Commemoration as a Form of Negotiating Historical Narratives

11:00 am – 12:45 pm
Room 1

  • Organised by Kevin Bockholt
  • Daniel Leese, Chair
  • Kevin Bockholt, “China and the First World War: No Space for Commemoration?”
  • Emily Mae Graf, “Conflicting Sites of Memory in Xinjiang: A Critical Reading of Heroines on Display”
  • Yakai Wang, “The Opium War Museum in Humen: A Challenge to the Leading Narrative?”
  • Stefanie Sinmoy Schaller, “China’s Educated Youth on Museum Display: Rewriting the Leading Narrative?”

How is history negotiated in memorial sites across China? In this panel, the commemoration is defined as an act of remembrance to affirm, to honour, or to admonish historical events as well as critically assess the deeds and misdeeds of historical figures. The transmission of their memory is conducted by institutions, interest groups, and other actors and is mediated in the form of texts, images, and artefacts, which are displayed in museums and memorial sites. While situated in the past, both the events and figures impact people’s behaviour and thinking in the present and future. Presenting four different case studies, the panel examines symbols of war and peace, trauma and nostalgia ranging from the upheavals at the Qing dynasty’s Western borders to the First Opium War, from the First World War to the collective uproar of the Educated Youth in pre-1980s PRC. The regional scope of the panel extends from Kashgar over Yan’an to Humen. It considers museums and other sites of memory located in these places, while also being concerned with the absence of commemoration in the case of the First World War. Drawing on public, academic, institutional, literary, and artistic discussions, the case studies highlight different forms of commemoration initiated by a variety of actors. The panel discusses government institutions, civic associations, and intellectual circles and other voices that negotiate narratives on heroic figures, military conflicts, and mass campaigns in their attempt to determine what to remember—and what to forget.

Kevin Bockholt, “China and the First World War: No Space for Commemoration?”

The First World War is one of the major themes in memory studies. There is a myriad of literature about the different forms and modes of the commemoration of the war in European countries and the USA. This presentation constitutes the first attempt to approach this topic from a Chinese perspective. China began to play an active role in the First World War even before she declared war on the German Empire and joined the Allied Powers in 1917. Starting in 1916, around 140,000 Chinese labourers were sent to Europe to support French, British, and later on American troops behind the front lines with economic and logistic tasks. However, the dominant historical narrative that evolved after 1919 condemned the war as a result of reckless imperialism, capitalist struggles for markets abroad, or a collapsing Western civilisation. Consequently, until today, the commemoration of the labourers is almost non-existent within China. This presentation highlights the tensions between negative understandings of the war, efforts to rewrite China into the history of the First World War, and public demand for commemorating China’s contribution to the war. It draws on materials related to a planned memorial site in Shandong province as well as the recently emerging academic interest in reexamining the First World War through a Chinese perspective. Furthermore, it explores Chinese public discussions during the centenary of the First World War that reflected upon the increasingly complex forms of European commemoration of the Chinese labourers.

Emily Mae Graf, “Conflicting Sites of Memory in Xinjiang: A Critical Reading of Heroines on Display”

Museums and sites of memory play a key role in commemorating, creating and disseminating narratives and images of historical and legendary figures alike. This presentation approaches figures such as the Beauty of Loulan 楼兰美女 of the famous Tarim Basin mummies dating back to 1800 BCE and the legendary Muslim concubine Xiangfei 香妃, who is said to have lived in emperor Qianlong’s court and whose ‘tomb’ remains one of the key sites of tourism in Kashgar today. In museum spaces and sites of commemoration, archaeological, and historical claims are often inextricably entangled with various, at times contradicting, mythical narratives, and legends. Based on observations at the sites and in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi conducted in September 2019, this presentation offers a critical reading of such heroic figures both in the physical spatial context of the museum’s display and in the hierarchical context of the institutional landscape of museums in present-day PRC. It further draws on discourses of the heroines’ reception and evaluation in scientific circles, public discourse, literary production, and artistic reproduction. Which narratives, voices, and institutions make demands on these figures and sites? Approaching these heroines as lieux de mémoire allows us not only to retrace conflicting memories solidified in, among others, Manchu, Han, and Uyghur narratives but also reveals tensions within these narratives (Millward 1994), which turn their sites of memory into highly contested spaces.

Yakai Wang, “The Opium War Museum in Humen: A Challenge to the Leading Narrative?”

The Opium War Museum 鸦片战争博物馆 was founded in 1957 by the provincial government of Guangdong. It was designated as a national site for patriotic education 爱国主义教育基地 in 1994. In line with the Chinese Communists Party’s leading narrative of history, most historians regard the First Opium War (1840–1842) as the beginning of modern Chinese history. Since the 20th century, this event of the Sino-British military conflict has, therefore, been given great historical significance in both Chinese academic research and education. However, taking the development of the Opium War Museums as an indicator, the presentation will show that this narrative did not remain uncontested and underwent certain transformations and revisions in the past sixty years. Changing the name of the museum; adding the theme of drug consumption during the Qing to the exhibition; shifting the focus from achievements of individual historical figures to a broader historical perspective of Sino-foreign relations; all of these adjustments were accompanied by detailed academic studies of the respective aspects. Overall, the museum reflects the conflicting relation between contemporary museums and historical narratives. The main sources of this presentation are journals and publications of the Opium War Museum, government documents, as well as newspaper reports. It shows how the understanding of the First Opium War is continuously affected by the interaction between the mainstream discourse on modern history, academic research, and the exhibitions of the museum itself.

Stefanie Sinmoy Schaller, “China’s Educated Youth on Museum Display: Rewriting the Leading Narrative?”

More than 40 years after its official end, there is no consensus in the PRC on the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the course it took. This presentation elaborates on Educated Youth Museums 知青博物馆 that came up together with a “wave of nostalgia” (Yang 2003) for the generation of the formerly educated youth 知识青年 in the early 1990s. Initiated by civic associations, Educated Youth Museums soon spread over the whole country. Apart from their exhibitions that showed the experiences of enthusiastic and high-spirited young Chinese in the countryside from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, they served as gathering points for acts of commemoration. The conveyed narrative thereby stood in contrast to the “literature of the wounded” 伤痕文学 whose authors priorly had rejected the Cultural Revolution as a decade of personal deprivation and suffering. Based on recent observations during a field study to a selection of national and private Educated Youth Museums in 2019, the presentation demonstrates how they express the call for an alternative narrative of the first three decades after the founding of the PRC. Thirty years after their emergence, the presentation will show, to what extent Educated Youth Museums have promoted the acceptance of a more positive assessment of that time.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 1