SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

Yeh Wenchang “How to Express History ? ”

It is said that history is written by the victorious in a war or conflict. But this assertion is limited to within a country or to an occurrence in nationalism. If history will be written in a country for their own convenience, neighboring countries may understand it in a different way, and people after ages cannot take either version on trust. Under a democratic system, there are many understandings of history and regimes or governments will change also often. So, beliefs and understandings do not turn out as those in power wished.


I studied in Japan from the first to the third grade in elementary school. I read a biography of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536-1598), one of the great Japanese unifiers, and I thought he was a great person as was written in his biography. However, when I returned to Taiwan, I found that Hideyoshi is written up in a history textbook as a bad fellow.

I grew up in a family which believed in the time under Japanese reign. My parents told me that public security in Taiwan had been good under Japanese reign and everything became worse under the Nationalist Party. In school, we had to study our history from Chinese viewpoint and impression about Japan was not so good. I came to know that there were many people who had been oppressed and discriminated against even during the period of Japanese reign. People felt in different ways even if their experience occurred in the same place and in the same period. I thought it arrogant to understand history from the experiences of only a part of the people.


Science leads to the same answers for everybody. In this sense, we cannot say present history textbooks are not science. What should history textbooks be ? I had a chance to talk, over “sake,” about history textbook with learned men in Japan and scholars about the history of China and Korea. They are trying to write history textbooks which all of them can accept for establishing a society by scholars of histories in Japan, Korea and China. According to them, the most difficult point in the process of reconciling histories was the problem of communications among different countries. The meaning of a word or concept would be different depending on the quality of the translation. If they use English as a common language, they can communicate only superficially. Moreover, doyens of historians in each country cannot speak English well.


In the world of science, it would be best to explain by the use of easy languages which can be understood by everybody. So, I told them that they can communicate in simple English if they have difficulty to describe historical events. But history researchers replied to me that they have to explain the relation of cause and effect, and in a subtle nuance when they explain histories. So, it will be difficult to explain histories using easy languages.


It seems to me historians make simple occurrences or events complicated. For example, when Japanese historians explain a battle or a war, they use a word differently. For example, they use the word “Rebellion“(乱) for coups d’etat which failed and “Incident”(変)for coups d’etat which succeeded. Both are coups d’etat anyway, and they make it complicated. It is said that such complicated Japanese expressions are “refined or graceful”. It is the same with Chinese expressions “深奥”(meaningful) or “奥妙” (superb) which Chinese people in Taiwan use in the Chinese culture. So, I think historians who use such words do not understand well the cultures of other countries. Such complicated expression of histories in Japan originally came from China. In China, there are many expressions in Chinese history books about “War” or “Killing others”. In the case of “War”, they use several Chinese characters to describe it as simple occurrences, conquests or invasions, all of which are very subjective. For example, the Syrian War can be explained as “Conquest” from a viewpoint of one country and “Invasion” from others, depending on their standpoint.

So, I think histories should be written using simple vocabularies as much as possible and excluding sentiment about right or wrong.


So, in the case of the Sino-Japanese War, I will write “Japan sent its troops” to China. The words “invasion” or “conquest”, are both very subjective, and are unnecessary. And if we write “sending troops”, we will be released from mental complication, that is, we have to use the word “conquest” when we send troops to another country and “invasion” when another country sends its troops to our country. If we are asked whether “sending troops” are right or wrong, I think it is unnecessary to judge in history because we have been taught by teachers since the first grade of primary school that it is wrong to strike the first blow or to bring in weapons first. There are a lot of interpretations for a historical occurrence. When there are objections among historians, they mention only the part which they agree after verifying evidence. About the part on which they cannot reach agreement, it will be enough to let the young conclude from the opinions of historians of both sides of the issue.


(Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Faculty of Science and Engineering of Shimane University / Researcher of SGRA “Environment and Energy” Research Team)


Translated by Kazuo Kawamura

English checked by Mac Maquito


SGRA Kawaraban 481 in Japanese (original)