Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ghosts of the Palace Guard

One of the more interesting places that I had a chance to tour on my recent trip to Asia was the Presidential Palace in Nanjing.

The sprawling grounds are rich in terms of architecture, landscaping, and history. Nanjing had long been the capital city of China and the government headquarters of various regimes were based on the site over the years. Today, the China Modern History Museum is located there along with a number of interesting buildings that you can wander through:

The original offices and meeting rooms inside the buildings have been recreated to reflect what they looked like at the time they were used. They contain a plethora of artifacts, displays, and historical information. Not surprisingly perhaps, this is where the majority of my fellow visitors chose to spend their time.

I was more captivated by what was found on the outside. The grounds surrounding the buildings consist of scenic paths, plants, and ponds.

They were not only beautiful, but on a hot, humid day in the midst of the busy city, they provided a relaxing respite from the hustle, bustle, and heat of Nanjing in the summer.

But the most interesting aspect of the Presidential Palace in Nanjing is the way that its history is presented. It's true that the winners are the ones who usually write the history books and when they do they're not kind to the losers. Sun Yat-sen is viewed as a Chinese patriot and hero by almost everyone now so it was not surprising to see him honored at the Presidential Palace as he is at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, also in Nanjing. However, I was expecting that Chiang Kai-shek-- the man who lead the Nationalist government in Nanjing for some time, bitterly fought the Communists during the Chinese Civil War, and eventually fled to Taiwan to create the Republic of China--would be treated much harsher.

I was therefore surprised to discover that most of the exhibits and displays related to Chiang's Nationalists were actually pretty fair. Sure, there were pieces that celebrated the Communist victory, such as this painting showing the People's Liberation Army raising the flag at the Palace.

But overall, the depictions of the Nationalist government and Chiang in particular did not appear to be especially slanted. At least to me. I'm far from an expert on Chinese history, but I didn't find any of the sort of overt propaganda that you might expect under the circumstances. In fact, along with kitschy Mao memorabilia, the Palace gift stores also carried little porcelain dolls depicting the bald-headed, mustachioed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (I purchased one of course). Maybe this view from the Wikipedia entry on Chiang is gaining some traction in China as well:

In recent years, this view however has started to change. Chiang is now increasingly perceived as a man simply overwhelmed by the events in China, having to fight simultaneously communists, Japanese and provincial warlords while having to reconstruct and unify the country. His sincere, albeit often unsuccessful attempts to build a more powerful nation have been noted by scholars such as Jonathan Fenby or Rana Mitter. The latter wrote that, ironically, today's China is closer to Chiang's vision than to Mao Zedong's one. He argues that the Communists, since the 1980s, have essentially created the state envisioned by Chiang in the 1930s. Mitter concludes by writing that "one can imagine Chiang Kai-shek's ghost wandering round China today nodding in approval, while Mao's ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision".