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Nationalism and revisionism in east Asia.

Ask someone to summon up associations, of a political and historical nature, with the names of the main countries in the East Asian region, and you are likely to obtain a surprisingly mixed bag of concepts: communism and economic superpower (China); nationalism and secession (Taiwan); imperialism and war guilt (Japan); military dictatorship and democracy (South Korea); and authoritarianism and brinkmanship (North Korea). Yet the nations in this mixed bag of identities have somehow managed to maintain a modus vivendi, with not infrequent confrontations and occasional clashes, for over half a century. A major revolution in China and several world-changing wars have left all of the countries in question nursing hurt national pride and led each of them, in their different ways, to revise constantly their own images of themselves.

It is to be hoped that most fair-minded people in the twenty-first century are aware that there is revisionism and revisionism. That is to say that most people, presented with strong arguments and incontrovertible evidence, are able to distinguish between necessary and morally justifiable revisionism, on the one hand, and ideologically biased and unjustifiable revisionism on the other. Revising an account of facts for the sake of truth is one thing, but doing so for the sake of personal or political gain is pernicious.

Unfortunately much negative revisionism has taken place in many different contexts all over the world and has in all likelihood been practised since civilisation began. The point of this generalisation is to provide a broad context for a fairer consideration of individual cases of revisionism, to enable the establishment of a balanced view which however in no way excuses recognised excesses. The focus of this article is on an area of the world well known to the author, that commonly referred to as East Asia, and here intended to include China, Taiwan, Japan and the two Koreas. A few references will however be made to other parts of the world and historical events there to ensure such a balanced view.

Some clarification of terminology is obviously called for. In the first place, what is to be understood by the term revisionism in the present discussion? It is not intended to include that special usage during the period of the Cold War, when it was employed to denounce ways of thinking which did not accord with and indeed often openly criticised the doctrines of Marxist-Leninism (in the Soviet Union) and Maoist Communism (in the People's Republic of China). The use of the term in this sense was most common just after the Second World War and especially during the period of growing ideological ferment in Eastern Europe, which led eventually to the uprisings in Hungary and Poland in the autumn of 1956. For the first time many communist intellectuals were daring to criticise openly the oppressive characteristics of the totalitarian regime installed by Stalin. These intellectuals were considered by the incumbent regime to be attempting to revise sacrosanct party dogma. As used by Stalinists therefore revisionism was a term of abuse for ideas and actions perceived as threatening to divide and indeed undermine the internationalist goals of the communist enterprise. For intellectuals in the West however this Soviet era revisionism provided hope that communism might after all be capable of developing a genuinely socialist and humanitarian face. It is interesting to note in passing, that when this kind of revisionism became allied with nationalist ideals, as in the case of Hungary, the Soviet Union finally decided on the use of military intervention to ensure the continuation of its hegemony.

Ideological revisionism very often goes hand in hand with historical revisionism. Again there is good and bad historical revisionism, according to one's convictions. Good historical revisionism is the very stuff of sound scholarship in historiography. Whenever new evidence comes to light or available material is reinterpreted in a more convincing manner, then the historical account is duly modified and sometimes changed radically. Bad historical revisionism involves the falsification of historical accounts by omitting or distorting facts, usually with the aim of excusing past behaviour, supporting particular political ends and ideological contentions, and often with the intention of restoring and reinforcing national pride and self-esteem. It is this kind of revisionism which concerns us in the present article.

The other example of terminology which must be clarified is the use of the word 'nationalism' and its cognates. The concept 'nation' is in very common use, with the assumption that everyone is in agreement as to its general meaning. To discover how problematic the concept is and how imprecisely we use the term 'nationalism' one only has to read the Preface and Introduction of Anthony D. Smith's Nationalism and Revisionism however. Smith explains that his book 'aims to provide a critical survey of recent explanatory theories and approaches to nations and nationalism' (Smith, 1998, p.xii.), and that he will 'aim to examine in some detail the varieties of what remains the dominant orthodoxy in the field, namely the "modernist" approach to nations and nationalism' (ibid). Abstracting from such a detailed and well-researched account does not do justice to the complexities of Smith's analysis, but is necessary for present purposes. Smith's analysis of the classic modernist paradigm of nationalism can be summarised in five aspects as follows: nations are not ancient or immemorial; belief in this is unsupported by any evidence; many nations have existed only since relatively recent times in history; characteristics of modern nations cannot and should not be read into earlier communities in an attempt to establish a continuity of identity; and nations were not created by natural or historical 'forces' but by rational planned actions (see Smith, 1998, pp. 18-19).

