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On Jubilees and Anniversaries

This year marks the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth Regina Twice, who joins Queen Victoria, her great-great grandmother, as the only other British monarch to have lived long enough to celebrate six decades on the throne.[1]

While the Commonwealth countries seem to be doing their part to mark this milestone, global enthusiasm for the Jubilee has been…muted.  After all, the British Empire doesn’t have quite the brand power that it used to.  Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee featured colonial troops from all over the empire parading through the center of London. Her Gold Jubilee, held in 1887, was quite the occasion even as far away as Shanghai.  Brits and non-Brits turned out to watch a military parade and hear proclamations to Her Majesty’s continued benevolent rule over the benighted people of the world.  Although as benevolent as it may have been, the Chinese residents of Shanghai were neither invited nor encouraged to attend.

Six years later, on the occasion of Shanghai’s own Golden Jubilee as a Treaty Port, the Shanghai Municipal Council reversed course and actively sought to showcase the cosmopolitan nature of “their” city by soliciting the (carefully orchestrated) participation and support of the Chinese community.Yes, the various colonial powers actually had the balls to try and persuade Chinese living in Shanghai to join a massive city-wide celebration of their own subjugation.

Historian Byrna Goodman argues:

“In these respects the proceedings demonstrated to the British viewer the formidable and well-oiled municipal machinery introduced into China by the British, and the receptive and willing position of the Chinese. Chinese eagerness in this view, confirmed the superiority of the Western model; Chinese dimness and obedience confirmed the appropriateness of Western leadership and guidance.”[3]

Or as The North China Herald drolly described it at the time:

“The amenability of the Chinese native when he comes under firm and friendly control.”[4]

Sound familiar?

In 2009, the Chinese Communist Party, acting through the Tibetan People’s Congress, created a new holiday: Serf Liberation Day.  The day – March 28 — was set aside to commemorate the “liberation of the serfs” in 1959, when a failed uprising by Tibetans against the Chinese ended with the PLA taking control of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile.  Each year since 2009, the date is celebrated with galas, newspaper articles, exhibits, school lectures, and highly public displays of Tibetan acquiescence to Chinese rule.The Economist  in 2009 wrote: “With grim determination, the authorities try to manufacture joy.”

This is not to say that Tibetans – or at least key groups in Tibet – are unwilling participants in this commemoration.  As was the case of the Shanghai Jubilee, many ‘local’ groups take part in the observance, although they often do so with their own agendas.  During the 1893 Jubilee, Chinese merchants used their positions to organize guild participation in the parades and festivities as a way of displaying their own wealth and power, although overly enthusiastic coöperation without some acknowledgement of ‘native’ identity was to risk being labeled a Han Traitor.[5] Tibetans today, especially those with ties to the Party or extensive business interests, face a similar dilemma.

As Tsering Shakya writes:

“It is indeed possible that such an initiative may have come from one group of Tibetans – senior party apparatchiks on the receiving end of internal criticism for their failure in 2008 to guarantee a loyal and docile populace.  But this itself is telling of the nature of the Serf Liberation Day initiative: for in an authoritarian regime, the failure of a client administration leaves performance as one of the few options available. It is natural then that authoritarian regimes have a love of public displays of spectacle, engineered to perfection, in which the people are required to perform ceremonial displays of contentment.”

What we choose to celebrate is not only intimately tied to how and why we want to remember a specific event,  but also present-day concerns.  British Republicans are using the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee to bring attention to their cause, even as much of the Jubilee itself seems calculated to try and rub a little shine back onto a tarnished crown.

Like Jubilee galas, anniversaries have power beyond merely marking the passage of time, and sometimes their power can be most keenly felt when they are actively forgotten.  Like Arthur Doyle’s dog which did not bark in the night, the silence speaks.[6]

Today is of course a day of some significance in modern Chinese history, and while there are likely to be a few carefully worded articles in the Chinese media, this is a date to be forgotten, not remembered.  I’m heading to the National Museum this afternoon with a group of American university students.  We will see rooms devoted to memorializing the atrocities of imperialism and exhibits solemnly recording as humiliation what the Shanghai Municipal Council of 1893 sought to celebrate through a Jubilee. There will also of course be a section recalling the liberation of the Tibetan serfs.  But the students may find it a challenge to locate the spaces allocated to remembering more recent – politically inconvenient – events of Chinese history.  Once again, absence of memory can say as much as about contemporary concerns as any grand gala or public display of  remembrance.


[1] The Qing historian in me feels compelled to remind readers that two Manchu rulers, Aisin-Gioro Hiowan Yei (The Kangxi Emperor r. 1662-1722) and Aisin-Gioro Hung Li (The Qianlong Emperor, r. 1736-1796/1799) accomplished the same feat. Although in the annals of Chinese history septuagenarian emperors were quite rare.

[3] Bryna Goodman, “Improvisations on a Semicolonial Theme, or, How to Read a Celebration of Transnational Urban Community,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Nov., 2000), p. 901.

[4] Cited in Goodman, “Improvisations on a Semicolonial Theme,” p. 901.

[5] Goodman, “Improvisations on a Semicolonial Theme,” p. 918.

[6] For those not up on their Sherlock Holmes, the dog which did not bark in the night was the key to the disappearance of race horse Silver Blaze.

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