Revising Public History?

This week’s reading centers on public history and memory. Questions raised and discussed by Glassberg, Hall and others regarding how ideas about history change over time, how public memory is created, and how politics, public culture, academia and individuals play a role in shaping and reshaping public history are very inspiring. A recent issue in China about revising textbook language in relation to Chinese Anti-Japanese War can be a good example for this week’s topic.

China’s Ministry of Education announced in early January this year that starting in the spring semester of 2017, China’s textbooks will adopt the phrase “14-year Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” marking a revision to the current wording—8 years’ resistance against Japanese Aggression, which has been adopted for over 70 years. Previously, the war’s beginning had been traced to the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937, and this revision states that the war actually started in the fall of 1931—six years longer than they had originally taught—when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. Then why made the change? How did it happen? And why now? This change in public history, in my understanding, is an intertwining of politics, popular culture, historians and individual/collective memories.

This revision is intended for political benefits. First and foremost to legitimate and highlight the Communist Party’s “core role” in resisting Japanese fascism. Previously, many historians both in and outside of China believed that the Nationalist party instead of the Communist party did most of the fighting, though the public was brainwashed to believe the opposite. This decision to add six years to the war will demonstrate that the communist party had begun to resist the Japanese in Manchuria as early as 1931, as many communist party members belonged to this Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. In the current political climate, this revision is sought to promote patriotic education , encourage anti-Japanese sentiment and rally support for the party among young people.

This revision is also intended to justify the mainstream narrative of the communist party as the leading role in anti-Japanese war in popular culture. Apart from textbooks, mass media, TV series and movies all promote Communist Party as largely responsible for victory over Japan, downplaying the Nationalists’ heavy contribution. This revision will enhance the image of the Communists and their achievements in World War II, continuing the distorted narratives to their own purposes.

However, this revision is made with joint efforts from historians and scholars. Though the party exaggerated its accomplishment in the war, it is agreed among scholars that China’s resistance to Japanese invasion began in 1931. Considering the size of the Anti-Japanese War in both civilians and militaries involved and their casualties, as well as its significance during WWII, Chinese scholars argued that the generally believed beginning date of WWII starting 1September 1939 with the invasion of Poland is Eurocentric, and it should start with the beginning of the Pacific War in 1937, when large-scale anti-Japanese aggression began in China.

This revision is also accomplished with the support of people in Manchuria and welcomed by local history teachers. The previous official account of the war beginning in 1937 conflicted with local people’s actual memory and history living under Japanese invasion, who had started their resistance as early as 1931. History teachers at local middle schools also welcomed the revision and expressed how frustrated they once were to explain  to students the conflicts in public history between compulsory textbooks and their students’ individual family experiences.

One thought on “Revising Public History?”

  1. Angela, I’m really interested in hearing more about your thoughts on this and whether or not this is a change for the better– it seems like it is a mixed bag because it aligns with people’s actual memories but also disorts and downplays the role of the Nationalist party.

    Are there groups which are opposed to this change? It seems like it has pretty widespread support

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