Merits, pitfalls, and problems of the analysis of a country’s history, culture, and politics
Never Forget National Humiliation—historical memory in Chinese politics and foreign relations
When I first saw the bolded title of the book, “Never Forget National Humiliation”, the Chinese idiom translation popped in my head, along with images of the Chinese empire facing imperial invasions, the country fighting against fascist Japan during WWII, and many other historical events that were considered shameful in the Chinese history. As someone who understands the Chinese language, culture, and history, the reading process has become extremely interesting for me—I have my understanding of most historical events Wang talk about in the book; I know most of the historical figures, authors, poets, scholars, and figures that Wang refers to; I can understand both the Chinese and English translations of one language; I have learned history in China, and I can contest and testify many of the reference in the history textbooks. Understanding my special perspective as a reader, I tried to eliminate my own bias in the reading process. I tried to understand the thesis Wang makes, look for his sources and evidence, and put myself in the shoes of the author himself and other readers without the same background that I have. I wondered how they would react, what perception of the subject country that would form from reading the book and wondered Wang’s purposes of writing the book.
The book has its merits: it focuses on an interesting aspect of the Chinese history and culture and connects the aspect in the lens of historical memory to politics and foreign policies of China. It is clear from the prologue and introduction that the book is intended for the audience to understand China, the subject of the book, better in the contexts of “chosen glories and traumas”. The connection Wang makes is important for learners and scholars to understand every political body. However, the book is extremely problematic in terms of its language, editorialization, bias, redundancy, irrelevance to topics of discussion, misinformation, and personal prejudice of the author himself who purports to be an authoritative and trustworthy figure. The problems of the book mislead the readers, and they reveal a larger and more general problem in the process of studying, learning, and understanding a country, culture, and its history.
At first, I was fascinated by the thesis of understanding a country’s politics through the collective memory and culture. Many observations Wang makes are very insightful; and connections between history and modern-day politics is a creative aspect to look at. The book is not completely worthless—Wang argues in depth about the strong connection between historical memory and Chinese politics and foreign relations.
However, as I continued reading, I had the impression that the book is telling different stories from the Chinese narrative—it is still written from an outsider perspective, and Wang is so caught up in the historical lens and proving his theory that the points of view inevitably become biased. There are small details that I find problematic, including the comments and interpretations of specific events and certain translation issues, but the biggest problem is Wang’s biased stance as a scholar whose job is to inform the audiences objectively.
The specific language and diction go against the innate ethics as researchers and scholars. Wang is not showcasing his findings unbiasedly. For example, Wang uses the word “glorify” and the term “glorification of the party” over and over and makes the assertion that China has a general anti-Western sentiment. Another example is that when explaining the difference between history and memory, Wang very implicitly conveys the idea that historical memory is not based on facts and history, implying that the chosen traumas and glories are not fact-based. Another example is the translation of “very sorry” and “shenbiaobaoqian”. Wang makes the case that the Chinese translation overexaggerates the sincerity of the apology and spends pages to arguing that China over-values apologies because of the “historical traumas”. To me, someone fluent in both languages, the translation is appropriate and conveys the right message and idea.
Besides problematic language, attitudes, biases, there is also too much editorializing and random assumptions in the book. Admittedly, there are many meaningful arguments in the book that are backed up by historical evidence and reasoning, but it doesn’t mean that everything in the book is valid. Wang editorializes too much in the book. He could have explained everything in less than ten pages but spends the rest of the book writing about things irrelevant to the lens of his choice. For instance, Wang makes an abrupt statement like “in China, bronze medals mean failure” without offering any support of such statements.
Despite Wang’s intentions, his arguments can even change reader’s understanding of historical events by undermining the traumas and destructions of war. By arguing that the Chinese uses events like anti-Japanese war and specifically the Nanjing Massacre to fuel nationalism, Wang also reshapes the perception of such inhumane events in human history.
For many audiences, however, Wang is a trustworthy figure. Many audiences are likely to become gullible and even misled by such arguments, only ending up believing whatever Wang says in the book. Wang manages to forge an authoritative and trustworthy tone just because he is Chinese American and possesses unique experience growing up learning from the Chinese history textbooks. To most readers, he appears to be a reliable figure—whatever he says about the Chinese language and culture is right because most readers do not understand the language at all. Gaining the trust from the gullible readers, Wang then editorializes and talks about his own political opinions, which for the readers, seem to be the absolute truth as well.
Wang talks a lot about Chinese propaganda, but his book itself is a form of propaganda that contains “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”
Wang’s book itself is more haunting given the larger context of international relations. The book perpetuates hostility and even a sense of superiority among the readers, and it is the typical Western narrative of a story that belongs to a different nation. I would prefer to truly hear from the Chinese perspective of what the glories and traumas mean to them as Chinese citizens and inheritors of the culture, instead of reading a biased book.
It is the same problem in the Western process of understanding China. Because so many people talk in the voice of people from the free democratic world, the same prejudice and bias against the Chinese history, government, and culture become inevitable in the understanding of the country, which possesses more complexities than Wang talks about in the book.
Overall, the book alleviates the importance of learning from a different point of view by generalizing and simplifying the Chinese history textbook contents as political tools that reinforce nationalism.
In “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”, Horace Miner argues that in the study of anthropology, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the subject instead of judging them using our own standards. Likewise, when studying the history, politics, and culture of a group of people, we need to tackle the issue objectively and truly learn about them, instead of ignorantly and arrogantly imposing our original standards on the studies subjects. This is something Wang fails to do or understand.
Instead of reading books like this, why don’t we go back to primary sources, truly learn about the history of China and other countries, and form our own understanding of what the historical memory means to China and the Chinese foreign policies? In such a process, we will no longer be blind or fooled, and we will be a step closer to the longed truth.