“The monumental approach, as one would guess, takes history as something to be inspired by, as a record of human greatness that serves to encourage similar greatness by individuals in future times; in the case of City of Life and Death, it is the various acts of compassion and solidarity that play this role.”
In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army stormed into the city of Nanjing in China, causing massive physical and human devastation, in what is now known as the "Rape of Nanjing." The incident, and the broader scheme of Japanese militarism and imperialism in which it took place, is today still a constant source of political tension between the two nation-states and their respective citizens. The 2009 film City of Life and Death, by Chinese auteur Lu-Chuan, is a bold attempt to dig up and redefine the specter of Nanjing that continues to haunt the East Asian consciousness. But instead of ideologically measuring one side or the other on a Manichean scale, Lu chooses to focus on the instances of human compassion and solidarity that are able to manifest themselves even in the mindless, brutal atmosphere he so effectively creates within the cinematic world.
What one comes to grasp after seeing the film is the ultimate importance of history as first and foremost a study of the human condition, and of the art of living itself, as opposed to scientifically detached observation and categorization. The continuities of human consciousness and memory mean that our experiences of the past are necessarily intertwined with those of the present; as individuals inescapably grounded in a specific historical period, we are unable to avoid this contemporizing process. Furthermore, it is something that must be embraced, for it allows us to incorporate these historical "peaks" (and crevasses) of human experience into our future actions and values. But in this integration of the present with the past there is the danger of a selective blindness toward the past that must be understood and overcome. However, the purpose of history as a guide to the present and the future, to "life," must still be emphasized over the "neutral," "objective" study of history as "fact," "statistic," or what Nietzsche, in his essay "The Use and Abuse of History, refers to disparagingly as the "World Process" — that is, an attitude of detached passivity toward a historical narrative that is falsely seen as predetermined and unalterable.
Incorporating the discussion of the film into a wider philosophical and theoretical context, what is ultimately emphasized is the primary importance of historical knowledge as a guide to human existence, both as something that can inspire future actions and as a critical tool that must inform and place those future actions within a certain system of values and constraints. In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche argues in favor of an attitude toward historical study that prioritizes those elements that are intertwined with and enrich life in the present and future, whilst demoting those that are seen as a detached, "objective" accumulation of facts, motivations, causes and effects, and so on. He distinguishes between three approaches that all share a desire to integrate the past into the present. These are the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical approaches, and each has a certain relevance when one is considering the Nanjing massacre and the film it inspired.
On the other hand, Nietzsche also warns of the dangers that can arise when the monumental method "rules over the other forms of analyzing" — that is, the antiquarian and critical methods. If this takes place, the "past itself suffers harm . . . really large parts of it are forgotten, despised, and flow off like an uninterrupted grey flood." In the case of the Nanjing massacre, monumental history may be applied by those with various unsavory motives, such as those informed by nationalism, ethno-centrism, or political interests, in order to bury historical facts that damage their goals and promote those that serve them. The Japanese may try, as they often do, to minimize the atrocities committed and focus only on the "bravery" of the Japanese soldiers, as was implied by the visits of a Japanese prime minister to a shrine housing the corpses of Class "A" war criminals, or they may attempt to modify Japanese textbooks covering the conflict in order to focus on the "honorable" or "reasonable" motivations that were supposedly behind imperialism (BBC, 2001, 2006). The Chinese, on the other hand, are more likely to demonize the Japanese beyond recognition by emphasizing the intrinsic moral superiority and innocence of their people in relation to the purely evil Japanese "animals." In both cases there is a selective blindness that characterizes a potential downside of monumental history.
In order to combat this tendency, it is important to balance the monumental method with the other two forms of evaluating history, but given the nature of antiquarian history it seems that only critical history is capable of this. The antiquarian method as described by Nietzsche refers to an attitude of reverence and worship toward the past, which both contextualizes and enriches the present as a continuation of an honorable tradition. In the context of Nanjing, such an attitude would be considered highly immoral and unacceptable in modern cultural or political discourse. Whilst there are certainly nationalist groups in Japan that might hold a reverential attitude toward the Japanese actions in China, such an approach is only likely to increase and deepen the selective blindness that can arise from the monumental approach. The Chinese, on the other hand, are unlikely to hold any warm sentiments toward the events of Nanjing, so antiquarian history is inapplicable in their case.
Despite these qualifications, the approach to history as a tool for the living must be preferred to a view of it as detached, objective categorization, or if you like, history as "social science." When approached as a scientific endeavor, history tends to ignore or suppress the subjective experiences of particular individuals in favor of impersonal, numerical, and value-neutral descriptions of past events. It attempts to apply the same methods of description and observation that are used in the natural sciences for the study of non-human objects. Yet this move is a mistake, because unlike the natural sciences, the objects of historical observation are conscious human beings, meaning that consumers of historical knowledge have the possibility of judging, relating to, opposing, or imagining themselves in the position of the historical individual or group in question. They can make value statements about these human historical phenomena, which furthermore may even come to form the foundations of their values themselves. If they are inspired by events in history — for example, by the actions of John Rabe — they may use these events as a benchmark for their own future actions, or a foundation for their own moral identity or a sense of meaning in the world. Similarly, those reviewing the history of Nanjing may take the atrocities and their effects on sentient human beings as a guide for what must be despised and defeated in the lives of all present and future human beings.
In order for these practices to be possible, one must evaluate history from the perspective of subjective human experience and therefore prioritize the existential, emotional, and intellectual effects of historical events on individual human agents, rather than trying to eliminate these aspects in favor of dehumanized grand narratives. Nevertheless, history as objective observation is important in providing an empirical ground on which one can make calculations, settle matters of factual dispute, and so on. Most importantly, however, it is able to counter the tendency of the subjective approach to history to lapse into selective blindness. To conclude, both approaches to history must be preserved, and both must remain in service to each other. The subjective approach to history should dominate but not eliminate the scientific approach.