Xi'an Walls

The city of Xi’an is in the process of re-building the city wall and adding four new museums, one each for the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties. I was not surprised by the museums. Xi’an has a lot of history, and they have pretty obviously been trying to preserve/cash in on it for years. I did wonder a bit about the walls, since last time I was there they looked fine. What is going to happen with them? According to Xinhua

The rebuilding work will not damage any of the walls’ relics. “Experts will monitor the whole process of the rebuilding project,” said Yao Lijun, deputy director of the city’s ancient walls management committee.

This makes me wonder who this Yao Lijun is, and how much he knows about historic preservation. Anyone can slap on some new bricks, but are they re-building the Ming version of the wall? Might it not be better to leave parts of it as is? What will they do with the bomb shelters that were dug into the wall during the War of Resistance? Any physical object has changed a lot over time, and to “restore” it you need to figure out not only the technical details of restoration, but which of the several versions you want to restore.1

A colleague recently asked me to suggest some names of public historians in China for a joint U.S.-China project. I was completely stumped, and I am pretty sure it is as much the state of history in China as my ignorance of what Chinese scholars are up to that is responsible.

First, for the benefit of our non-U.S. readers, what is Public History?  A quick definition might be that it is a field that has grown up in the U.S. since the 1970’s and includes all the people who are professional historians but not teaching at a university. Archivists, museum people, historic preservationists, monument builders, oral history folk, they are all Public Historians, and increasingly they need a degree it Public History to do this.2 I have blogged quite a bit about Public History in China, but I thought it might be worth thinking a bit more about it.

I think the rise of public history is an altogether good trend. Historians today (the teaching and monograph-writing tribe) are more and more interested in artifacts, visual images, how the public understands the past etc. but we are mostly winging it. How do you “read” a popular print, or restore a building to its ‘original’ form? What does it mean to declare someplace a historic site, and what should you do after you declare it? If the point of public history is to teach someone something, who is supposed be learning and how does that work? Most of us have no clue unless we have talked to and studied with some Public Historians.

This is particularly important for China, as so many Chinese places (mostly cities) are trying to ‘restore’ old sites and explain what they mean, both as a way of attracting tourists and as a way of establishing their importance in China’s 5000 years of history. (See here here and here.)

There are a few of major differences I can see between the U.S and Chinese traditions of public history.

-What to memorialize and who gets to do it? Both in China and in the U.S there are both public and private museums, although the governments (central and federal, state and provincial) dominate the action. Everywhere in the world what counts as a historic site is part of what a society (and a government) decide needs to be remembered. China has been less successful than some other places in historicizing some parts of the past. Thus there is a New York Tenement Museum but very little in China dealing with the Cultural Revolution. In part this is because the Chinese state feels the need to avoid certain topics. China’s central government seems to favor a public history that either connects to China’s glorious 5,000 years of history (ideally as sanctioned by a UNESCO world heritage site designation) or things that will lead to an appropriate form of patriotism. Things that don’t fit get left out, and you are not sure what to say about the rest. What sort of plaque do you put on the Great Wall once you decide that was built not to keep out evil foreigners but to divide some of China’s 57 harmonious nationalities from each other? This is the same sort of problem Americans face with sites like the Little Bighorn. American academic historians sometimes complain that they are marginalized in the process of making public history, but I think they have more influence than historians in China.

-A very different public face. One aspect of public history is that there are no captive audiences off campus. Thus if you build some sort of historic thing you have to find ways to attract people to it. In China a lot of these places seem more commercial than they would be in the U.S. This is not actually entirely bad. I don’t think that something that people like and enjoy is by definition non-scholarly, nor is there any harm in things that are just fun. Everywhere in the world historic sites have to struggle with how to put bums in seats without Disnifying too much. This is still in its infancy in China One example of this are the dressed up people. In the U.S they might be called interpreters or docents or living history. They dress up in costume and explain what the site would have meant to people at the time. The basic idea is to trick people into learning something about history. At times they can reach a pretty high level of both performance and commentary on the meaning of American History in the present. Ask A Slave is a interesting example, where a woman (with a performing arts degree) uses her experience as a living history slave at Mount Vernon to discuss America, race, and history. I can’t imagine any of the people who work at a site like this in China doing a website like Ask A Slave. In China you are more likely to get minimum wage workers dressed up in vaguely period costumes. At best you get drama. When I took my daughter to the historic city of Pingyao there was a dramatic performance that roamed through the city and you could watch various parts of the story of the magistrate investigating a wronged widow and …something.

PingyaoDrama1It was plenty of fun, but I’m not sure what anyone learned from it. While we are at it, the general quality of guides and interpreters at Chinese sites is often pretty poor. Lots of dates, figures (the pagoda contains over 100.000 bricks!) and not much interpretation. Likewise the texts that go along with various sites and buildings are often pretty poor. Again my point here is not just to be an annoying foreigner but to point out that the face of public history has made enormous strides in the U.S and Europe over the last decades, and that China still has a ways to go.

-Ideas about re-construction. I have talked about this before, but basically in China there is much more of a tradition of totally re-building sites (sometimes with a few bits of old-timey stuff tacked on after) rather than what elsewhere would be called careful historical reconstruction.

Still there are many parts of what is called Public History in China that are well-established. There is a lot to work with here.

-Oral History This is well-established in China, going back to the Maoist period, although it seems less popular now.

-Archives Very well established. There are lots of archivist, they have their own publications and everything. Admittedly they do not always function the way they do elsewhere. I remember going to one Chinese archive and being greeted with huge calligraphy scroll that urged the archivists to 保护档案(Protect the Archives) Protect them from what? It turned out to be protecting them from having anyone look at the documents. Still there is an archival community

-Collectors, connoisseurs and physical culture types. While academic historians may sometimes make fun of antiquarians, public historians can get a lot from building restorers, antique collectors and such. Antique collecting was one of the proper obsessions for a gentleman in the Late Imperial period, and there was an one time quite a culture of connoisseurship in China. More modern events, especially the Cultural Revolution, did not help this culture, but it is certainly back now. The Wuhan museum of the 1911 revolution collected a lot of artifacts from this type of people. In Jiangsu Qin Tongqian is trying to build an entire hotel out of architectural elements he has saved from buildings all over China. China does not yet have the hordes of Taiping Rebellion reenactors, military history buffs and blue-haired county historical society ladies it deserves, but one would guess they are coming.

-Popular interest and state support Here I am a bit at sea. While Americans and their governments and their rich people are interested in history it is mostly U.S. History. I assume that some of this influence is good, and some bad, but I can’t really assess how much of each, as there is a pretty minimal interest in Chinese history in the U.S. Regardless, the Chinese public and state are really into Chinese history. If you want state funding or public attention for Chinese history China is the place to go, so there is a real potential to create something here.

Well, this post keeps growing, and at this point I think I need to either delete it, put another month of thinking into it, or just post it as is.


Apparently some people in China are unhappy with a temple restoration that turned this



into this




  1. When Troy was dug up they actually dug through the Trojan War Troy because they were not interested in the history of the site, just finding the one “real” Troy and they got it wrong.  (not sure where I remember this from)  

  2. Popular history really should be linked to this too, but I am going to leave it out for now. 

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