Learning and Unlearning China's History

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve been filling in my basic knowledge of Chinese history using some questionable methods.

I was serious when I said in an earlier post that I had absolutely NO background on Chinese history. I never covered anything regarding China in my World Studies class in 10th grade, which was my only class that covered anything outside of the US (It should also be noted that I never formally studied any history later than WWII, which is another discussion for another day). So, I’m rather ashamed to admit, while irreverent, this video gave me a pretty good starting overview of what I needed to research further, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

I’ve been searching for as many voices as possible in my quest to understand more about China. The challenging part is that I don’t know the stereotypical Western version of China’s history, so when I find the alternate, non-mainstream books, they assume I already know the basic stories. Which I don’t. So I’m extremely lost.

For example, I found an interesting book on women’s perspectives of the Cultural Revolution that claimed to basically blow the lid off the victim/victimizer perspective that most Westerners hold… but I didn’t know anything about the Cultural Revolution, so I didn’t know what perspective the authors thought I held.

I got a better idea of what the mainstream history was from Wikipedia, which I’m sure has all sorts of people rolling around in agony — using Wikipedia as my primary source of Chinese history!? Horrors! But where else can I find a brief, broad overview of China outside of a high school history book?

Recently, my friend and fellow teacher Garrett blogged about issues regarding Asian American men and masculinity. Again, I didn’t know what I was “supposed” to have as a stereotypical view of Asian masculinity. I am starting with zero views or opinions on most of China’s history and culture. The only stereotype I was aware existed was that of the Asian as a model minority / strong student. I did not know a single person of Chinese American descent until I moved to Seattle, and at that point in my life, I obviously did not expect them to represent an entire population.

This feels markedly different from the unlearning I’ve had to go through in my perspectives on people of other ethnicities or socioeconomic groups who I already had preconceived notions about.

I’m in no way complaining — if anything, I’m embarrassed of my lack of knowledge and only wish I could learn faster. I hope sharing this process offers some insight into how I’ve started to try to better understand a nation and a people from basically a blank slate. Please push back if I’ve inadvertently done or said something offensive or insensitive. My ignorance is never an excuse for unsavory behavior or comments.

In order to have a broader understanding of China’s history and people, I’ve been surprised to find I actually have to teach myself the one-sided stereotypical view of Chinese history first so I can understand enough about the basic situation. Then I immediately have to unlearn the standard story by ferreting out traditionally silenced viewpoints. If you have an alternative strategy for me, I’d love to hear it. This has proven to be exhausting, but definitely well-worth it… I’ll keep you posted as I progress…


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