In China nostalgia sells well, history maybe a little less

How to reconcile the wounds of the past with confidence in the future? Well, this perilous but successful operation involves the success of a candy in particular in China: the Da baitu or White Rabbit, a caramel wrapped in white paper adorned with a rabbit known worldwide today which nevertheless capitalizes on its first golden age: Chinese childhood in the shortages of the post-war period, a socialist madeleine which triumphs in the 21st century century.

Its recipe, invented in Shanghai in 1943, contains all the ingredients for the nostalgia that animates the relationship with the past in China: an old recipe which, through its current success, demonstrates the national genius to undertake and to project oneself into a positive future.

This controlled nostalgia which fights its melancholy dimension is today the engine of the revaluation of the Chinese pasts, a process which is the subject of the article by Angel Pino and Isabelle Rabut in the last issue of the review. Far East, Far West.

Spaces for celebrating the past have multiplied since the 1990s

Beyond the famous white rabbit candy, spaces for celebrating the past have multiplied in China since the 1990s, following in the footsteps of its economic successes and its new nationalist vitality. After a policy of erasure, history once again became a source of pride but also a commercial windfall. Tourism has reconciled, at least for a time, the antagonistic aspects of the regime’s history: political rigidity, traditional heritage and economic expansion. Reconcile the China of Mao and his successors. The restoration of old quarters has entered state policy, with its themed restaurants and experiences of the past primarily intended for visiting diaspora Chinese, domestic and international tourism has followed in the footsteps of this appetite to rediscover the past. Sometimes with disturbing surprises, such as these restaurants dedicated to the Cultural Revolution intended for educated young people, forced exiles in rural areas, who can once again taste the basic gastronomy of an experience that is however not very pleasant. Dishes of wild herbs, donuts or cornbread are served there in a revolutionary setting where red occupies a prominent place to recall the austerity of the diet imposed on this youth sent for rehabilitation to bring their minds into line with the socialist demands. The frequentation of this taste past could have a purely masochistic character without the idea that it underlies: it is on the strength of this difficult trial that these nostalgic customers were able to demonstrate their qualities in post-Maoist China. An art in transforming a dark memory into a positive experience, “a mirror of the successes of today’s China”. If the enthusiasm of the public is at the rendezvous, it only implies at the margin a change of perspective on the past. The taboos of yesteryear seem to be losing their force, but this folklore vision “desensitizes” the traumas of the past. A past skilfully staged in conservatory quarters maintained nearby but strictly separated from contemporary quarters and the jewels of modernity. The memory of the past is staged there as an “exotic” entertainment that we frequent occasionally with a focus on appeasement of memories where history and its complexity ultimately have little place.

Link:

Pino, Angel, and Isabelle Rabut. “The nostalgia trade in today’s China”, Far East Far West, flight. 44, no. 1, 2020, pp. 17-40.

Janelle B. Smith

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