Why Learning History Was So Much Easier in China, a guest post by Xiran Jay Zhao

Ever since I started sharing stories from Chinese history online, many people have asked me “How do you know so much of this, Xiran? Are you a historian?”

I am not—my degree was in biochemistry. And the truth is that I don’t consider myself an expert of Chinese history, just a mildly knowledgeable enthusiast. My parents, who don’t even make active efforts to study history, know more than me just by virtue of having lived in China for many more years of their lives. So do all my other relatives, who are still in China. There, history is not considered a nerdy niche interest. It permeates much of everyday life. Many of our idioms refer to famous historical events. Think someone is doing a poor job of hiding their ill intentions? You could say “this is exactly like how even the passersby knew of Sima Zhao’s heart!”, referring to how Three-Kingdoms-era chancellor Sima Zhao was very clearly planning to usurp the throne. Think someone is setting a trap for you? You could say “this isn’t going to be like the Feast at Hong Gate, is it?”, referring to when Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, opposing leaders of the Chu-Han Contention, met in a banquet that was joyful on the surface but full of murderous tension underneath. Practically everyone who’s been through the Chinese school system can name many more of these stories from every major dynasty—there are thousands of years worth of them—and historical stories continue to be a subject of fascination for working adults. In the twelve years I’ve spent in China, I never once thought history was boring. Some of my favorite TV programs featured archeological excavations or history professors giving lectures. At school, we learned historical anecdotes so dramatic and striking that they remain in our memories for life. This all makes me wonder why I never felt the same way about Western history after coming to Canada. It cannot be that Western history is fundamentally less interesting than Chinese history—my current obsession with the French Revolution easily disproves this—but perhaps something is missing in the way the West communicates its histories to younger generations.

Art by Rachelle Raka

In China, there is a heavy emphasis on the “story” part of history. History was the number one muse of classical Chinese writers; They found profound inspiration in the interpersonal drama of historical figures and the various ironies and poeticisms of the decisions they made that changed the world. Historical fantasy dominates the Chinese literary tradition. Works like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Marginand Investiture of the Gods are all dramatic retellings of historical events with a supernatural twist. In modern day, period dramas still dominate Chinese media so much that a replica of an ancient Chinese city is permanently occupied for filming purposes, with many actors living there full time to appear as historically-dressed extras in various period dramas. The concept of my debut novel Iron Widowa sci-fi take on the rise of the only female emperor in Chinese history, baffled some readers, but I honestly believe it’s a natural extension of the Chinese literary and media traditions I grew up with. The popular Chinese video game Honor of Kings similarly adapted historical figures into its fantastical setting without even changing their names.