I’ve said it a million times, but here it is again: I love history. Sometimes I ask my kids in what period of history they’d most like to live, but it’s a question that I can’t answer myself. Almost every time and place in history has it’s great beauty and fascinating aspects . . . yet they’ve all got serious drawbacks.
Invading Mongol hordes, Viking raiders, and European expansionists . . . bubonic plague, smallpox epidemics, tuberculosis, and scurvy . . . public executions, imperialist governments that treated the common people like slaves, and religions centered around human sacrifice . . . not to mention outhouses and chamber pots. I’ll pass.
I may not want to live there, but I love delving deeply into different eras through reading. I haven’t met a time or place yet that I didn’t want to learn more about.
Some time periods are, of course, less documented than others. Some knowledge has to come from archaeological findings and some comes from oral histories.
But oral history is given almost no credence by modern historians.
On one hand, that’s understandable. Though a first-hand witness to an incident is quite able to accurately tell what happened, that’s not always true for someone who is giving a third- or fourth-hand account of the incident. The story changes, certain details are left out and eventually forgotten, some people may add embellishments or exaggerations, and some people may twist what really happened to fit their own agenda (for the honor of their own family or nation).
For instance, all the time I was growing up, I heard a family story regarding one of my ancestors – John Kinder, born in 1757 and died in 1789. According to the story, John married an Indian woman and had at least one child. They were staying at a fort when Indian men attacked. John was killed, but his wife and child(ren) were allowed to leave because of their Indian blood.
A few years ago, I was researching this line of my family tree and found information saying that John Kinder died at Fort Tackett – so I started searching for info about that fort. What I found gave a relatively detailed account of the Indian attack that destroyed Fort Tackett in 1790 (a year after John Kinder died). Also, there was no mention of anyone named Kinder being at the fort during the attack.
I suppose it’s possible that Indians also attacked in 1789 and that John really was killed by them while his wife and child(ren) were released. Or maybe someone just made up the story because it sounded cool and was plausible for the time period.
My point is this – when an oral account doesn’t match written documents, it’s hard to know whether to believe the oral record at all. When there aren’t written documents to check (as is the case for many African oral histories, the Viking sagas, Indian stories, and many others), historians simply discount oral records entirely.
I’ve always felt that this approach is too simplistic. How can we say that every story a culture tells about itself is a total fabrication simply because no written record remains?
History (Almost) Lost
I recently started reading a book about the Nanking massacre of 1937-38. In the introduction, the author writes about the horrific and insistent stories her parents told about the massacre and contrasts them with the almost total lack of information in written narratives. She lists several “definitive” English books about World War II that either include no mention of the events in Nanking or at most include one paragraph in nearly 1000 pages.
This is an event (a group of many events, really) that took place in the twentieth century, during a time when people enjoyed worldwide communication, radio broadcasts, and “talking pictures” in the theater.
This is not the lonely voyage of Erik the Red and his son Lief Erikson during a time when people still thought the earth was flat and rarely traveled more than 50 miles from their birthplaces.
This is not an event that happened high in the Andes Mountains of Peru when that area was isolated by two vast oceans and completely unknown to the majority of the world’s population.
No. Not at all.
Not two decades after the Nanking massacre, television in homes had become quite common, which means that people could easily receive more information than ever before. I would hazard to guess that more books have been published since 1937 than were published in the few hundred years before, which means that there has been ample opportunity to tell vast numbers of people about this atrocity.
Yet no one . . . no one writing in English, anyway . . . had tried.
Let’s imagine for a minute that the people of Nanking as well as the invading Japanese soldiers were completely illiterate. Not a single one of them could write down what they saw, what they did, what was done to them.
Now read this statement from Iris Chang, author of the book I’m reading:
“That the Nanking massacre of my childhood memories was not merely folk myth but accurate oral history . . .”
Wait a minute. Folk myth? Accurate oral history?
I have much more to say about this book, about what happened at Nanking, but this statement really struck me as something profound.
If my little scenario about the Nanking residents and Japanese soldiers being illiterate were true, the Nanking massacre could easily have slipped into the realm of folk tale.
After all, the English-language writers, those responsible for documenting the time period (all of World War II, I mean) for posterity, haven’t made a strong attempt to relay information about the events.
Given another century or two, the stories passed down by Mrs. Chang’s parents and others like them would quite probably fade into obscurity, into a place where those “more educated” types would think the tales too terrible to be totally true.
Surely, the horrific details were embellished, exaggerated to make the suffering seem greater than it really was, to make the perpetrators seem more heinous.
And without any written documents, how could anyone prove them wrong?
And what does this mean for all those other stories passed down from generation to generation, those stories so readily discounted as mere fable?
© 2012, Cindy. All rights reserved.