Responsum ad Comment: China and Nostalgia

A reader asks, in relation to my time in China:

“do you yearn for what was?”

Which I take to mean: do I yearn for China as it was when I lived there?


I am grateful for having lived through a remarkable time in China, and for having the opportunity to live there during a slower time when the people and the atmosphere were suffused with the essence of China’s history, when optimism in the face of backwardness was the motive source of power, and when people from overseas were valued for what they might offer China’s journey into the future.

That was the China I fell in love with as a young man.

But do I yearn for what was?

Not at all: not when I land in Beijing, walk the streets of Wudaokou, or drive past the places we used to live. The years we spent there and what China was at the time still exist in our memories, and that’s where they belong.

As an historian of sorts, I have learned to distrust nostalgia. It obscures history, enwrapping it in a pink fog of selective memory. As Billy Joel once wrote, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I am too happy for China’s progress and what it has meant to the lives of my friends, my family, and my colleagues to wish we were all back in the 1980s or 1990s.

It is right that now, today, China is a faster place: that its people are suffused with the possibilities of China’s future; that belief in themselves and their own culture should be the motive source of China’s power; and that people from overseas are welcome but seen in the light of their individual character and behavior rather than their provenance. China is a nation that has stood up, and until or unless she by hostile action makes herself my enemy, I could never wish her to be less.