Conference on memory and memorialisation in China

The CSMCH was delighted to sponsor a one-day symposium at the Edinburgh Confucius Institute on the theme of ‘Memory and Memorialisation in the People’s Republic of China’. The conference was organised by Francesca Young Kaufman (Manchester), who also wrote this report for the blog.

The symposium was called in response to the on-going challenges faced by scholars of recent Chinese history, working in a context of state-management of national historical discourses.  An intention of the conference was to gather academics working on the themes of memory and memorialisation in relation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to explore commonalities, connections, and new approaches.  Out of over twenty submitted abstracts, nine were selected for the event, alongside keynote talks by two leading UK scholars in the field: Margaret Hillenbrand (Oxford), and Marjorie Dryburgh (Sheffield).

Hillenbrand launched the symposium with a challenging exploration of the use of the Nanjing Massacre in popular Chinese history and education. Analysing the saturation of Chinese culture with imagery of violent atrocity, she proposed that the utilisation of Nanjing Massacre memory by the state had resulted in a de-historicising of the event, positioning it as a symbol and marker rather than an historical moment in need of analysis and reassessment. Her talk was well-received by a combined audience from the Schools of History, Classics and Archaeology, and the Department of Asian Studies, as well as members of the public, and created a lively debate.

Margaret Hillenbrand giving her keynote

The following day, panellists convened in the beautiful settings of Abden House, the home of the Edinburgh Confucius Institute. Panels were focused around the themes of ‘Contested Pasts and Practices’, ‘Material Culture and the Visual Archive’, and ‘Using the Past to Serve the Present’, and included papers on cinema, museums, cityscapes, funeral practices, and foreign policy.  Work-in-progress papers were pre-submitted to the panel chairs, Margaret Hillenbrand, Julian Ward (Edinburgh), and John Lee (Manchester), and panellists presented short summaries of their research before engaging in a wider discussion around the themes and approaches raised in their work. Panel chairs also reflected back to the panellists on their longer, written submissions, and offered suggestions for the future development of their projects.

Concluding the symposium, Dryburgh shared findings from her intriguing research into memory of the Manchukuo era, and offered contextualising observations on the challenges and opportunities for memory studies research in contemporary China.  A final roundtable was chaired by Francesca Young Kaufman.  The closing discussion raised key themes that had emerged throughout the day, as well as the possibility of future avenues for research and collaboration. Conference participants observed that research into memory and memorialistion, and the uses of history in the PRC, was an underexplored area, and that the symposium had highlighted an important gap in existing academic networks.  The event concluded with an agreement to pursue applications for a network grant and to convene further events on these themes.

If you would like to be involved with developing future projects on history, memory, and memorialistion in modern China, or the wider East Asian area, please contact Francesca Young Kaufman (

Francesca Young Kaufman is a Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of Manchester. Her PhD was entitled ‘Contested Representation: an historical reassessment of the work of art filmmakers in the PRC, 1989-2001’. She is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.