Contrasting with this is the perennialist assumption which perceives nations as 'more or less persistent and recurrent phenomena of all epochs and continents' (Smith, 1998, p. 22). This mode of thinking, long and widely held, mythologises the identities of nations, and, it can be argued, was the direct cause of many of the conflicts between nations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially, as each nation strove to develop, maintain and glorify its own identity. This perennial assumption is the one still held, unquestioned and probably never reflected on by a large majority of people: that a nation is an ethno-cultural community of common ancestry, for which it claims political recognition; that this community has persisted over many centuries, has an historic homeland, and is a community 'of the people' not created by elites; and that people in this community have developed certain unique qualities and characteristics. It is also perceived as a seamless entity, not subdivided, with significant ancestral ties.

The perennialist assumptions, because they are unquestioned given truths for many, are at the basis of most contemporary attempts to define and assert a nation's integrity. Perhaps one of the clearest and most dramatic examples of this is the claim by each of the two Koreas to be the true inheritor of the identity of the Korean people.

The most notorious challenges to national identities in East Asia in the twentieth century came from the effects of Japan's ideals of expansionism and of what the Japanese claimed was their natural right to rule the area. The evidence for the atrocities committed by the Japanese (especially in Nanking) is overwhelming, as is the evidence of the subsequent attempts at a cover-up by many Japanese (both documented most fully in Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking). It is not the purpose of the present article to re-open the thorny question of war guilt and reparations, nor to indulge in further 'Japan-bashing', but to present the Japanese cover-up in the context of the wider phenomenon of revisionism. The Japanese atrocities may have been particularly excessive, but there are also skeletons in the closets of most countries that they would rather keep closed up, because they harm their selfimage, their perennially mythologised concept of their own nation. Evidence abounds that all of the countries in the East Asian region have long re-written many aspects of their own histories and continue to do so, to reinforce current ideologies.

In China, alongside its rapid economic growth and establishment as an industrial giant to be reckoned with, official government propaganda has become more nationalistic in tone and there is little analysis of social and economic change in terms of the class struggle and historical materialism. The historical account is now being cleansed of ideological terminology which is no longer perceived as being relevant.

One example of an internal Chinese historical event which has occasioned various revisionist treatments is the Boxer Uprising of 1900. In January, 2006, the historian Yuan Weishi criticised the interpretation of the event in the standard Chinese textbooks. The result was the temporary closure of the magazine Bingdian in which the article appeared. The focus of his criticism was against the evaluation of the Boxer Uprising as an anti-imperialist and therefore patriotic movement. In his view the movement had displayed negative xenophobic tendencies. The official line however stressed the misdeeds of foreign missions while underplaying the destruction caused by the Boxers themselves.

However, while China has undertaken much revision of its history of the communist party in recent decades, care has been taken to limit such revisions, so as not to stir up any challenges to the legitimacy of the communist party itself. Thus, in reassessing the achievements of Mao Zedong, the official line has become that he was 30 per cent wrong and 70 per cent correct. And during the first decade of the twenty-first century all talk of class struggle has given way to an emphasis on a form of Chinese nationalism which is non-territorial, and this embraces expatriate Chinese communities and is intended also to encompass Taiwan.

This emphasis on a broader nationalist framework has however occasioned some friction with China's neighbours. One case which attracted considerable international attention was that of China's claim of sovereignty over the area of the ancient kingdom which they call Gaogouli, but which Koreans know as Goguryeo. China claims it has a right of sovereignty over the area, which stretches back into ancient times. The problem is that Korea considers Goguryeo to be an integral part of its own national history: rooms are dedicated to it in museums, books published on it, and exhibitions of its art commonly held.

In fact, territorial disputes loom larger in the national consciousnesses of the countries in the area than is perhaps realised in the West. Those living and working in the area are no longer surprised by the frequent references to them in newspaper headlines. One of the most sensitive of these arguments is about sovereignty over the rocky islets called Tokdo by the Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese, and which are situated in what the Koreans call 'The East Sea' and the Japanese call 'The Sea of Japan'. Then there are the Kuril Islands which have occasioned a heated dispute between Japan and Russia, and the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in both China and Taiwan. There is also the case of the mountain known as Paekdu to Koreans, both North and South, and which symbolises the nation for them very much as Fuji is symbolic of Japan: the Chinese claim it belongs to them and call it Changbai.

