Background: Notes on History

Some thoughts on learning about China’s history and culture;
with some references to useful sources;
and some further reflections on why contemporary Western artists and photographers have gone to China in the first place.

In my experience, accounts of Chinese history often begin with a delineation of three thousand years of dynastic ebb and flow, with each period named and summarized, and with the dates and reign titles of all the various emperors spelled out. While, admittedly, this information is critical for a deep understanding of Chinese history, I actually don’t find it essential for understanding contemporary street culture in Beijing, or for chatting casually with artists in their studios. A more helpful and effective entrance to China, for me, has been to focus on the broad themes, rather than on the precise details of names and dates.

Having said that, however, I’d suggest that to understand China today it’s essential to have at least a basic foundation in China’s 20th Century history, particularly since the Cultural Revolution, and perhaps reaching back to the Japanese occupation during World War II. While it’s true that the more you know about history generally, the deeper you’ll appreciate the culture of today (which is true far beyond this discussion on China, obviously), I’d also say that it’s nearly impossible to understand anything about China right now without first glancing briefly at China’s past fifty years.

Read the Wikipedia article on the Cultural Revolution.

And, The Oracle Education Foundation, ThinkQuest student site, article.

There are hundreds of other sources on the Cultural Revolution in China, these two were merely at the top of the Google search on the day I performed it.

For a broader introduction to Chinese history, the following have turned out to be essential stepping-stones for my own journey.

China: A History in Art
by Bradley Smith and Wan-go Wen (Harper & Row, c.1972)

from the introduction by Derk Bodde:
"Our word 'civilization' goes back to a Latin root having to do with 'citizen' and 'city'. The Chinese counterpart, actually a binom, wen hua, literally means 'the transforming [i.e., civilizing] influence of writing'. In other words, for us the essence of civilization is urbanization; for the Chinese it is the art of writing."

A Concise History of China
by J.A.G. Roberts (Harvard University Press, 1999)

from the introduction:
The “Differentnesss” of China
"References to an ‘Asiatic mode of production’, even in its attenuated form, distance China’s historical experience from that of other societies. Of course Chinese society, like any other society, is sui generis, that is to say it has its own unique characteristics. The richness of Chinese culture, the complexity of China’s political experience, the drama of China’s recent past, might seem to justify treating China as a special case. Nevertheless in these pages the history of China is presented as being in no fundamental way different from the history of any other nation or society."

Han Nationalism
"The Chinese call themselves Han Chinese, a reference to the Han dynasty (206BC –AD 220), when Chinese culture first spread across the territory which is now called China. Inevitably a history of China is a history of the Han Chinese. It will make only passing reference to China’s minority nationalities, who comprise 8 percent of China’s population, and it will adopt a Chinese perspective on the long periods in Chinese history when part or all of China was ruled by non-Chinese peoples."

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present
by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2006)

from the front flap
"Hessler tells the story of modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world as seen through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In addition to the author, an American writer living in Beijing, the narrative follows Polat, a member of a forgotten ethnic minority, who moves to the United States in search of freedom; William Jefferson Foster, who grew up in an illiterate family and becomes a teacher; Emily, a migrant factory worker in a city without a past; and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle bone inscriptions, the earliest known writing in East Asia, and a man whose tragic story has been lost since the Cultural Revolution. … Peter Hessler excavates the past and puts a remarkable human face on the history he uncovers. (…and…) captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes."

The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, 2008)

from the front flap
A biography of Joseph Needham, “the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world’s most technologically advanced country.”

Please add the sources that have been specifically helpful to you by clicking on Contribute below.

Why go to China?

Everyone who has begun the exploration has probably had a different starting point and rationale.

from Sean Justice:
"I went to China to explore three different goals that had been bouncing around my mind: to look at pictures and art in modern China (both pictures made by artists as well as the more general, ubiquitous and generic pictures created by and for mass culture); to meet photographers and artists in the hopes of starting some kind of teaching or artistic conversation or exchange; and to explore the potential for working commercially as a photographer for clients either here in America who want to produce in China, or for brand-new clients I might somehow find in China. None of these three goals had any specific priority when I went to China the first time, because each was resonating at a somewhat different frequency due to my career up to that point: that is, I’m a teacher of photography and digital art (at New York University and the International Center of Photography, in New York City), a commercial photographer (specializing in lifestyle advertising and stock photography), and I trace my artistic roots to my childhood in Seoul, Korea, during the 1960s. My understanding of why I’m drawn to China so deeply continues to evolve. For the moment, however, at least this much is clear: learning to live and work in China has deepened and broadened my sense of myself as an artist working and living in America."

Please share your thoughts: send a few sentences via the Contribute link.


The Scanning China Project. Last updated: June 4, 2008.