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Introduction: Politics, Myth, and the Real Past by ~aul A. Cohen In a perfect world-at least my perfect world-historians are supposed to have as their overriding aim the understanding and explaining of the past in as truthful a manner as possible. History, according to Roger Chartier, while "one among many forms of narration, ...is nevertheless singular in that it maintains a special relationship to truth. More precisely its narrative constructions.aim at reconstructing a past that really was." 1 No one ever said this was easy. But, as Georg Iggers has put it, there remains a fundamental difference between postmodern theories that deny "any claim to reality in historical accounts and a historiography that is fully conscious of the complexity of historical knowledge but still assumes that real people had real thoughts and feelings that led to real actions that, within limits, can be known and reconstructed."2 As the three essays in this symposium make amply clear, this view of the aim of history is sometimes accompanied, compromised, or even completely displaced by other aims, the common element of which is their structuring of the past in such a way that it lends support to present purposes and aspirations. A concern for veracity may still be part of the process-or it may not. But either way a truthful picture of the past is not the thing that is of paramount concern. What is of the utmost importance is framing the past interpretively in such a way that it makes the present-the desired present-seem to evolve directly, or at least plausibly, from it-the construction (to put it somewhat differently) of a narrative that, while professing to square the present with the past, in fact does the very reverse of this, redefining the past so as to accommodate a preferred present. Memory plays an essential part in this process of working out a ~atisfactory relationship between past and present. It is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling the past. But it is a faculty that functions in a wide variety of ways. Memory can operate comprehensively or selectively, accurately or inaccurately, honestly or dishonestly. It is always accompanied, moreover, by forgetting and invariably supplemented by invention. In the case of individuals, the working of memory depends on, among other things, the nature of the past experience to be remembered, certain kinds of experience being very painful and often consciously or unconsciously repressed , others very ordinary and easily forgotten, still others of enormous shaping Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 26, No. 2 (April, 2001): 1-15 2 Twentieth-Century China influence in a person's life and therefore hard not to remember in graphic detail. Individual memory, however, is not nearly as important in these essays as official memory, which is a very different phenomenon, although we use the same term to describe it. The past to be remembered in official memory is defined in the course of a more or less deliberate process. It is, as often as not, an essentialized past, put forward in an oversimplified, highly selective fashion, with a view to providing a sanction or justification for government policies and! or to validating the status of those currently in power. One other thing about official memory, as Vera Schwarcz has so eloquently expounded,3 is that it leaves little room for-indeed, in many cases, it deliberately excises-the private recollections of individual members of society. Another form of memory, one especially pertinent to the essays in this symposium, relates specifically to historical writing. Historians may write in a private capacity. Or they may write in an official (or quasi-official) capacity. But either way the results of their work generally enter into the public domain and contribute to something we call public memory. With the exception of the rare historian who writes purely for his or her private entertainment, historians expect their work to be read, and how they remember the past-what they choose to emphasize, to embellish, to trivialize, or to omit completely-has the potential to exercise a considerable shaping influence on the public's perception of its collective past. Memory, whether in the case of individuals, governments...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 1-15
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-25
Open Access
No
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