Taiwan has also undergone changes in the ways it perceives its own nationhood. In the Introduction to the volume Contested Views of a Common Past (Richter [ed.], 2008), Yonsan Ahn cites evidence of how attitudes to nationalist ideals have been changing in the academic world of Taiwan. Since the 1980s there has developed a Taiwan-centred approach to the study of history with the purpose of presenting an alternative to the American, mainland Chinese and Japanese accounts of the island's history which predominated hitherto. This academic development has gone hand-in-hand with changes in political attitudes on the island. With the decline of the authoritarian Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang), democratic pluralism has spread throughout the island since the late 1980s. This has led also to growing insecurity about the island's status vis-a-vis the mainland and thus fed the growing need for a secure national Taiwanese identity.

In 1997 Taiwan had its own textbook controversy concerning the book Knowing Taiwan, issued by the state and designed for students in grade 1 of junior high school. It was the first mandatory textbook to focus exclusively on the island's history. It upset many Taiwanese by its portrayal of the period of Japanese colonial control (1895-1945) and annoyed the mainland by its dilution of the treatment of many events in Chinese history. Recent versions of the textbook for the junior high level have tended to idealise the Taiwanese as heroically resisting Japanese aggression and fighting to modernise the country and establish democracy.

In South Korea the growth of new ways of interpreting the past has become more virulent since the end of the period of military dictatorship and the advent of democracy in the early 1990s. Prior to then the nature of historical narratives was determined by the authoritarian military regimes. Various uprisings against the dictatorships were depicted in a negative light as acts of terrorism. One famous case of misrepresentation of the facts concerned the Kwangju Uprising in 1980, during which civilian demonstrators were violently repressed by the Chun Doo Hwan regime and over 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded and tortured. Nowadays Korean historians are turning to methodologies long practised elsewhere in the world: involving histories of the masses, gender history, etc., and especially exploration of the facts of the so-called 'comfort women' issue (forced sexual slavery) during the period of the Japanese domination (1910-1945). Interesting is the fact that many of the new progressive historians do not necessarily share beliefs in a modernist historiography, but tend rather to support perennialist views. In Yonson Ahn's words: 'narratives of historical continuity, homogeneity, and ethnic uniqueness are heavily emphasised' (Richter, [ed.], 2008, p. 13).

Any ideas which challenge this notion of the development of a homogenous national identity still risk stirring up a furore. Attempts to revise the history of the period of Japanese domination in Korea are especially prone to raise tempers. The accepted conventional wisdom is that Japan suppressed and abused the Korean populace and pursued a deliberate programme of eradicating as many Korean cultural artefacts and traditions as possible. In recent years some Korean academics have dared, at the risk of personal abuse, to stress the positive effects of the Japanese subjugation: the basis of the modernisation of Korea was laid down by the Japanese. Some professors (notably Han Seung-jo of Korea University) have even argued (in early 2005) that if Korea had not been colonised by Japan, it would have suffered the worse fate of being taken over by Tsarist Russia.

In the light of all these disagreements, both internally and between the nations involved, concerning interpretation of a shared history, it would be surprising if attempts had not been made to produce a commonly agreed historical narrative. Such an undertaking was attempted. The spur came not from professional historiographers but from educationalists. Intricate academic debates are one thing, and can be pursued in seminars and conferences, but more urgent is how to develop in the young a balanced sense of the region's history. The matter has become a prime concern in all the countries of the region and is generally referred to as 'The Textbook Issue'.

As with historical revisionism in general in East Asia, the country which has given the most offence internationally regarding the issue of history textbooks has been Japan. The issue first came to a head and attracted international attention in 1965 with the famous Ienaga Textbook Trials. A textbook written by the historian Ienaga Saburo was rejected by the textbook examination officials. He sued the government authority responsible, claiming that the textbook authorisation system violated the Constitution and Fundamental Law of Education. The outcome was that the authorisation system became less strict for some time, but by the late 70s it had regained its old strictness.

