Grandpa Dong was, at twenty, labelled as a “Stinking Old Ninth,” a derogatory term for intellectuals, after publishing three historical papers on the problems with Chinese bureaucracy. He was subsequently banished to a remote seaside village, where for twenty years he taught children history, one of whom was my mother. As a kid, I had always enjoyed analyzing history with him, and it was a youthful thought of mine to study history. That is until I read the three pieces that had so decisively altered his fate. I was heavily disappointed.
The articles were riddled with ideological prejudices and political rhetoric reminiscent of the fifties and he absurdly concluded, after a lengthy historical analysis, that bureaucracy could be eliminated with the instillation of “party-ness” in the heart of every party member. How ironic it was that the self-conceived leftist was characterized as “right-leaning.” But was this shortsighted article worth wasting his time and life for?I started doubting the value of historical research and thought I was a historical nihilist. Why bother wasting our short life to inquire into history if our every observance is prone to biases and faults? It appeared to me that, Grandpa Dong was, like us all, from the moment of his birth, a prisoner of his stereotyped framework modelled by the customs and thinking of his culture. I could see this in the ideological wordings in his papers.
The truth he believed in, however hard he tries to self-efface his intrusion, and which he might never correct due to his own limitations, will still have reference to his particular experience. A carefully crafted piece of analysis could end up in the trash in a matter of decades. But how many decades does a man have and how do we know that we are not erring at this very moment?”I held my opinion seriously then,” Grandpa Dong defended himself, “But I grew out of it.
“There are two types of revisionism, one that tries to purposefully manipulate history to advance an agenda, another that inquires into history through sincere reanalysis of history. Grandpa Dong was a victim in both his own writing and the kind of revisionism guided by ideology. But he was candid enough to openly revise his ignorance and faults, though ironically reaching the same end as the government wanted. He was content that by constantly reviewing and perfecting history over his lifetime, his job as a historian was completed. But the historical writing process does not stop there. Grandpa Dong realized the brevity of his life and the limitation of his view. He could revise the works of his twenties at the age of seventy, but he does not have more years to revise what he wrote at seventy.
Grandpa Dong left an unpublished verse:”I hear Death spurs his horse,A siren to my ears.Haste to plant the wheat seeds!For spring, before winter comes.”He might not have consciously meant it, but I picked up an apocalyptic message. To me, it seems that if we enlarge and project the life of a man to the History of Man, then the entity of history becomes a process of revision.
History is continuous, with constant melding, remnants of older times, and fractious contemporary relationships. It is, necessarily, a dialogue between the past and the present. As such, there will never be a point where history is “finished.” In view of this, history revision becomes an integral part of the discipline because old prejudices are not struck off merely as “wrong,” they turn into part of a canon of that helps inform the historian writing in the present. And this is what differs from a revision guided by political ideology.
A qualified historian makes his existence meaningful by reviewing his thoughts over time and contributing his inkling to history as he sees fit, for the posterity to build on.