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Reviewed by:
  • Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity by Marc Andre Matten
  • Beth E. Notar (bio)
Marc Andre Matten. Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity. Leiden Series in Comparative Historiography. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012. x + 286 pp. Hardcover $151.00, isbn 978-90-04-21901-4.

In Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity, historian Marc Andre Matten has brought together a beautiful collection of essays, with contributors from Canadian, German, and U.S. institutions from the fields of anthropology, history, literature, and sinology. The volume is inspired by French historian Pierre Nora’s multivolume Les Lieux de Mémoires (Gallimard, 1984–1992), which has been translated as “places” (or “realms” or “sites”) of memory.

Pierre Nora, born in Paris in 1931 and a child Holocaust survivor, set out a decades-long scholarly project to write about and encourage others to write about memory (mémoire) as opposed to history (histoire). Whereas history, according to Nora, is a “reconstruction” or “representation of the past” that has belonged to the state and scholars, “memory is life” and belongs to individuals or minority groups (Nora 1989, pp. 8–9). Influenced by ideas of Maurice Halbwachs, Nora traces the rise of a new “collective memory” in France back to the 1970s—when revolutionary ideals faded and the death of de Gaulle precipitated an exposé of the romance of resistance under Nazi occupation (Nora 2002: 1–3).

These key points from Nora are useful for understanding the chapters in Matten’s volume, for mainland China, like France, reached a turning point in the late 1970s resulting from the death of Mao Zedong, the fading of revolutionary ideals, and the push for reform and opening with Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power. [End Page 308]

Places of Memory in Modern China begins with an introductory essay by Matten, which is followed by seven chapters grouped into two sections: “Leaders and Their Legacy” and “The Ubiquitous Past—Present and Lost.” “Leaders and Their Legacy” includes three chapters: the first, by David J. Davies, is on Qin Shihuang’s terracotta warriors; the next chapter, by Matten, is on the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei; the section concludes with a chapter by Daniel Leese on the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall in Beijing. “The Ubiquitous Past” section includes four chapters: the first, by Hon Tze-ki, discusses the Song Emperor’s Terrace near the old Hong Kong Kai Tak airport; the next, by Haiyan Lee, is on Yuanmingyuan; the third chapter, by James Flath, is on Humen (Tiger gate) where, in 1839, Lin Zexu ordered the dumping of over two million pounds of opium into the sea, which led to the Sino-British Opium Wars; this section closes with a chapter by Kirk A. Denton on Yan’an and red tourism.

The selection of chapters strategically includes sites from Beijing to Hong Kong to Taipei, although sites from the nationality border regions are not included. The places selected for discussion are those related to male leaders and famous battles—places of death, of martyrdom, of sacrifice, of struggle. They are highly politicized places, contested sites about which the authors show how official appropriations and readings have changed over time.

Between Mao’s death in 1976 and the events at Tiananmen in 1989, there was a temporal window when unofficial individual and collective memories of the Mao era were voiced. Some of these memories come across poignantly in Haiyan Lee’s chapter on Yuanmingyuan, a former Qing summer palace that was destroyed and looted by foreign troops in 1860. In “The Summons of the Ruins,” published in 1986, a decade after Mao’s death, Zong Pu (daughter of Feng Youlan), remembers her youthful enthusiasm: “Next to this giant stone turtle, how we debated! Back then, we were so fired up and so full of ardor!” (Zong 1991 [1986], pp. 279–280; quoted by Lee in Matten, p. 218). Her ardor has given way to a subdued hope that the way forward may not be through politics but through contemplative artistic reflection.

In his poem “Apologia: To a Ruin,” published in 1983, Yang Lian, a member of...


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