There was a further crisis in Japan concerning textbooks in 1982, which sparked angry reactions in China and Korea, when the Ministry of Education forced textbook authors to change the terminology employed in high school history textbooks. Where formally writers had frequently referred to Japan's wartime expansionism as 'aggression', they were now required to refer to it as an 'advance' into the relevant countries. International tension was eventually alleviated by modification of the guidelines to take into account the sensibilities of Japan's neighbours, but by the mid-90s the issue had flared up again, and this time in more provocative form than ever. In 1996 the 'Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform' was founded and the New History Textbook, which resulted from their deliberations, caused the greatest offence yet to Japan's neighbours. It was openly nationalistic and placed the Emperor at the centre of its historical narrative, did not acknowledge that Japanese domination of its neighbours had been colonial in nature, and referred to the war in the Pacific, which most historians prefer to call the 'Asia-Pacific War', as the 'Greater East Asian War'.

Already, after the crisis in the 1980s, attempts had been made to bring the three countries, Japan, China and Korea together, to collaborate on a joint interpretation of their shared history. In 1982 the 'Comparative History Education Study Group' was set up to this end. Finally, in 2005, a tri-nation joint history textbook was produced for the three countries and published in all of the major languages used in those countries. It bore the promising title History that Opens the Future: Modern and Contemporary History of Three East Asian Countries. The organisation of the work on it was conducted at a non-governmental level in Japan and Korea but with state involvement in the case of China. Its sales were promising: 120,000 copies in China; 70,000 in Japan and 30,000 in South Korea. But while it attracted interest among the general reading public, it has been found to have several limitations as a textbook. In the first place, it did not comply with the curriculum requirements in each country and has only been available as supplementary teaching material. And while claiming to be a modern history of East Asian nations, it does not include any examination of the historical roles of Russia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Taiwan, or any consideration of North Korea. The focus is almost entirely on the three nation states Japan, China and South Korea, and there is inadequate consideration of minority ethnic groups in those countries. The main emphasis in the whole book is on the confrontation between Japan on the one hand and China and Korea (especially from the perspective of South Korea) on the other, during the first half of the twentieth century. Ultimately the book reinforces nationalist sentiments in the three countries involved. In her article on the history textbooks issue, Claudia Schneider concludes that, for all three countries, 'strengthening and homogenising the national self through presenting a shared national story remains the highest priority on the educational agenda, even if the perceived degree of necessary national self-affirmation may vary' (in Richter, [ed.], 2008, p.266).

It is thus abundantly clear that concerns in each of the three main countries in the East Asian region, Japan, China and Korea, and to some extent in Taiwan too, are still very much to establish and maintain a national image in the eyes of its own people which can be admired and identified with and which encourages a belief in there having been some kind of heroic struggle to establish a modern state in each case.
                                      Select Bibliography

Chang, Iris            The Rape of Nanking, The Forgotten Holocaust of
                       World War II, Penguin, London and New York, 1997.

Labedz, Leopold (ed)   Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas, Frederick
                       A. Praeger, New York, 1962.

Lauwerys, J. A.        History Textbooks and International
                       Understanding, UNESCO, France, 1953.

Price, R. F.           Education in Modern China, Routledge and Kegan
                       Paul, London, Boston and Henley, 1979.

Richter, Steffi (ed.)  Contested Views of a Common Past, Revisions of
                       History in Contemporary East Asia, Campus,
                       Frankfurt and New York, 2008.

Roy, Denny             Taiwan, A Political History, Cornell University
                       Press, Ithaca and London, 2003.

Smith, Anthony D.      Nationalism and Revisionism, A critical survey
                       of recent theories of nations and nationalism,
                       Routledge, London and New York, 1998.

Yoshiko, Nozaki        War Memory, Nationalism, and Education in Postwar
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                       controversy and lenaga Saburo's court challenges,
                       Routledge, London and New York, 2008.

David Carter was born in London in 1945, and has lived and worked in South Korea for over nineteen years as Professor of Communicative English at Yonsei University in Seoul Now formally retired, he works as a writer, translator and freelance journalist. Amongst many other works he has published books on Korean cuisine and culture, a volume of short stories by the Korean writer Cho Sun Jak, translated together with Kim Chan Young, and East Asian Cinema, a survey and analysis of the films of China, Taiwan, Japan and both North and South Korea. He has also written a series of articles for Contemporary Review on the Korean War. For further details see website:
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Author:Carter, David
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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