Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China

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Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China, by Ban Wang. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004. xiv + 311 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover), US$21.95 (paperback).

Illuminations from the Past is one of the most rewarding books I have read on contemporary China in recent years. In this collection of essays Wang continues to engage the difficult questions that he first raised in his earlier book, The Sublime Figure of History. The new essays are notable for wide-ranging, thought-provoking reflections on modern Chinese history that are prompted by the author's own experiences, as well as for his courage in confronting a past that is a source of trauma as much as of hope. The book calls into question any claims to history as a source of truth, but recognizes nevertheless that the truths of the past are about all the truth that we are likely to have.

Wang's point of departure is that the trauma of revolution has rendered impossible any faith in Utopia. But unlike the celebrations of salvation through the market, which are all too common in contemporary studies of the People's Republic of China, he does not fall in with false promises that give rise to a new predicament: "From the Berlin Wall to the Berlin Mall", which represented not salvation but "the disappearance of the outside", as the Romanian-born writer Andrei Codrescu has suggested. Wang finds in this double-recognition a "critical historical consciousness", premised on recognition of modernity as a condition that at once produces history and renders it into the only source of meaning that we may have, even as it is condemned to meaninglessness in its very unfolding.

It is this same meaninglessness that in recent decades has brought forth a preoccupation with memory, with personally lived history against the impossibilities of public history. The essays offer provocative discussions of anxieties that long have plagued Chinese intellectuals, which Wang ably places within a general problematic of modernity. The "illuminations" in the title of the book acknowledge an intellectual debt to Walter Benjamin, whose enthusiastic reception by contemporary Chinese intellectuals Wang takes up in one of the essays. The intellectual inspiration of Benjamin is also visible in the author's commitment to intellectual engagement of public issues. The trauma of public history calls forth memory in compensation, but individualized memory is also vulnerable to appropriation by forces of the capitalist market, which in its globalization is bent on the destruction of the public. Engagement necessitates, therefore, not the abandonment of history but confronting its trauma and tragedy. At a moment when memory threatens to overwhelm history, Wang's plea is for a "dialectic tension between memory and history" (p. 8).

The book is organized in three parts. Part I, "Toward a Critical Historical Consciousness", consists of two essays that deal with the May Fourth Period of the early twentieth century, and most notably with confrontations with questions of modernity in the works of Lu Xun, whose enduring fascination as a Chinese writer and a world writer may indeed lie in his recognition of the tragedy of the very necessity of modernity. …


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