Politics of Memory, Heritage, and Diversity in Modern China

Special Issue in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Volume 52 Issue 2, August 2023

Special Issue Introduction: Politics of Memory, Heritage, and Diversity in Modern China

Maximilian Mayer & Karolina Pawlik | pp. 139–162 | Link

Interpretations and memorialisations of China's long history, in service of political aspirations of the present and towards the future, have long attracted scholarly attention. This special issue addresses how the curation, performance, and consumption of collective memory provide valuable insight into the interplay between the reconstruction of Chinese identity, cultural modernisation, and the shifting role of heritage and memory in Chinese domestic and international politics. Touching on issues around diversity in, for instance, personal/collective memory or community-based/state-led heritage, we consider how state–society relations inform local memory practices. Furthermore, the articles enclosed discuss pertinent and far-reaching impacts of China's cultural-material changes, transformations, and destructions in service of memory re-formation. Investigating the politicisation of heritage and the material solidification of strategically selected representations of the past, we consider how the notion of “memory infrastructure” contributes to an academic understanding of the interaction between history, memory, and politics.

Christina Maags | pp. 163–184 | Link

The past is continuously reinterpreted to serve the interests of the present. Over the last two centuries of turbulent Chinese history, the past has been redefined through narratives and categorisations. How does the party-state manage the diversity and complexity of China's past, and what implications does this have for state–society relations in China? Based on a case study of China's adoption of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, this article argues that the Chinese party-state creates “infrastructures of memory,” which enable it to actively manage China's diverse past through selective institutionalisation. This process creates a “cognitive map” of tangible and rationalised relations and boundaries between vernacular memories as interpreted by the state. Although this map is to shape and direct Chinese collective memory and identity, it also sparks contestation among members of the populace who seek to preserve vernacular and multiple memories of their socio-cultural past.

Ryoko Nakano | pp. 185–206 | Link

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China has increasingly engaged in UNESCO’s Silk Roads project. China’s emphasis on its western routes signals its strategic interest in the reconstruction of its historical connections that matches China’s global networking in Eurasia, the Middle East, and Europe. However, whether China will successfully reformulate the international visions of the past, present, and future for its benefit remains an open question. This article focuses on the responses from Japan and South Korea, both of which hold critical positions as the owners of eastern Silk Roads heritage and the funders of UNESCO’s Silk Roads heritage studies and World Heritage nomination assistance. Extending the conceptual framework of memory infrastructure to the study of heritage politics and diplomacy highlights the competitive aspect of a transnational heritage project in shaping and reshaping historical and contemporary geographical landscapes.

Sandra Gilgan | pp. 207–229 | Link

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, traditional Confucian education re-emerged in China in the context of so-called study halls and academies. The goal of the parents, teachers, and headmasters associated with them is to cultivate modern virtuous persons through an approach called “classics-reading education.” Even though they allude to deep historical roots, these contemporary facilities are novel (re)creations, developed in response to current needs. This article examines the classics-reading movement under the theoretical lens of infrastructures of memory to illustrate the roles of memory and the perception of the past in the current making of “traditional” education and educational sites. Memories of and references to the past inform people's visions of a better future that is to be achieved through their tradition-related educational practices. Making a connection with the past through memory aims at stability in the face of future uncertainty.

Andre Malcolm Law & Qianqian Qin | pp. 230–255 | Link

In recent years, a small but growing body of scholarly work has emerged on the Hanfu movement in China. Researchers have drawn attention to globalisation, westernisation, national lifestyles, and development, the renaissance of Chinese culture, Han racism, Han ethnocentrism and xenophobia as drivers for the movement. In this article, we suggest that of all the extant literature that currently exists on the movement, the ethnography conducted by Kevin Carrico is the most accurate portrayal of the movement as it stands. However, and drawing upon visual and interview-based fieldwork with members of the movement in 2013 and 2015, our main argument is that existing scholarship has not attended to several nuances in the movement that problematise ideas of race, the way the movement views the recent past and the othering of Manchurian subjects. Unpacking these problematics, this study advances upon existing scholarship: 1) by drawing attention to the way Hanfu enthusiasts demonstrate a great deal of reflexivity around the notion of race; 2) by focusing on the approaches by which Hanfuists interpret the Chinese past beyond narratives of Han ethnic decline; 3) by investigating the mode by which Hanfuists indirectly “other” Manchurian subjects; and 4) by exploring the manner in which Hanfuists hold a broad or “mass” societal “other” as responsible for a new era of moral decline in contemporary China.

