Thoughts on History: Part II

Continuing my discourse on history, and what that concept means and entails, I will admit that I am skeptical of the history I have seen in China. A good illustration of my reasoning came with the field trip my history class took to Anyang, an ancient Chinese city and the location of the famous oracle bone inscriptions. Before visiting the site, we were assigned some reading about the meaning and significance of the oracle bones and their messages, the tombs of leaders and their wives, and the human sacrifices and huge graves that were prepared in their names, including the burying of entire carriages with the horses that would “pull” them in the afterlife. Although I found this type of tomb preparation a bit absurd, I felt prepared and was interested to visit these relics.

What I found were some rather subtly announced “recreations” of what the oracle bones might have looked like during the time of their use, which were displayed outside. Inside a little room, the “real” bones lay in a dimly-lit pit, in piles of indiscernible rubble. Owing to the condition of these, I was dubious to believe that even these “authentic” ones were the oracle bones, laying in that condition.

The clincher for my dismissal of authenticity came when looking at the human sacrifices: skeletons laying in pits under round glass enclosures, soaking in the sun so the tourists could marvel over them. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that “ancient skeletons” would be exposed to various weather and temperature conditions for the sake of attracting tourism?

Seems to me that thousand-year-old human remains might have to be contained in proper storage. Upon close inspection, it was clear that some of the skeletons were real. I don’t doubt that—I’m sure some humans were sacrificed, or at least utilized after dying anyway, when this site was being established. Perhaps during the Cultural Revolution? Punishment for political insurrection?

Another example is the Shaolin Temple. It’s beautiful, no denying that, and the site itself has a long and significant history in China and within Buddhism. The tour guide then explains that the temples were destroyed many times, and the most recent ones were built in the 1980s.

Oh, OK. That takes away some of the grandeur the visit may have held for me. I’ve lived in houses much older than that.

The phrase I like to use to explain my process of viewing history now is the old aphorism of taking life “with a grain of salt.” I can absorb the things I see— the temples, museums, mausoleums, relics, pagodas, walls, and their stories—and appreciate what they stand for, and what they mean to the nation who holds them as part of their past. I then move on, knowing that what these stand for is much more important than the actual items or sites themselves. It is unwise and unnecessary to consider these things as more than they are—and placing undue authenticity on them just doesn’t make sense to me.

This process builds on something I learned last fall in a “world language and culture” class. In reading any set of statistics, one can often see the agenda of the publishers of such information. My professor— herself an absolutely brilliant and delightful intellectual—emphasized the importance of also approaching maps and history this same way. Cartographers also have an agenda; they are out to prove their point.

Political maps? Chock-full of biases. Maps detailing which languages are spoken where, or which religions are practiced most? That research changes according to who is retrieving it.

The same is the case with history. As I said in my previous discourse, history is distorted over time, across borders, in various contexts, for different races, religions, and economies

I take it all with a grain of salt. I learn as much as I can with the best use of the resources available, and also keep in mind that I’m storing this information in a western-bred mind. Being outside one’s own culture does emphasize what is not consciously considered when within it—how deeply people are defined by their society.

This resonates with the studying of history; ask a Ukrainian child and American child about the Cold War and you will get two different accounts. Ask a Japanese student and a Chinese student about the presence of Japanese military in Nanjing, China, and you will hear two different tales, with different enemies and reasoning behind the event.

So can I really blame the Chinese for wanting to present a rich, deeply archeological past? There’s no doubt they have this history. Seeing the relics and sites so far, I have established my own perception of all this history, and it has altered the way I see history. It is an important revelation; for the rest of my life, I will see history in other countries and other contexts and take it all in with a grain of salt, stepping away from the biases presented at face value, and appreciating it all for what it stands for.