900 Boxer Rebellion.
That violent uprising against Chinese Christians and foreigners brought an armed foreign invasion of Peking and helped hasten the collapse of the late Chinese dynasty. The Communists later judged the Boxers to be anti-imperialist and antifeudal, and thus honored predecessors. The Boxer example supposedly inspired the Red Guard assault on the British Embassy here in 1967.
Now, as the political tide turns against those 1960s demonstrations, Peking historians are questioning whether the Boxers themselves were really progressive; Jinan historians, who have invested considerable time in researching a rebellion that began in their area, defend the Boxers.
Another controversy swirls around the effort in the 1960s to identify Mao with the Qin emperor. Mao appeared to encourage the effort, since the Qin emperor had unified China 2,000 years before in a unique way and had quelled his idelogical opponents with stern measures -- such as burying them alive. Now Mao's successors are trying to quash dynasty so depended on his personal leadership that it collapsed soon after his death.
What this centuries-old byplay give to the Chinese is a wry acknowledgement that little new falls under the mandate of heaven, if you just look back far enough. It is a habit that often astonishes Americans, who have comparatively short memories.
When a U.S. scholar married to a Chinese woman once-visited the old men in the town square if he was the first foreigner to set foot there, they laughed at him.
"No, no, of course not," one said. "Well, did some Russians come here before?" he asked. "No, no Russians." "Japanese?" "No, they did not get this far during the war, although they got close enough that we had to hide the little gold that we had." "Well, then, a foreign missionary perhaps?" "No, in the 1930s there was a Belgian one living a few villages away, but he was a spy and they chased him out." "Then who were the first foreigners?"
"Well," said one old man, "part of the Mongol army once passed through here on their way to Kaifeng."
That was Genghis Khan's army, last seen here in the 13th century.