The Question of Historical Memory: Some Methodological Issues

 Vera Schwarcz, professor of history at Wesleyan University whose parents were Romanian Jews, here reflects on Chinese and Jewish approaches to historical memory in the cases of the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre. One thing she points out is that history does not always (or even often) give clear cut encouraging moral lessons and facing history, therefore, is not an always pleasant experience, and takes time and some detachment. She points out that this was not unique to Chinese memory of Nanking Massacre, but a universal experience, and the Jewish reaction to the Holocaust in the 1940s and 1950s was not to face it because of the overwhelming sense of trauma, guilt and shame on the part of many surviving Jews. (pp.187-189) Even after 1963, when the Holocaust was discussed in public, the Israeli government focused more on the heroes, such as the Polish Jew Mordechai Anielewicz who led in the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto Uprising in Apr.-May, 1943, instead of paying sympathy to the victims at large who did not display heroic behavior.

In the case of China, the door of memory remained shut regarding the Nanking Massacre for decades, although the Chinese did not really forget it. I remember my trip to my aunt's home in Nanking (Nanjing) in 1971 when I was told that the very place they lived (Yan Ziji) was the sight of one big massacre in 1937-1938. I also came across the term Nanking Massacre in my school textbooks, although there was no special commemoration of that event in the public arena in China. Schwarcz argues that the interest in the massacre really was brought into the open by people because of what is called the June 4 Massacre of 1989, when the Chinese government massacred probably hundreds of students and residents of Beijing after months of confrontation between the state and university students over how much democracy would be allowed to the Chinese. The second bloody massacre became a taboo in the Chinese public, forcing people who wanted to air any grievances to go to earlier history for similar events, hence the interest in the Nanking Massacre, the discussion of which was not a taboo, and suited the Chinese government's need to find a new respectable image as nationalists after Communist rule became much discredited, not least by the June 4 Massacre.

One problem with historical memory of trauma, Schwarcz argues, is the fear that it would not be understood by others who had not experienced it, hence in the Chinese and the Jewish cases, there was the attempt to quantify that trauma to make it more pulpable to others. (pp.194-195) This, however, may not lead to a balanced historical understanding of the traumatic event. An attempt to seek historical understanding was shown, on the one hand, in demands for apologies and monetary payments (reparations), and on the other hand, in a courageous square look at the past, especially on the part of the victims. A square look at the past could really hurt, and sometimes the victims could not stand the pain all over again, but it is precisely in the details of such memory that one finds the most moving bits and pieces that connect the survivors, from both the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre. Such memory also sets in contrast the almost commercial display of memory by both the Chinese and Israeli governments, in order to attract attention to the atrocities of the Nazis or the Japanese, commercialize and eroticize their exhibits, which could invite revulsion instead of identification and understanding. (pp.192-202) Here Schwarcz emphasizes the importance of the craft of the historian who seeks to understand through historical details.

While Schwarcz reconfirms the importance of the historian in the project to achieve greater common understanding of the past (trauma) between the victims and those who did not experience it, Daqing Yang, a native of Nanjing who came to study history and international relations in American graduate schools, argues for a different approach for a universal understanding of the past. First, Yang points out the competing versions of history, such as the Japanese textbook revisions and the group of Japanese scholars behind such who wanted to see Japanese invasions or any negative depictions of Japan deleted from school textbooks that went for approval from the Ministry of Education. On the other hand, for the Chinese government, the memory of Nanking has been used to whip up feelings of patriotism. (pp.237-239)

A universal version of the Nanking Massacre is further complicated by the attack on objectivity among the historians today. (p.239) I think this is an important point to us who are studying history and memory because the current belief that for every one, there is a different truth, although liberating in many ways and allowing different social/ethnic/racial groups to gain greater equality in social/political matters, is short on supplying a collective memory of the past that a nation needs (at least some of it) to survive as a unified nation. Yang suggests three approaches to remedy the situation toward building a universal understanding of the past that he termed historical, political, and humanistic. (240) In the area of historical inquiry, it is important to maintain accuracy of facts to maintain the validity of one's arguments. On the other hand, Yang points out that according to post-modern arguments, there is really no value free history. This, however, may not necessarily be a bad thing, as the alternative to a non-moral (supposedly objective) history may not be objectivity, but immorality. (242-244)

Politics also leads to barriers to a common understanding of the massacre. Which side one is on really counts in the understanding of the massacre: whether it was a Japanese soldier who was conscious of killing or raping Chinese, or a Chinese who witnessed the massacre. Politics also influenced postwar Japanese discussion of the war: for those who spoke out were usually people who thoght they were innocent during the war. (246-247)

In conclusion, Yang argues that despite all the complexicities, a universal understanding of the massacre is still achievable because of the universality of human behavior, such as the fact that the Chinese had also been barbaric and expansionist in history, and that it is possible for individuals, including victims, to step beyond their individual experience and look at the story from another person's point of view. Although, Yang admits, one of the conditions for this to take place is some basic common understanding of the event before deeper common understanding can take place. (249-254)