Hidden History

The Refugee Emperor

How the Yongli Emperor was strangled in Kunming by a turncoat general – Jeremiah Jenne

Even researching a column titled Hidden History, this was getting to be a bit much.

Our impromptu guide in Kunming, capital of China’s mountainous southwest province of Yunnan, led us past a police guard post, into an underground garage, up three flights of stairs, through a pediatric hospital, and then out the lobby of what looked like the emergency room. “Turn left; it’s right there.”

And there it was: A stone tablet set slightly back in a small urban park, complete with exercise equipment and a signboard reminding us to “Learn from Lei Feng.” Inscribed on the stone in slightly faded red letters: “The site where Emperor Yongli of the Ming (1623-1668) gave his life for his country.” It was on this spot in 1661 that the last claimant to the throne of the Ming Dynasty was strangled to death by his captor, Wu Sangui (1612-1678).

Hidden History

How Coca-Cola Came to China, 40 Years Ago

The sugar trap of market normalization – Ramsey Fahs

On December 13, 1978, two days before the announcement of Sino-American normalization, Coca-Cola became the first foreign corporation allowed back in to the People’s Republic of China. Representatives of President Jimmy Carter, another of Georgia’s more famous exports, had to politely request that Coke delay announcing the deal to avoid the embarrassment of the US being beaten to the diplomatic punch by a purveyor of carbonated sugar-water.

Coca-Cola was an unlikely candidate for this particular milestone. In the decades prior to the agreement, the company had eagerly tied its business practices to the American government’s aim of defeating global communism and promoting democracy. In China, meanwhile, anti-American propaganda smeared Coca-Cola as one of the worst incarnations of American imperialism. Yet the little-known story of how Coke, which celebrated its 40th anniversary of normalized relations with China in December, went from imperialist shill to the first foreign brand welcomed back to the PRC illustrates forces that still define the economic relationship between China and American business.

Hidden History

China’s Most Played Piece of Music

A funeral dirge with a red history – Kevin McGeary

Music that wears its politics on its sleeve is destined to swing violently in and out of fashion. The fado, Portugal’s most famous musical form, is now tainted by its association with fascism. Richard Wagner – who in his lifetime was given his own opera house – has long suffered the stigma of his association with the Nazi Party, which was founded 37 years after his death. China’s “red songs,” works that show support for the Chinese Communist Party and its causes, appeared to be making a comeback in 2011 due to a campaign by charismatic Chongqing official Bo Xilai. A few years earlier, an American going by the stage name of Hong Laowai became a much-loved online celebrity in the People’s Republic for his renditions of patriotic Mao-era songs. In neither case was a movement sparked.

Though writing music is often an attempt at achieving immortality, even the most popular music can die with the beliefs that inspired it. Songs that were staples in the 1960s, such as ‘The East is Red,’ are now seldom heard outside period dramas due to their toxic associations. But one such song that has endured in China is the funeral dirge (āiyuè 哀乐), composed in 1945 by then-25-year-old Luo Lang.

Hidden History

Oasis State

Kashgaria and the British Great Game – Christopher DeCou

The Great Game sounds like the title of popular reality game show, but instead describes the chess-like match of the British, Russian, Ottoman and Qing governments in Central Asia during the mid to late 19th century. One of its more interesting episodes involved Kashgaria, a short-lived independent state, covering much of today's Xinjiang province in western China. It inspired British explorer and diplomat Robert Shaw to cross treacherous mountain passes to open communication with its leaders, efforts that resulted in an official mission. But by the mid 1870s, even though the British were concerned about their northern borders, the economy defeated expediency and support for “Oriental” leadership. Soon afterward, Kashgaria collapsed and was absorbed back into the Chinese Empire.

Hidden History

The Chinese Doctor Who Beat the Plague

An epidemic averted in Manchuria – Jeremiah Jenne

In the winter of 1910, Dr. Wu Lien-teh stepped onto a frigid train platform in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. He was there to solve a medical mystery, at great personal risk. Over the past few months, an unknown disease had swept along the railways of Manchuria, killing 99.9% of its victims. The Qing Imperial court had dispatched Malayan-born, Cambridge-educated Dr. Wu north to stop the epidemic before it spread to the rest of the empire.