- Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory
The central theme running through the highly personal series of essays in Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory is how and why to write history. Underlying Vera Schwarcz' comparison of how history and memory function in the Jewish and Chinese cultural traditions is a more fundamental comparison of history as sacral and of history as an academic discipline. Although examples are drawn from across both traditions, the focus of the book is on twentieth century historical experience and the strategies each culture employs for speaking the unspeakable. For Jews, the dilemma is how to assimilate the Shoah into cultural memory in a way that bears witness to the past without turning it into a cliché or allowing terror to overshadow hope for the present and future. The Chinese experiences of the twentieth century are more ambiguous since the lines between enemies and survivors is not defined; many of those who suffered most during various repressive campaigns against "enemies of the State" have enjoyed benefits at other times. Certain truths are unutterable less because individuals risk losing their sanity by revisiting the past than because the Chinese state silences personal truths that contradict its own narration of history.
Similar to postmodern studies, Bridge across Broken Time seeks to disrupt the narrative flow and the conceit of logic, the "bridges" used to connect discrete events in more conventional historiography. This project, however, goes beyond postmodern attempts to reconfigure the ways that narrative, intentionally or unwittingly, establishes centers of power and agency, to call for an ethical engagement with the past. For Professor Schwarcz, the ethical calling of the historian is evoked in the words of the sinologist Joseph Levenson, that one must "take one's own day seriously, retaining the moral need to declare oneself and stand somewhere, not just swim in time" (p. 10; Joseph Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: A Trilogy [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968], 3:88). Schwarcz takes her stand in finding ways to speak those memories, Chinese and Jewish, that resist narration, either because individuals do not want to know the past, for knowing implies reliving it, or because the state does not want the past known.
It is in terms of ethics that Schwarcz' comparison of Jewish and Chinese ways of dealing with the past is more than just a fortuitous coincidence of her own biography; she is a Jew who grew up in Transylvania, the child of holocaust survivors, who enjoys a prominent career in the study of twentieth-century Chinese [End Page 527] intellectual history. "The chain of remembrance," the maintaining of individual memories and the transmitting of them to future generations, forms the core of both the Chinese and Jewish cultural traditions. In Schwarcz' words, "Ren, the Chinese ideograph for 'endurance'—symbolized by a heart beneath the cutting edge of a knife—captures this emotional commitment to the past. This character suggests a difficult, protracted struggle to maintain fidelity to history in the face of violent disruption" (p. 4). As important as the historical records are to a Chinese understanding of the past, poetry and images are even more powerful remembrances left by those who came before. It is from these poetic images that educated Chinese continue to draw strength in the face of violent disruptions. In the Jewish tradition, these collective memories lead not to historical knowledge, but to a multilayered present in which the past continues to resonate. The best-known example of this is the Passover ritual, retelling the Exodus from Egypt in which each generation of Jews is literally commanded to speak as though they had been there. Rather than separate the past as somehow distinct from the present, the goal is to create an eternal present based on a fidelity to the past. As Schwarcz argues, both of these highly conservative traditions have come to identify freedom "with the preservation and transmission of textual wisdom" (p. 4).