History 297: 19th-Century Urban Chinese Death Ritual Literature Review

History as Myth according to Paul Cohen

Prompt 2, September 27, 2017: How do Cohen’s last chapters of the book, in Part 3 “the Boxers as Myth,” answer different kinds of historical questions than those Part 1, “the Boxers as Event,” and Part 2, “the Boxers as Experience?” What do these chapters reveal about how history itself is constructed? What questions might they raise for our own process of writing history?

“Historians are happiest when laying siege to other people’s mythologized understandings, not their own.”-Paul Cohen (297) 

Part Three of Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys, “the Boxers as Myth not so much differs from the previous two sections, “the Boxers as Event” and “the Boxers as Experience,” but rather, combines key elements from both sections, such as firsthand experience and key moments in time in order to create a sort of “selective” history that serves to best represent the values of the society in which it exists.

History as “myth” exists in multiple facets. “Myth” is ever-changing and adapts to the needs of the society it is created by, all while “[possessing] at least a degree of plausability”. (293) “Myth” is the way in which a society tells the tale of an event or phenomena from its past, and quite often doubles as an allegory. Cohen makes light of this practice through his mention of the way in which the Red Lanterns, the female sect of the Boxers, were given a wholly exaggerated “new life” during the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Cohen provides an example of the process of mythologization through his mention of the way in which the Red Lanterns, the female sect of the Boxers, were given a wholly exaggerated new life during the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. (261) During the Cultural Revolution, the “history,” (or rather, “myth”) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was entirely written and provided to Chinese citizen by the government, in order to maintain political correctness in accordance with Communist theory. (264)

In the mid-twentieth-century, the PRC government faced a considerable amount of difficulty in garnering the support of the older generation. In order to combat this, efforts to promote Communist were aimed primarily at those from early childhood to early adulthood. Members of the Chinese government fabricated and mobilized an entirely new, but somehow still “truthful” tale of the Red Lanterns. In fact, Mao Zedong described the Red Lanterns as “the way for [the Chinese] to storm and breach the citadel of the old world, to rebel vigorously against imperialism, revisionism, and the handful of top powerholders in the party taking the capitalist road.” (265)

Historically speaking, the Red Lanterns were not heavily involved in the Boxer Rebellion and had little impact on the outcome of the event. However, where the Red Lanterns failed to be influential, they succeeded in having a few key characteristics that were near and dear to the Communist government, such as rebellion in young adulthood, a rejection of traditional Confucian values, and of course, donning the all-important color red. Cohen notes that “it [was] clear that [the Communists] overriding object was to defend the Cultural Revolution” (267) through the use of mythologized tales of the Red Lanterns. The Red Lanterns would henceforth exist in a wide variety of facets of Chinese cultural propaganda, including film, television, theatre, literature and other general aesthetics.

Cohen’s depictions of the Red Lanterns serves to showcase the way in which history, or specifically, the Boxers as “Myth” can only exist as a fantastical combination of “Event” and “Experience. (268) The Red Lanterns existed in “Event” as a mostly unimportant female sect of the Boxers. The Red Lanterns existed loosely in “Experience” as a group that had a few sparse recordings from individuals from turn-of-the-century China. The grandiose transformation of the Red Lanterns into “Myth,” however, can not exist without the small grains of truth from “Event,” in culmination with an appropriative retelling of their “Experience.” (293)

“Myth” cannot exist without “event” and “experience,” however, despite the symbiotic relationship between these three facets of history, they are not the same. Cohen argues that in many ways, myth is even more important than experience or event. “[Event and experience] do not survive, in any significant way, as myth. To live on as myth, an event or person must embody characteristics or themes that seem especially pertinent to the concerns of people and/or governments in later times,” (292) such as in the case of the appropriation of the Red Lanterns during the Cultural Revolution.

For many, myth is truer than the truth.

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