Nationalism and Revisionism in East Asia

By Carter, David | Contemporary Review, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Nationalism and Revisionism in East Asia


Carter, David, Contemporary Review


Ask someone to summon up associations, of a political and historical nature, with the names of the main countries in the East Asian region, and you are likely to obtain a surprisingly mixed bag of concepts: communism and economic superpower (China); nationalism and secession (Taiwan); imperialism and war guilt (Japan); military dictatorship and democracy (South Korea); and authoritarianism and brinkmanship (North Korea). Yet the nations in this mixed bag of identities have somehow managed to maintain a modus vivendi, with not infrequent confrontations and occasional clashes, for over half a century. A major revolution in China and several world-changing wars have left all of the countries in question nursing hurt national pride and led each of them, in their different ways, to revise constantly their own images of themselves.

It is to be hoped that most fair-minded people in the twenty-first century are aware that there is revisionism and revisionism. That is to say that most people, presented with strong arguments and incontrovertible evidence, are able to distinguish between necessary and morally justifiable revisionism, on the one hand, and ideologically biased and unjustifiable revisionism on the other. Revising an account of facts for the sake of truth is one thing, but doing so for the sake of personal or political gain is pernicious.

Unfortunately much negative revisionism has taken place in many different contexts all over the world and has in all likelihood been practised since civilisation began. The point of this generalisation is to provide a broad context for a fairer consideration of individual cases of revisionism, to enable the establishment of a balanced view which however in no way excuses recognised excesses. The focus of this article is on an area of the world well known to the author, that commonly referred to as East Asia, and here intended to include China, Taiwan, Japan and the two Koreas. A few references will however be made to other parts of the world and historical events there to ensure such a balanced view.

Some clarification of terminology is obviously called for. In the first place, what is to be understood by the term revisionism in the present discussion? It is not intended to include that special usage during the period of the Cold War, when it was employed to denounce ways of thinking which did not accord with and indeed often openly criticised the doctrines of Marxist-Leninism (in the Soviet Union) and Maoist Communism (in the People's Republic of China). The use of the term in this sense was most common just after the Second World War and especially during the period of growing ideological ferment in Eastern Europe, which led eventually to the uprisings in Hungary and Poland in the autumn of 1956. For the first time many communist intellectuals were daring to criticise openly the oppressive characteristics of the totalitarian regime installed by Stalin. These intellectuals were considered by the incumbent regime to be attempting to revise sacrosanct party dogma. As used by Stalinists therefore revisionism was a term of abuse for ideas and actions perceived as threatening to divide and indeed undermine the internationalist goals of the communist enterprise. For intellectuals in the West however this Soviet era revisionism provided hope that communism might after all be capable of developing a genuinely socialist and humanitarian face. It is interesting to note in passing, that when this kind of revisionism became allied with nationalist ideals, as in the case of Hungary, the Soviet Union finally decided on the use of military intervention to ensure the continuation of its hegemony.

Ideological revisionism very often goes hand in hand with historical revisionism. Again there is good and bad historical revisionism, according to one's convictions. Good historical revisionism is the very stuff of sound scholarship in historiography. Whenever new evidence comes to light or available material is reinterpreted in a more convincing manner, then the historical account is duly modified and sometimes changed radically. …

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