Melissa Shani Brown & David O’Brien | pp. 256–286 | Link

In this article, we explore how tourism in Xinjiang is politically weaponised. Commodifying Uyghur cultural heritage for tourism allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to insist it is not committing cultural genocide, but actually “conserving” Uyghur culture. This directly bears on the CCP’s internment of Muslim minorities in “re-education” camps, ostensibly to target Islamic “extremism.” We explore how tourism to Xinjiang is presented as a “success” of the camps and conscripted into the “Sinicisation” of the region and the secularising of minorities’ cultures. Places and practices are deconstructed as cultural heritage, and reconstructed to provide tourists with “exotic” experiences of “wonderful Xinjiang.” This transforms the “tourist gaze” into a “testimonial” one: tourists to Xinjiang are made into witnesses that “Xinjiang is beautiful” and Uyghurs are “happy.” In this, touristic development and tourists themselves are key agents in the CCP’s territorialisation of Xinjiang, the sinicisation of Uyghur culture, and the legitimation of the violence of the camps.

Hendrik W. Ohnesorge & John M. Owen | pp. 287–310 | Link

In twenty-first-century international relations, the telling of stories is as important an instrument of national power as are military strength or economic prowess. Geared not towards coercion or inducement but rather drawing on the forces of attraction and persuasion, such practices can be attributed to the realm of soft power, which plays a key role in today's great-power politics. Starting from these premises, the article explores the role of memory and its relation to soft power. By way of an empirical example, it argues that the recourse to and utilisation of memory constitutes a crucial component in China's quest for global power. In so doing, the article first establishes a conceptual bridge between soft power and memory in international relations. Subsequently, by taking into account contemporary empirical evidence, it identifies and discusses two select narratives – colonialism and tianxia – as core components of Chinese mnemonic soft power.

Christiane Heidbrink & Conrad Becker | pp. 311–333 | Link

China’s Digital Belt and Road (DBAR) is sending the offer of a technological upgrade around the world. Foreign perceptions of the DBAR pave the way to success through a cooperative attitude or to failure through resistance and confrontation. The United States of America (USA), in particular, plays a prominent role. The power rivalry between Washington and Beijing also affects foreign initiatives such as the DBAR. However, it remains underresearched, how the DBAR is perceived in the USA. The article fills this gap by analysing documents issued by US state bodies as well as three non-partisan think tanks between 2016 and mid-2021. Since no previous study has examined both securitised and desecuritised DBAR frames, we present a new research framework. The results show that negative perceptions of the DBAR prevail among think tanks and political elites. This suggests hardened fronts in the heated technological competition due to confrontational attitudes.

Zhanibek Arynov | pp. 334–353 | Link

This article examines perceptions of China and contributes to the ongoing academic debate on Sinophobia in Central Asia. However, unlike existing studies, it specifically focuses on perceptions of those, who have first-hand China experience – Kazakh students/graduates of Chinese universities. Based on in-depth interviews with them, the article argues that those with first-hand China experience tend to reject the China threat theory, found to be widespread among the general population. Instead, China-educated Kazakh youth perceive China mostly as an economic opportunity for their own country. Yet, this does not necessarily make them Sinophiles in the sense that they still express certain concerns related to their country’s potential over-dependence on China. But more interestingly, they see China as the “civilizational other.” This perceived civilisational abyss even among the more-informed segments of the population appears to be one of the main causes of the alienation of China and the Chinese in Kazakhstan.

Journal of Current Chinese Affairs - Special Issue Okt 2023
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