Conclusion: History and Remembrance

  To conclude our semester of history and memory of modern China, I thought it appropriate to assign for our last reading a book review, of one famous Sinologist by another famous Sinologist, to indicate the many possible approaches to the understanding of memory and the past.  Benjamin Schwartz takes issue with Vera Schwarcz's emphasis on the remembrance of the past through concrete examples of memorization (an earlier example she gave in Li, chapter 9, was the remembrance of the Nanking massacre through the example of the grandfather's hat being pierced by a Japanese bayonet before the grandfather was killed). The late Benjamin Schwartz objected to this equation between concrete and individual memory and collective cultural memory. For instance, although the Chinese and Jews both have a penchant toward historical remembrance, their histories and memories on the whole are based on very different approaches.  Chinese history focuses on the realization of the truth in the golden past, while Jewish history emphasizes the contemporaneity of many historical events, such as the Mosaic laws.(Schwartz, p.93)

We can ignore the many examples Schwartz gives in discussing Schwarcz's discussion of Chinese historical and modern figures, such as Zhang Shenfu and Han Yu, who appeared in her other writings, but focus on the methodological issues that Ben Schwartz raises: can individual memories characterize collective memories/histories of the past? Can individual memories of the Nanking massacre be used to characterize what happened in Nanking at the end of 1937-1938 and define that period of Chinese history? Another issue Schwartz raises is the changing nature of ideas. Marxism, nationalism, cultural identities, change over time, according to Schwartz as well as many others (and I am sure Vera Schwarcz agrees with him).  We have read extensively how the Chinese government has tried to redefine itself and Chinese national identity through the redefinition of the war against Japan as well as the relationship between China and Japan.  Without a fixed content in a given idea, can one safely discuss historical memories of an event? Is there, or can there ever be, a fixed collective memory of the past? These are questions for us to ponder over beyond this class.