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March 30, 2010

Professor David Porter's AAS blog


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David Porter is associate professor and associate chair in the Department of English and associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Michigan. Like Professor Gallagher and Professor Lam, he also agreed to guest blog from the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting 2010. We thank Professor Porter for his time and contribution.

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No visitor to Beijing can fail to be struck by the complexity of modern China's relationship to its past. The razing of traditional hutong neighborhoods alarms those who regret the loss of the connection they provide to the material and social fabric of the city's history. In the suburbs, meanwhile, wealthy home buyers snap up spanking new courtyard homes that mimic Ming and Qing designs and evoke the status and leisured life-style of traditional elites.

The myriad ways historical memory can be repressed, re-used, and re-fashioned emerged as persistent theme at the meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Philadelphia last weekend. This conference, which was attended by nearly a dozen CCS faculty and staff, featured 282 panels on a vast array of topics ranging from Buddhist poetry to North Korean security threats. Every participant no doubt found different threads to pursue in navigating all these offerings. The speakers at the sessions that caught my eye seemed to turn with remarkable regularity to issues of memory and forgetting.

The first panel I attended, on the role of the public intellectual in 21st-century China, discussed recent novelists and independent film-makers who have been explicitly concerned with problems of historical forgetting. One popular science fiction novel, which many intellectuals view as a thinly veiled parable, begins with the premise that everyone in a particular society has forgotten its recent history. State censorship played a role in this, but one character associated with the security apparatus comments, chillingly, "We could not have done it unless they wanted to forget anyway."

Campaigns of forgetting, panelists argued, have been remarkably successful over the past twenty years in China, obliterating an entire generation's awareness of the tragic events of June 1989, for example, and of the unsurpassed calamities of the Great Leap Forward, in which 36 million died of starvation. A book called Tombstone, published in Hong Kong in 2008, was described as a courageous expose of this disaster. Given the theme of the panel, there was a bitter irony in that one of the scheduled panelists, Cui Weiping of the Beijing Film Academy, had at the last minute been denied permission by the Chinese authorities to attend the conference, apparently in response to her political activism.

A session the following day on historicizing philosophy in China picked up a related theme. According to the panelists, early 20th-century Chinese intellectuals hotly debated the question of whether early Chinese thought constituted "philosophy" in the Western sense, and if it did not, whether one could potentially reconstruct a native foundation for Western logic, metaphysics, and so on from individual classical texts. One key player in this debate, the reform-minded essayist Hu Shi, was so thoroughly persuaded that China didn't have philosophy, didn't need philosophy, and was misguided in its attempts to locate analogues to Western debates in its own history, that he advocated the usefulness of "becoming good at forgetting" in order to cast off the leaden weight of the past and develop new traditions. Amnesia, it would seem, can serve equally well the purposes of those who would advocate as those who would resist reform.

Before I'd had a chance to digest the implications of this paradox, I found myself at a session on the Confucian revival in modern China. The principal theme here was that the historical legacy of Confucianism could be (and is currently being) revived and adapted to serve any number of potentially conflicting purposes. Panelists spoke of a "Rulers' Confucianism," stressing the values of obedience and social harmony, as currently in vogue among the ruling elite. At the same time, the blossoming of a "popular Confucianism" emphasizing the values of family, benevolent government, and righteous rebellion is apparent in popular culture venues including web-based discussions of current events.

In a sense, the current multiplications of the meanings of China's Confucian heritage is an extension of a well-established pattern of ambivalence and regular re-interpretation in the 20th century. One version of the "Confucian tradition" was, of course, a chief target of the May 4th movement in the 1910s. Another provided a foundation for Chiang Kai Shek's New Life Movement in the thirties, with its prescriptions for moral cultivation through adherence to prescribed ways of acting. A third became a target for the Anti-Four-Olds campaign of the Cultural Revolution in the sixties, while a fourth underpinned the restoration of the Confucian temple and cemetery in Qufu as a World Heritage Site in 1994.

The problem of historical memory in modern China, the conference made clear, is far more complex than recent news accounts of the Google controversy might seem to imply. In China as everywhere else, the construction of the present involves both the selection and interpretation of fragments of the past by a variety of players with often conflicting purposes and visions of the future.

Posted by zzhu at March 30, 2010 04:53 PM