History, memory, and narrative

What is the relation between “history”, “memory”, and “narrative”? We might put these concepts into a crude map by saying that “history” is an organized and evidence-based presentation of of the processes and events that have occurred for a people over an extended period of time; “memory” is the personal recollections and representations of individuals who lived through a series of events and processes; and “narratives” are the stories that historians and ordinary people weave together to make sense of the events and happenings through which a people and a person have lived. We use narratives to connect the dots of things that have happened; to identify causes and meanings within this series of events; and to select the “important” events and processes out from the ordinary and inconsequential.

If we think that “history” should be informed by the ways in which historical events were experienced by individuals, then we must also address the question of how to use the evidence of memory as a prism for attributing subjective, lived experience to the people who lived this history. If we are interested in the Great Leap Forward famine years, for example, we need to know more than the timeline of harvest failure or the map of grain distress across China; we need to know how various groups experienced this time of hardship. And for this we need to have access to documents and interviews reporting the experience of individuals in their own words; we need to have access to memory.

A particularly valuable body of work on China’s recent history is currently underway, in the form of careful use of oral histories, memoirs, and other expressions of personal memories of some of China’s most dramatic chapters of national history. C. K. Lee and Guobin Yang have presented some excellent examples of this work in Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memory in Reform China. The book contains chapters that draw out important new insights into the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the changing conditions of women, cinema, the experience of ethnic minorities, and the occurrence of violence and disorder in the past sixty years in China’s history. Every chapter sheds new light on something of interest; the book is an absorbing read. Especially interesting are chapters by Paul Pickowicz and Guobin Yang.

In “Rural Protest Letters: Local Perspectives on the State’s War on Tillers” Paul Pickowicz describes an extensive collection of interviews and private writings of a single Hebei peasant leader, Geng Xiufeng, written between the 1950s and the 1990s. Geng’s writings often take the form of protest letters, addressed to leaders extending from local party officials to Chairman Mao himself. Geng also maintained a journal in which he recorded his observations of the effects of various state-directed reforms of agriculture — and the inimical effects these reforms had on peasant standard of living. Geng was a peasant activist and leader in the 1940s in support of rural cooperatives, as a practical mechanism for improving agriculture and improving local peasants’ standard of living. And he turns out to be an astute and honest observer of the twists and turns of policy disaster (rapid collectivization of agriculture), corruption, and disregard of peasants’ welfare by the CCP. (This latter is the meaning of Pickowicz’s phrase, “the state’s war on tillers.”) Pickowicz had conducted a number of interviews with Geng in the 1970s and 1980s, and was greatly surprised to learn that Geng had written dozens of protest letters and had accumulated a multi-volume memoir that chronicled many of these social observations about change in North China. The content of these writings is fascinating; but even more important is the evidence they offer of the astute abilities possessed by ordinary Chinese people in observing and criticizing the processes of change that enmeshed them. These manuscripts offer Pickowicz — and us — a window into the consciousness of some ordinary rural people as China’s history enveloped them; and they make evident the fact that Chinese peasants were not mere passive instruments, but rather practical, observant, and sometimes wise thinkers about revolution and reform.

Guobin Yang’s article, “‘A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing’: The Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Internet” touches the other end of the information spectrum — not handwritten letters and reflections penned in the 1950s, but over 100 contemporary websites devoted to archiving and chronicling the Cultural Revolution. There are widely divergent stories that can be told in defining the Cultural Revolution as an episode of history: an excess of leftism, a deliberate use of power by China’s leaders against each other and against society, a period of social hysteria, or even “still a good idea.” (The latter is the theme taken by the website incorporated into Yang’s title — “A Portrait of Martyr Jiang Qing.” This is one of the few publicly available websites that Yang unearthed that continues to glorify Madame Mao and her fellow radicals.) Yang demonstrates that we can learn a lot about how the current generation views the Cultural Revolution — and the strands of disagreement that continue to divide opinion about its causes and meanings — by examining in detail the editorial judgments and online commentaries that accompany these online “exhibition halls”.

The use of photography and cinema to represent memory — both individual and collective — is an important theme in the volume. The photograph above, representing a “struggle” session against “class enemies,” captures a particular moment in time — two particular men, exposed to a particular crowd. It also emblemizes scenes that were common throughout China during the Cultural Revolution. And, presumably, it triggers very specific personal memories for individual Chinese people who lived through the Cultural Revolution, whether as victims, Red Guards, or bystanders. As David Davies notes in “Visible Zhiqing: The Visual Culture of Nostalgia among China’s Zhiqing Generation”, no photograph stands wholly by itself. But some photos have the directness and honesty needed to stand for a whole dimension of historical experience — in this case, the violence and humiliation perpetrated against teachers, scholars, and officials by zealous mobs of Red Guards and their followers. In this way the photo can faithfully capture one important strand of the history of this period.

One thing I particularly appreciate in the volume is the innovative thinking it provides about the nexus of experience, identity, and history. The editors and contributors are very sensitive to the fact that there is no single “Hebei experience” or “Chinese women’s experience”; instead, the oral history materials permit the contributors to discern both variation and some degree of thematicization of memory and identity.

Another important contribution of the volume is the emphasis it offers to the idea of the agency involved in memory. Memories must be created; agents must find frameworks within which to understand their moments of historical experience. “As people grope for moral and cognitive frameworks to understand, assess, and sometimes resist these momentous changes in their lives, memories of the revolution thrive” (1).

A third and equally important thrust of the volume is the persuasive idea that memories become part of the political mobilization possibilities that exist for a group. Groups find their collective identities through shared understandings of the past; and these shared understandings provide a basis for future collective action. So memory, identity, and mobilization hang together.


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