2010 Symposium | Historical Memory Panel | After Empire: Road to Reconciliation

            Providence, RI Oct. 30 2010 – A day after the formal start of the 2010 Strait Talk Symposium, the organization, along with a diverse team of cosponsoring student groups including , held a historical memory panel entitled “After Empire: The Road to Reconciliation.” Approximately 100 people filled Salomon 001 to hear Alexis Dudden, associate professor of history at Connecticut College, Hye-Sook Wang, associate professor of East Asian studies at Brown University, Ping-hui Liao, the Chuan Lyu endowed chair in Taiwan studies at the University of California at San Diego, and Yinan He, associate professor at the Whiteahead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University talk about historical memory concerning imperialism in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea and how its legacies still influence current international relations. The talk was introduced by Kerry Smith, associate professor of history and East Asian studies at Brown University, and was moderated by Tatsushi Arai, assistant professor at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Professor Alexis Dudden

To start the panel discussion, the speakers each took about 15 minutes to explain the current historical memories and perspectives in their respective regions of expertise. Professor Dudden started the discussion by distributing handouts and outlining some of the most important datesand events in the post-imperial period in East Asia. She then went on to contrast current and past perspectives on the Japanese colonization of Korea, saying that at the time imperial power often had the mentality that they were “bearing modernity to the colonized” and that such actions were lauded in the international community, as opposed to the condemnation they receive in today’s discourse. In addition, Dudden noted that U.S. involvement in East Asia, specifically John Foster Dullis’ decision to “sweep the matter under the rug,” has played an important role in causing the current situation.

Professor Yinan He Following Professor Dudden was Professor Yinan He, who offered remarks about Chinese historical memory and changing national identities. She emphasized the significance of the “other” when trying to define national identity, saying that in recent years the Chinese “other” has been Japan, even though in the years directly following the end of the war the Chinese and Japanese viewpoints actually converged, viewing the Japanese as a peace-loving people subjected to horrible warlords. However, Professor He said that after the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese needed to define a new national identity, and that history education since then has focused on conflicts between China and the countries that have invaded China in the past, including Japan, rather than on internal class conflicts. She added that true reconciliation could only come after we “unravel the political threads that have shackled the traumatic history,” a belief shared by the other panelists as well.

 Professor Pinghui Liao In contrast to Professors Dudden and He’s mainly academic remarks, Professor Liao came at the issue of post-imperial historical memory from more of a personal viewpoint, drawing first on the personal diaries of famous Chinese writer Zhang Ailing and others, and then on the writings of the Zhu sisters, in order to show popular Chinese sentiment towards the Japanese. One recurring theme throughout Professor Liao’s comments was the complex nature of historical memory, which Liao said often elicited mixed and confusing emotions. He added that he would like to see more Taiwanese students learn Japanese and Korean, so that they could understand these countries’ experiences in addition to their own, particularly since there is “no way that we have some kind of singular experience in Taiwan” in regards to post-imperial legacies and memories. And as current identities are being formed and historical memories re-thought and revised, scholarship and the recognition of shared imperial experiences may become more and more important for East Asian nations.

  Brown's own Professor Hye-Sook Wang The final panelist, Professor Hye-Sook Wang, took things in a refreshing new direction with her comments on the Korean historical memory of the colonial period, after pausing to note that she was participating in the discussion not as a historian, but rather as an intellectual Korean citizen. She mainly used survey results to analyze the Korean perspective on the colonial period as well as Japan itself. Professor Wang’s statistics illuminated the sometimes seemingly contradictory views held by Koreans and Japanese, for example that the vast majority of Koreans feel that Japan has never sincerely or sufficiently apologized for its colonial behavior, while may Japanese feel that they have tried to apologize on multiple occasions, but the Koreans will not accept their apologies, causing the Japanese to become increasingly frustrated and uninterested in efforts to improve relations with Korea. However in one of the most entertaining moments of the evening, Professor Wang showed how pop culture is helping the younger generation move on and create cross-cultural communication when she pointed out that in Japan, the most commonly-recognized Korean was an actress on a Korean television drama, who easily beat out the Korean president and former president. “Cultural exchange can perhaps be an answer,” she said, adding that “It is neither productive nor desirable to dwell on the past,” and that though the situation might not improve quickly, there are definitely “signs of hope” for the future.

After the panelists gave their comments, the discussion was opened up to questions from the audience. Audience members’ questions focused mainly on the different possible paths toward reconciliation among East Asian countries and on the obstacles thereto. One audience member asked about the “language of reconciliation” and how its corruption can hinder efforts to make progress. The panelists’ responses focused on the political implications of reconciliation, noting that in order for true reconciliation to happen there must be sincere gestures and open dialogue about post-imperial legacies and perspectives, but that since the language used in public speeches and the actions taken by public figures are largely determined by the political climate in each country, this has been hard to achieve at times. However, the panelists also rejected the possibility of a South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” saying that though this strategy proved effective in South Africa, the international nature of the East Asian issues would make this type of commission ineffectual. Panelists argued that the best routes forward were through bilateral dialogue and non-governmental involvement, taking on these issues and dealing with the past two countries at a time, and through the younger generation of East Asians who are more and more able to see past history and connect with each other on a personal level.

The panel concluded with a reception sponsored by the Asian-American History Month at Brown University.