Looking at history from a different angle

Updated: 2011-09-08 08:11

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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'The only thing new in this world is the history you don't know" is a quote I once came across when I was looking for quotes about history.

Ship Taiping in 1949 by Zhang Dianwan that was published in June is something new as it is about something many of us on the Chinese mainland have never heard of.

On January 27, 1949 the Taiping capsized after colliding with another ship. Of the nearly 1,000 passengers on board, only 38 survived. The writer, whose mother sailed on the same ship when she moved to Taiwan, interviewed the survivors of the tragedy and the book is an account of their experiences.

I was interested in the book not just because it is an account of an event in the modern history of this country that I have never heard of, but also because it is about individuals, whose stories of surviving the tragedy and starting their lives on the island of Taiwan helped reconstruct in my imagination the fragmentary scenes of that historic year.

In comparison with the monumental event of that year, the founding of New China, which marked a new page in the history of this country, the sinking of a passenger ship, a ship sailing toward Taiwan in particular, was nothing remarkable for mainlanders who were opening their arms to embrace a new government and a new future.

It would not have been possible for a book such as this to be published more than three decades ago when cross-Straits relations were not as amiable as they are today, and political correctness, characterized by dominance of class struggle ideology, overshadowed individual experiences in the mainland.

This account of a tragic event at that point in history transcends the political bias of any political party of the time. This is what I treasure most about this book, which, I believe, is even more worthwhile than the stories themselves.

Only by going beyond the political dogma of any political party is it possible for a writer to expose lives that would otherwise have been cast into oblivion by political jargon and abstract terminology. By reading books such as this, readers may look deeper into history and see beyond the abstract significance of big historical events.

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides said in his History of the Peloponnesian War that history was philosophy teaching by example. To my understanding, it is not just the analysis of big historical events by historians that should be considered of value. The detailed account of the personal experiences of individuals also makes a difference to our understanding not just of history but also our times.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Su Shi wrote that you can hardly recognize the real Mount Lushan, if you are in the mountain and do not have the distance necessary to have a clear picture of it.

This describes exactly the paradox of history: the deeper one is involved in historical events the harder it is to view them in a detached manner. Distance is sometimes necessary for people to analyze history in a relatively objective way. That is because very few can transcend the imprint of their times.

What this book reveals about the experiences some individuals had during and after the tragedy demonstrates the fact that life can be much more complicated than the outlines that some historians sketch on the basis of big historical events.

The overall political situation may subject an individual's life to change but the way they adapt themselves to the change constitutes a valuable part of history that should not be ignored.

This book reminds me of the necessity and urgency for more writers to write about the lives of ordinary individuals during the various political movements on the Chinese mainland. That is the part of history that is lacking for readers today so they look at the big historical events from a new angle. There are some, but they are not nearly enough.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 09/08/2011 page10)