Once a year, the government stages a huge television spectacular, which goes on for many hours and is extremely popular, showing the various peoples that make up the population of the PRC. What is very noticeable in this long display is a sharp distinction between the Great Han people and the various minorities. The minorities are made to appear in their most colourful traditional costumes, and indeed make a splendid sight. The Han themselves, however, cannot appear in traditional clothing, even though we know from paintings and other historical records just how colourful and beautiful these actually were. So the men, for example, appear in business suits, derived from Italian and French models, about which there is nothing Han at all. The Han thus manifest themselves as the Future, and the minorities as the Past, in a tableau which is utterly political, even if not entirely consciously so. This Past, of which the minorities are the visible sign, is also part of a Big Past through which the Chinese state’s territorial stretch is legitimized. It is, of course, therefore a Chinese past.
Naturally, in this line of official discourse, the older the Past the better. One can get a curious sidelong look at this phenomenon if we consider aspects of the archaeology that the state sponsors. One especially odd aspect has emerged in the reaction to the widely accepted theory that the distinctively human species emerged most likely in what is today eastern Africa. Evidently it is not a pleasant thought in official circles that the ultimate ancestors of the Great Han people, as of all other peoples, lived in Africa, not China, and can hardly be described as Chinese. So considerable funds have been made available in the search for some physical remains, within the borders of today’s China, that are both older than, and entirely distinct from, anything in Africa. My intention here is not to ridicule Peking, though that is easy enough to do, but to stress its comparability. The easiest way to show this is to tell you that when I was very young, growing up in Ireland, my mother found for me, in a second-hand bookshop, a fat volume, written for children, called a History of English Literature. It was originally published at the end of the nineteenth century when Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The long opening chapter shows London searching for a Very Ancient Past in exactly the same manner as Peking.
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