Lessons from China's historyi

Wee Kek Koon draws parallels between current events and trends and episodes and attitudes in China’s past.


  • China’s population fell in 2022 for the first time since the 1960s, and while more people means a larger workforce and GDP, the Chinese shouldn’t be too anxious
  • War, famine and disease have caused millions of deaths in recent Chinese history, but the population as always bounced back and gone on to grow further

Three Cathay Pacific staff were fired for insulting passengers but in traditional Chinese society, service occupations were widely despised and it was those workers who were discriminated against.

Sedan chairs were freely used by China’s imperial elite to get around. Sedans, used by Singapore’s elite to get around, require a US$90,000 permit just to own. Better to take public transport.


China has been using cash for almost 4,000 years, from early cowrie shells to its first standard copper coin 2,000 years ago, paper money and silver ingots. Today contactless electronic payments are taking over.

A deadly end to a workers’ protest lies behind the designation of May 1 as International Workers’ Day. Organised labour arose in the West in the 19th century and, much earlier, in Ming dynasty China.

Most Chinese speakers in Singapore and Malaysia still refer to Muslims by the old phrase ‘Hui jiao tu’, or ‘followers of the religion of the Hui people’. Here’s what to know about this ethnic group.

Zhang Yimou’s comic film Full River Red focuses on Qin Hui, the Song dynasty politician blamed for the execution of general Yue Fei, considered a hero. Qin may have had a bad rap, some historians said.

Taiwan’s former president used the controversial phrase ‘Yan Huang Zisun’ in mainland China last week, which has its origins in the genesis of the Han Chinese ethnic majority.

The hostile grilling Chew Shou Zi faced at the hands of US House of Representatives remembers recalls the questions Zhuge Liang, a warlord’s envoy, faced from another warlord’s advisers in Chinese historical novel.

Taipei’s warning to Honduras ‘not to drink poison to quench your thirst, and fall into China’s debt trap’ comes from a Chinese idiom about a child prodigy who saved his uncle from prison.

Those in premodern China who produced the most highly regarded works of art made it for self-expression and the edification of the human spirit, not for trade.

Iran used to be Persia, Turkey wants to be Türkiye. China has been so called by foreigners for a long time, but its official state name has changed throughout history. Would a reunified China call itself something new?

Most adult males sported long hair for much of China’s past, so when the Manchus conquered and insisted men shave parts of their head, many refused - resulting in the death penalty.

Some cults in ancient China became so powerful they grew into political and military forces, and launched armed rebellions against the state – sometimes leading to the end of dynasties.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has enforced a name taboo as Chinese emperors once did. Chinese culture still has taboo words such as unlucky numbers. The difference is their use isn’t against the law.

From the influencers of their day – intellectuals who wrote travelogues – to merchants interested in money, emperors surveying their realm, and the hoi polloi, the tourists of ancient China.

Saying ‘Lunar New Year’ may be more inclusive to other parts of Asia that celebrate the occasion, but is unnecessary when the context and the people addressed are clearly Chinese.

Wee Kek Koon once felt a need to stop using words Cantonese speakers in Singapore and Malaysia borrowed from other tongues, before realising they were linguistic markers of who he is.

Russia invaded Ukraine 11 months ago. That’s a blink of an eye when you consider the Hundred Years’ War, The Crusades, or China’s 289-year war with northern nomads.

The last Chinese emperor, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, was reinstated for 12 days in a coup five years after he abdicated. He was later named emperor of the Japanese puppet regime of Manchukuo.

The Malaysian prime minister forgoing his official salary and use of a limousine is a break with past ministers’ attachment to the perks of office. In ancient China these could be extreme.

Historically, a united China, such as during the Qin or Han dynasties, was strong and a fragmented one was weak, a notion that informs China’s insistence on reunification with Taiwan.

Held in 1909 in a desperate attempt to safeguard the ailing Qing dynasty, China’s first nationwide elections were riddled with corruption and as a process did not last very long.

Hong Kong’s battle for talent with Singapore is similar to when ancient Chinese states competed with each other, with the Jin state’s poaching of Chu state’s talent standing out.

The Emperor Qianlong defaced countless priceless Chinese artworks with his own seals, acts of historical vandalism far above those of climate activists’ recent attacks.

Merchants were placed near the bottom of society in the Chinese Confucian world view. A famous exception was Lü Buwei, who made a bet on a minor prince and cashed in.

Think Britain’s bad? In AD880 a Chinese prime minister served for just one day before being overthrown by a rebel army. One empress also appointed 66 prime ministers in 22 years.

Recruitment, the institution of military families and conscription were methods Chinese rulers used to get people to fight wars, and like in Russia now, Chinese men devised ways to dodge the draft.