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Preserving past memories of events through oral accounts

By Hu Huawei | 2016-08-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Zuo Yuhe is a research fellow from the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the secretary-general of the Society of Chinese Modern Culture Committee for Oral History. He specializes in modern Chinese intellectual cultural history.


Oral history is a discipline that aims to collect, preserve and probe into historical facts using audiotapes, videotapes or transcriptions of interviews of people who participated in or observed past events. Before the development of written language, history passed down from person to person was the only form of human memory. Therefore, oral history can be regarded as the original form of history. Hu Huawei, a reporter from Guangming Daily, recently sat down with Zuo Yuhe to hear his insights on the matter.


Hu Huawei: There is actually a natural connection between oral history and how the past is remembered. The recollections of those who have witnessed a historical event are quite important. From this perspective, oral history is running a race against time. For example, as the nation celebrated the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japan, aging veterans reminded people of the urgent need to preserve oral history. Could you please talk about this?

Zuo Yuhe: That is true. Historical memories, as a type of rare, nonrenewable resource, are the legacy that historical witnesses leave to later generations. It is indeed a race against the clock to attempt to orally interview aging people. We have learned a lot from the lessons of recent years.
For example, we had long ago intended to conduct an oral interview with an expert on artificial intelligence, Tong Tianxiang, the younger brother of Tong Tianjian, the well-known poet, but missed the opportunity. Later on, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we hurried to his home for the visit. During the interview, which lasted more than two hours, he expounded upon the cause and effect of the “intelligence revolution” and recounted his discussion with Qian Xuesen, a famous rocket scientist in China. Though badly sick, he insisted on continuing to the end of the interview. I still remember what he said in the end: “Had you come earlier for the interview, I could have told you about all of my experiences and ideas during my whole lifetime, which would have been an intellectual legacy that I leave. But it is a pity that it is too late.” Some days after the interview, Tong Tianxiang passed away, leaving great regret.

It is the same with veterans. At the time of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japan, many people were trying to conduct oral interviews with veterans of the war, but the fact is, there were few survivors of the war still alive, and most of them were already over the age of 90. Therefore, it is quite difficult to restore and preserve clear past memories. Many agreed that if the oral interviews could have been done 10 years earlier, there would be a larger group of witnesses who would have provided richer and clearer oral historical materials. On the other hand, just imagine if we had begun to conduct the oral interview of these veterans 10 years later. It would be a much tougher task. Therefore, urgency is essential. Otherwise, some facts and details of certain historical events would be rather difficult to ascertain. Since the value of oral history lies in preserving the authenticity of memories as much as possible, far-sightedness is required. For information with historical value but with little economic benefit and immediate effect, we also need an awareness about conservation to revive the past as much and as completely as possible.


Hu Huawei: In oral history, the general public is responsible for recording and narrating history to some extent. In what way can oral history allow everyone to engage in the writing of contemporary history?


Zuo Yuhe: It can be said that the emergence of oral history not only helps to sort out living oral materials but also provides the possibility for the general public to write their own history, which changes the established mode of historical study. Since the birth of historical materialism, the role that the masses play in the course of history has become ever more important. Popular histories have become a trend in the modern era. But the lack of historical data to record the activities of the masses is a problem that has long plagued historical research as it attempts to find a way for the history of the masses to be studied and written. Fortunately, the emergence of oral history has changed the situation. Through archiving narrated memories, their perceptions of past events can be preserved as an oral record.

Since oral history refers to information gathering from those who participated or observed past events, written works of oral history are usually completed based on the cooperation between the interviewer and the witness. This has altered the traditional mode of historical research, which excludes the people who experience the past events from the research subjects. Compared with elites, ordinary people are the real participants in past events in many cases. All voices are equal when it comes to historical memories. The narratives of ordinary people can provide unique perspectives and a depth of emotion that elites may not be able to offer for past events. Therefore, there is a saying that “The witness of ordinary people, in some sense, is more valuable than that of the celebrity and great man.”


Hu Huawei: Today, the technological means, such as audiotapes and videotapes are more advanced than before, and the emergence of new media like Wechat enriches the forms of oral history. So could you please talk about the status quo of research on oral history in China?


Zuo Yuhe: At present, the progress of Chinese oral history is multi-faceted.

First, theoretical exploration and the practice of oral interview are developing in parallel. On one hand, the historiography is drawing  upon the experience of Western theories of oral history so as to boost the domestic study. On the other hand, in practice, an increasing number of scholars from different fields are engaged in the job of gathering and collecting oral materials, which transforms the traditional way of social investigation that puts down the results in writing to oral account. Various works themed on oral history have been published and have become popular.

Second, the methodology of oral history is extensively applied to historiography and other specializations. Historians can adopt it as the means to collect and archive oral materials. The news press can take full advantage of the interviews to discover the historical truth. Folklorists can conduct fieldwork investigations through interviews. The interviewees for oral history can be either social elites or grassroots people and the subjects for the interview can be either major events like wars, revolution or daily trifles like food and clothing as well as weddings and funerals. The contemporary oral history in China is a symphony playing with the public as performers.


Hu Huawei: As you said, contemporary oral history in China is bustling with different voices. This may affect the narrators’ ability to present their memories of past events in an objective way and whether the historical truth could be fully restored. In this sense, there is controversy in oral history. What do you think are the problems that hinder the contemporary oral history in China?


Zuo Yuhe: On the whole, Chinese oral history faces some difficult situations. The biggest problem is the lack of necessary standards and regulations for the interview, research, archiving, publishing and other links of oral history study. One important reason for the boom in American oral history is that national-level associations of oral history and their affiliates are distributed all over the country. There is also a unified working standard and regulations for operation.

In addition, some participants in past events have some concerns with the oral interview, being somewhat reserved while recounting the past stories. Some other witnesses of past events tend to embellish themselves, leading to the distortion of the past truth.

To boost the oral history in China, financial support and personnel investment is also needed. Most importantly, a sense of dedication is required because it is a job that takes responsibility for preserving history, for later generations.