‘Historical nihilists’ know that the truth ultimately seeps through, eroding that which attempts to conceal it
- Forced erasure of commemorative events that kept knowledge and understanding alive and helped educate younger generations is nothing new
- Historians need to preserve different versions of past events, and keep key historical details safely intact, even when strongly refuted in the present day
Official narratives that seek to wipe out the public’s collective memory have a way of unravelling, and it is the job of the historian to preserve different versions of the past intact for future generations.
Forced erasure of commemorative events that kept knowledge and understanding alive among those old enough to remember tumultuous earlier times, and helped educate younger generations about those periods, is nothing new.
The overnight disappearance of once-unobjectionable reference points – from statues and memorials to exhibitions and displays of various kinds – plays a role in the long-term legitimisation of “it didn’t happen” narratives.
Without specific focal points for public memorialisation by rabble-rousers, the logic runs, popular attention will soon be diverted elsewhere, and unwelcome versions of the past can swiftly drop away down history’s rabbit holes never to re-emerge. Contemporary Hong Kong offers merely one more example of a broader worldwide trend.
In 2013, President Xi Jinping made clear that “the history of the post-reform period cannot be used to contradict the history of the pre-reform period, and the history of the pre-reform period cannot be used to contradict the history of the post-reform period”.
Since then, concerted efforts to stamp out “historical nihilism” – this catchy term shorthands any version of the past that competes for public legitimacy with official narratives – have steadily gathered pace. A major challenge for contemporary historians, therefore, is to preserve different versions of past events, and keep key historical details safely intact for future times, even when strongly refuted in the present day.
Historical truth, much like water seepage in a wall, eventually permeates, gradually weakens, and then ultimately rots whatever highly coloured wallpaper currently conceals dangerously unstable structural cracks just beneath the surface; historical nihilists all know this.
Likewise, unexpiated sins finally seek out their perpetrators, in the fullness of time; they know that, too, which helps explain fear-driven, fundamentally counterproductive paranoia. Visible attempts to ensure people don’t remember something that officially never happened anyway just makes that long-ago non-event impossible to forget, however sincerely one tries to cooperate. But never mind – awareness of unthinking irony has never been a Hong Kong strong point, whoever was in charge; there is nothing new under the sun. Historians know that, too.
Personal libraries, closely examined, reveal much about their owners; few historians lack some streak of private nihilism. Without an adult appreciation of Lewis Carroll, how else would the Mad Hatter’s tea party make sense as a modern parable? And children of all ages would be bereft without Winnie the Pooh to comfort and amuse them in sad times.
In my case, Mao Zedong’s “little red book”, with its exhortation to “seek truth from facts”, and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire magnum opus, whose faultless prose describes Emperor Nero madly diddling with his fiddle while petty minions viciously persecuted the harmless and Rome’s skies glowed red with fires left to burn unchecked, compete for shelf space with various eclectic versions of the past – and much else besides.
Last Saturday was spent working quietly at home. About once a year, an urge for candlelight comes upon me; a harmless, sensual pleasure, and invariably indulged. So, when evening fell, and I went downstairs to make some tea, the twin candelabra on the dining table were lit; a dozen wax tapers became gently flickering beacons of light in an otherwise darkened, silent room. “If you can’t do what you want in your own home any more,” I grumbled silently, as the kettle boiled, “then what’s the point of staying on!”
Before long, repressed pyromania took over as candle after candle got lit; by mid-evening, the house looked like a seance was in progress. All the place needed to complete the picture was for Madame Arcati, Ouija board under her arm, to appear at the garden gate. But no Blithe Spirits materialised, except in my imagination. Neither did any other less-welcome apparitions show up to tell my fortune, or give a timely fright.
Eventually the candles guttered out; that was that for another year.