You’d think that events that occurred thousands of years ago wouldn’t be that relevant or threatening to current governments and their policies, right? Au contraire! One of the benefits of developing an awareness of and sensitivity to history is that you come to understand that even really, REALLY old stuff can have an impact on current events. Moreover, you come to understand that there are very often people out there in positions of power eager to suppress that information because it threatens whatever agenda they wish to advance at the moment.
Case in point: a week ago this news story appeared about the authorities’ shutting down in western China a museum exhibit featuring a 4,000-year-old mummy. Why all the fuss?
Well, you see, this mummy is not Chinese; it’s Caucasian. This fact is quite inconvenient for the Chinese government because it indicates that the earliest settlers of the region were not Chinese. Of course, anyone who knows much about the history of the region knows that the Chinese are relative newcomers. In fact, they are still a minority. However, there is a strong separatist movement among the Turkic peoples in western China, and this mummy could potentially strengthen their case in the public mind that the Chinese are interlopers who need to be thrown out.
The Han Chinese have had their government drill into their heads from their youth the idea that the current borders of China are sacrosanct and must remain part of China now and forever. In fact, in the late 1990s when I lived and taught in China, I had students try to tell me that China had never gone through a period of expansion at any point in its history; they seemed to think that the Chinese people had simply sprung from the soil thousands of years ago in all the places they currently reside. A Caucasian mummy in Xinjiang threatens that cherished myth.
So, please be aware that when you learn about history, particularly by reading primary sources, that you are committing a potentially revolutionary act and could bring the anger of the authorities down on yourself. It is an enterprise not for the faint of heart.