The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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HIST4180RH Ordinary Voices, Extraordinary Stories: History and Memory in Documentaries and Biographies (1949-Present)

 (2019-20 First Term)

Teacher:Prof. HE Xiaoqing, Rowena
Call: (852) 3943 7128 

Office: KHB125

Tutor: Ms. Ho Siu Ping, Sammantha

Lecture Time:Wed 2:30pm - 4:15pm

Lecture Location: NAH 11

Language: English


Those who control the past control the future; those who control the present control the past.

 ― George Orwell, 1984

Lin Zhao, a Beijing University student, and a Christian, condemned as counterrevolutionary “Rightist,” executed in 1968


Memories of shared historical experiences serve as lessons for societies to learn from the past and inform the present. However, individual memories of ordinary people often become obscured behind the grand narratives of the official accounts of history. This is especially true in societies where history is not just an academic discipline, or a search for historical truth, but a powerful political weapon manipulated by state power to promote historical amnesia, and to impede critical examination of historical tragedies and injustice.

Citizens understand their responsibilities for the future by debating the moral meaning of history. While those in power can erase history or distort memories of past glories, traumas, and humiliation, the hijacking of history is followed by distortions of all kinds in politics, society, and identity. Public opinion pertaining to democracy and nationalism is inseparable from a collective memory of the nation’s past, be it truthful, selective, or manipulated.

This course will be an intellectual exploration of individual stories and voices, through the lenses of independent documentaries, memoires, biographies, and oral histories, in major historical events throughout the PRC period of modern Chinese history.  In parallel to the discussions of the narratives, we would also have the opportunity to speak to writers and documentary film makers who decided to document those stories that would otherwise be invisible and unheard. Milan Kundera describes the struggle of man against power as the struggle of memory against forgetting. An important element of this course will be the critical examination of the contemporary relevance of China’s past, the challenges of the ongoing contest between state-imposed interpretations of history and the independent pursuit of historical knowledge, and its implications on China’s future and its relationship with rest of the world.


This course aims to help students to develop skills to think, write, and speak critically and analytically about the past. In particular, we will examine the state-sponsored version of history presented by the Chinese Communist party with our own critical minds based on evidence. We will work together as historians to evaluate historical evidence in primary and secondary sources, to think within historical contexts, to recognize the historical forces at work, to identify continuities and changes, and to understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations as world citizens. One of the highlights of this course would be the opportunity to have conversations about the readings and documentaries with their authors/directors.