Trauma, Nostalgia, Public Debate
This introductory essay provides a theoretical and historical overview of how the notions of memory and history have been conceptualized in relation to China. In Pierre Nora’s view state-led memory sacralizes the past, whereas history, as produced by civil society, tends to rationalize it; in authoritarian settings, an additional distinction is often drawn between “official history” and “popular memory,” construed as more “authentic.” This essay further historicizes the notion of popular memories of the Mao era by arguing that they have followed a three-tiered evolution: the first stage in the 1980s gave rise to the expression of mainly traumatic but closely controlled narratives, the second stage in the 1990s was dominated by nostalgia and social protest against marketization of the economy, while the third stage investigated in the present volume evinces a turn toward public debate and critical memory.
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