Recent court cases filed by two former editors at the liberal political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu have put the term "historical nihilism," or the denial of China's revolutionary history, into the spotlight. Conservative scholars see it as a growing trend that will potentially challenge the rule of the Communist Party of China, while liberals argue they are merely doing what's necessary to study history.
A statue of Mao Zedong stands in front of the Revolutionary Memorial Museum in Yan'an, Southwest China's Shaanxi Province. Photo: IC
Debates on the Internet are rarely good-humored, and occasionally online vitriol spills over into the real world. Two writers faced with an online backlash tried, and ultimately failed, to sue people they accused of defaming them online. This sort of thing happens every day, but their case, which involved China's revolutionary history, leftists, rightists, and patriotism was far from everyday.
The case sparked another wave of discussions about "historical nihilism," a term that has become increasingly common in China's political and academic rhetoric in recent years.
A lawsuit in controversy
Last month, district courts in Beijing ruled against two former authors and editors of Yanhuang Chunqiu, an outspoken liberal political magazine on the right of the Chinese political spectrum, who filed two separate lawsuits against leftist scholars Guo Songmin and Mei Xinyu on charges of defamation.
The legal battle can be traced back to November 2013, when Yanhuang Chunqiu published an article by author and historian Hong Zhenkuai which pointed out several incongruities in the different accounts of the story of five famous Chinese revolutionary heroes. The story was edited by Huang Zhong. Both Hong and Huang are former managing editors of the magazine.
The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain, who were members of the Eighth Route Army of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the 1940s, are household names in China. For more than half a century, the story of how they fought against the Japanese army during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), and how three of them sacrificed their lives for the cause, have been included in Chinese textbooks, adapted into films and memorialized in museums. The five heroes have been promoted as role models for the Chinese people with their anti-Fascist courage and nationalist fervor.
Part of the article discusses the exact location where the five heroes jumped off the mountain to avoid being captured by Japanese soldiers. While they are widely believed to have jumped off the Qipan peak of Langya mountain, a 1957 account by Ge Zhenlin, one of the survivors, indicates that they jumped from a lower hill below Qipan peak. A 1985 memoir by General Yang Chengwu, who was in charge of the five back then, also indicates that Qipan peak was already occupied by Japanese soldiers and they couldn't have jumped off it.
This discussion infuriated some leftist scholars, who are often staunch defenders of China's revolutionary history. Guo and Mei railed against the article as an example of "historical nihilism." They also made potentially defamatory statements, including profanity, when they commented on the article on their Sina Weibo pages. Mei Xinyu wrote: "What are the intention of these editors and authors at Yanhuang Chunqiu? ... Is it too nice to call them sons of bitches?" Guo reposted Mei's comments, adding, "Against historical nihilism. It's a joke not to fight with these sons of bitches." Their posts were re-posted hundreds of times with dozens of comments, according to a verdict by Beijing's Haidian District People's Court.
The courts, however, ruled in favor of Mei and Guo. The verdict by the Haidian court, while acknowledging that it wasn't proper for Guo to use profanity, said his posts were in line with China's mainstream values and were within the limits of criticism. "The [Yanhuang Chunqiu] article … tries to question and even subvert the heroic image of 'the Five Heroes of the Langya Mountain' by emphasizing minor incongruities in historical materials. It … injured the national and historical sentiment of the public," it reads.
While Guo and Mei celebrated their victory, the wording of the verdicts alarmed the plaintiffs. "The verdict … turned us plaintiffs into defendants and decided that my article is an example of 'historical nihilism.' This is probably the first time 'historical nihilism' has been included in a verdict. A civil case becomes a political case, and a civil verdict a political verdict," Hong said on his Weibo after the trial. He and Huang said they will appeal to a higher court.
A question of principles
The case is just the latest in a series of incidents in recent years that have revolved around historical nihilism.
Literally, historical nihilism refers to the concept that history and the idea of historical progress are meaningless. But Gong Yun, a research fellow at the Academy of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), defines historical nihilism as a political trend that denies the leadership of the CPC and Marxism by denying "people's history" and CPC history, according to an article he published.
Historical nihilism is not a new phrase, but has gained significant weight in the past three years, and in the last year in particular. It appeared 36 times in the People's Daily, flagship newspaper of the CPC, in 2015, for example, as opposed to single digit appearances in 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to the paper's website.
Last October, an editorial by Xinhua, China's official news agency, said "The vital part of historical nihilism is to radically deny the leading role of Marxism and the historical inevitability of China's socialist path, and to deny the leadership of the Communist Party of China. We should be on guard for the influence of historical nihilism, and … declare war on it."
For leftists, several incidents in recent years shows an alarming trend of historical nihilism in China. In April, when Bi Fujian, a popular former China Central Television host, was filmed making disrespectful remarks about Mao Zedong, historical nihilism was one of the criticisms that was hurled at him. Chinese Social Sciences Today, an academic newspaper run by CASS, said the incident shows the public inclination towards historical nihilism and should be warned against.
A joke by Zuoyeben, a popular Weibo user with over 8 million followers, which made fun of war martyr Qiu Shaoyun in 2013, was seen by some as another example of historical nihilism that went too far. Qiu died in the Korean War in October 1952 after being struck by a firebomb. In order not to reveal the location of his unit, he is said to have kept motionless until he burned to death. Zuoyeben, in his post, referred to him as a piece of "half-cooked meat."
Guo Songmin defines historical nihilism as a systematic denial of the historical achievements of Mao Zedong and the CPC in the Chinese revolution, the establishment of the People's Republic of China, and a series of wars.
He claimed the trend started in the 1980s, when China opened itself to Western values after it adopted the reform and opening-up policy. "The material well-being in Western consumer societies spawned a defeatist mentality in Chinese academics and elites. They started to think that China's revolutionary history was all in vain. Some even think China's entire history is meaningless," he told the Global Times.
"But their evaluation is wrong. They didn't take into account the unique path that China has taken," he said.
Guo's opinions were echoed by leftist commentator Sima Pingbang. "Freedom of speech shouldn't be protected when they are vilifying revolutionary heroes. What these historical nihilists have done is disrespectful to China's national sentiments," he told the Global Times.
Chinese liberals take a different view. Feng Wei, history professor at Fudan University, said "historical nihilism" is a term with Chinese characteristics.
"History itself is formed with description and explanation, and subjectivity is inevitable in the choice of what historical facts to use," Feng told the Global Times. He thinks the verification of truth should come before ideology when studying history.
Feng said historical nihilism has in recent years become a baton which leftists use to suppress liberal academics who are exploring historical truths. "Most of those who like to use the term have little understanding of the study of history, and very few are historians. How can they criticize without an understanding of history?"
Hong Zhenkuai, the historian, also questioned the idea of historical nihilism. "Historical study requires the search for and verification of truth. If the verification of truth should be labeled as 'historical nihilism,' then the study of history is pointless."
"The defendants are not able to cite a single mistake in my article. They used big terms, such as I'm a 'historical nihilist' and that I 'vilified heroes and martyrs,' but if you ask them to provide evidence, they don't have a single piece," Hong said on his Weibo.
Feng cites the example of Zhu De, a Chinese general whose story of using a shoulder pole to transport food was written into textbooks after the founding of the People's Republic of China. But when the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) started and Zhu was attacked and dismissed, the story was kept, except the protagonist was changed to Lin Biao, who later became the vice chairman.
"If historical nihilism is the denial of historical truth, what we should be more aware of is historical fictionalization. China has learned all too many lessons in this regard," he told the Global Times.