Academic journal article China Perspectives

Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity

Article excerpt

Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity

Marc Andre Matten (ed.), Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Iden- tity, Leiden, Brill, 2012, 285 pp.

In the past two decades, interest in collective memory studies has rapidly grown and has inspired debate among historians, anthropologists, and sociologists with regard to both theoretical issues and methodological tools.(1)This emerging field stretches beyond the borders of the "West," and scholars with different backgrounds are turning their attention to the analy- sis of non-Western contexts, where the interplay between collective mem- ory and the making of modern nation-states in post-colonial settings opens the gate to this previously uncharted and stimulating research domain.

The authors of Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity, edited by Marc Andre Matten, provide the reader with seven case- based critical analyses of the relationship between the historical past and the present identity of the "Chinese world," encompassing sites in the PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Moving along different temporal and spatial coordinates, each chapter is well balanced in the presentation of data, interpretative analy- sis, and theoretical reflection and contributes to defining how the entangle- ment of politically-oriented actions and publicly shared memories creates, deconstructs, and regenerates "places of memory." In doing so, the book is cohesively organised within Pierre Nora's interpretative frame of lieux de mé- moire. A place of memory, according to Nora, constitutes a symbolic entity that relates the physical place to the collective memory of the community, a place "where (cultural) memory crystallizes and secretes itself" (p. 5).(2)

In the introductory first chapter, the editor convincingly shows that in the Chinese context, the creation of places of memory first arose in response to the crisis of identity prompted by the collapse of the Qing Empire and the quest for a modern nation-state identity. Afterwards, in the post-socialist era, the essence of Chinese identity has been sought in the reconnection with common cultural roots and the rearrangement of history into the celebration of the advancement of Chinese civilisation. Thus, places of memory devoted to the "aesthetic history" embodied by the terracotta army (Chapter 2) or to "red tourism" (chapters 4 and 8) or to the remembrance of China's "na- tional wounds" (chapters 6 and 7) are all narratives that actively build and praise the national-ethnic unity of the People's Republic of China (p. 116). Chapter 3 deals with the political struggle between the Democratic Progres- sive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) for the naming of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Chapter 5 traces how the last base of the Song loyalists' resistance was turned into an identification land- mark for political refugees in British Hong Kong. The focus of these two latter chapters is on places of contested collective memory and effectively com- pletes the picture of the heterogeneous world of modern China.

David J. Davies shows how the Terracotta Warrior Museum has been clothed with different social and political meanings from the time the site was excavated in 1974 until the present, reflecting the political and ideo- logical changes of the country. In the post-1980s reform period, the awe- inspiring sight of the first emperor's army offers the tourist the emotional experience of a timeless past and invites suspension of judgement over the brutalities of feudal rule and enjoyment of the aesthetic view of the endur- ing traces of the Chinese culture and civilisation. The author emphasises that despite the lack of historical evidence, practices and narratives of mem- ory have powerfully promoted the linkage between the emperor and the army as a symbol of Chinese ethnic pride and national identity.

Similarly, the chapter by Daniel Leese argues that the Mao Memorial Hall is a monument to Chinese patriotism and national-ethnic unity and only on a secondary level to its revolutionary tradition (p. …

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