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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Politics, Historiography, and Cultural Memory: The Production of Knowledge and the Re-Writing of History in the Early Chinese Empire
1: Cultural Memory, a Black Box Explanatory Model?
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
University of California, Berkeley, United States
Michael Nylan will query the whole notion of cultural memory itself, drawing upon the latest research in the history field. She will be responding to a spate of recent books using “cultural memories” to “supplement” excavated and “found” artifacts. Her talk will focus on the Five Classics, in particular the Odes, Documents, and Annals traditions, in relation to the Han “memories” of the Three Dynasties (Xia, Yin, and Zhou), arguing that even the memories of Western Zhou tend to be distorted and/or irrecoverable by late Zhanguo, Qin, and Han. As Sima Qian states plainly in the Shiji, travels around the country and collection of the traditions (oral and written) handed down by the local elders led him to nothing but bundles of contradictions, not only within the early writings but also between the local traditions and various writings. The stories of local heroes are embroidered, as are those of momentous battles. Apparently, "cultural memory" has served modern academics well as a convenient explanation for historical trends and events when adequate evidence has been lacking. At least that is what several historians working in early China have concluded. Yet to question the likelihood of cultural memory makes more sense when we consider the low literacy rates in early China, the sheer expense of record-keeping, the exclusiveness of many performance venues for elites, and the routine destruction of records during wartime, not to mention the reasons why records were generally kept in the first place (to praise families owning the holdings).