IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia


17-20 June 1998
Essen, Germany

@02:Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture in a Comparative Perspective:
@03:Collective Identity, Experiences of Crisis and Traumata 'Asunder breaks the country, only hills and streams remain' (Du Fu, 712-770). Crises, catastrophes, cataclysms - China's long history, exceptionally well documented for over three thousand years, witnessed such ruptures abundantly. How were these ruptures dealt with in Chinese historiography? Which remedies were provided by Chinese historical thought to cope with such catastrophic events and fundamental experiences of crisis and disorder? How were these experiences integrated into society's collective identity so that people could go on living? And what about these soothing modi of historical thinking developed in traditional China in the face of the traumatic experiences of modernity?In the face of modern world's 'one big catastrophe that piles up rubble and ruins incessantly', as Walter Benjamin put it in his seminal reflections on history?

Achim Mittag

Such were the questions that were discussed for three days by a high-powered group of scholars in history, anthropology, sinology, and religious studies. The conference under the title of Collective Identity, Experiences of Crisis, and Traumata took place in the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut (KWI), Essen (Germany), and was organized by Jörn Rüsen (KWI), Chang-tze Hu (National Science Council Taipei, Bonn) and the present author. It was the first of a series of three conferences on Chinese Historiography and Historical Culture in a Comparative Perspective, to be held in Germany from 1998-2000 and supported by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, Taipei, with a substantial grant.

Closely relating to the contemporary discourse on theory and history, the three conferences are aimed at reassessing Chinese historiogaphy and historical culture in the wider context of cross-cultural research on history-writing and historical thought. They are part of an International Project on Chinese and Comparative Historiography, jointly organized by Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, KWI (both Germany), National Taiwan University (R.O.C.), and City College of New York (U.S.A.), and directed by the Professors Thomas Lee, Conrad Schirokauer, Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, Jörn Rüsen, Huang Chun-chieh and Ku Wei-ying (for further details see IIAS Newsletter No. 16).
In undertaking the intended cross-cultural comparison in the field of historical culture, the Chinese historiographic tradition makes a good case due to its extraordinary continuity, its great wealth of works handed down to us, its richness of literary forms of historical narration, and its strain of critical and self-reflective thought that was cultivated across the centuries. Thus, we can draw upon a great pool of texts and source materials in rethinking historical memory and historiography, thereby avoiding to take Western concepts of history-writing and historical thinking as a norm.
The twenty papers delivered at the conference contained many perceptive vignettes, adding up to an impressive panoramic view of Chinese historical culture. They centred on four larger themes as follows: Chinese historical identity; historical remembrance and the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion in Chinese history; basic challenges to historical memory: crises and humiliations in Chinese historical culture; and traumata and traumatic experiences - toward a new understanding of the fractal structures of Chinese historical consciousness. Topics ranged from the deep moral-spiritual crisis in the Chinese Axial Age to the 'national humiliation days' in twentieth-century China, from the failed and frustrated exam candidates in the late Tang period to the young widows in late imperial Huizhou (Anhui) lost to the chastity cult's insanity, from Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BC), known as the founding-father of Chinese historiography, to the Neo-Confucian eccentric Wang Gen (1483-1541), to the prominent modern historians Liu Yizheng (1880-1956) and Chen Yinke (1890-1969).


In the course of the conference, the guiding notions of collective identity, crisis and trauma proved to be a fortunate choice for coping with the great thematic variety and structuring the discussions. But not only that. They also appear to provide a conceptual framework to discuss the difficult issues of forgetfulness, amnesia, and suppressed memory with regard to traumatic experiences such as, e.g., the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), which brought death to twenty to thirty million people, or the catastrophic famine in 1960-63 resulting from the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward, for which estimated figures range up to thirty-five million casualties. In his key paper, Jörn Rüsen undertook to show how the three notions of identity, crisis, and trauma are related to each other and how they can be effectively utilized for an intercultural comparison in the field of historiography and historical thought. Rüsen's argument was taken up by Georg G. Iggers (Buffalo), who thoughtfully commented on the comparability of historiographies.
The refreshingly vivid and stimulating discussions opened up new perspectives and led to many intriguing questions beyond the topics discussed in the papers such as, e.g., how are we to understand the phenomenon of 'second-hand traumatizations'? And which role does historical scholarship play in generating and/or controlling this kind of traumatizations? To which extent is the Chinese attitude toward history shaped by what has been termed 'epistemological optimism'? Is this optimistic outlook a salient characteristic of Chinese historiography? Which notions in pre-modern China can be conceived as equivalents of the modern notion of trauma? Can the practice of footbinding be understood as an in-built trauma of Chinese women's life? To which extent are, in present China, the traumatic experiences of the Cultural Revolution worked through in the Freudian sense? How are we to understand the contradictory role of Mao Zedong as both the hailed saviour of the Chinese nation and the presumed epitome of modern China's trauma? It is hoped that some of these issues will be addressed and more fully dealt with in the conference volume, which is in preparation, jointly co-edited by Jörn Rüsen, Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, and the present author.
Naturally, many other important questions were not or not sufficiently dealt with. Nevertheless, the conference has certainly made a first step forward into the direction mapped out by the noted historian Christian Meier who called for 'an elaborated comparative view of the different forms, within which the different cultures and societies correlate historical questions, world-views, and interests with certain ways of activity, of change, of expectation, and with certain structural peculiarities of society'.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia