Jill Lepore, Michael Puett, and Wen YU
Professors Jill Lepore, Michael Puett, and Wen YU discussed how governments can manipulate national narratives.

The Stories We Tell: Can the U.S. and China Reset their Conflicting Narratives?

A conversation with U.S. historian Jill Lepore, Chinese history professor Wen YU, and Chinese philosophy expert Michael Puett.

If every nation needs a shared history, what is our story, and who gets to tell it? 

These questions haunt both the United States and China. On March 7, 2023, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies convened the first Big Questions Forum with a panel of top experts to explore “The Stories We Tell: The Politics of History in the United States and China.” 

In a dialogue at the Tsai Auditorium, Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, and Wen Yu, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Boston College, sat down with moderator and Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology Michael Puett to discuss how splintering interpretations of national identity continue to shape debates about the past and present in China and the United States.

At the opening of the talk, Yu argued that the “Clash of Civilizations,” a theory of international conflict popularized by former Harvard University Professor Samuel P. Huntington, is a flawed model for understanding transnational history and politics. The Clash of Civilizations, Yu said, “is drawing on an idea that we’re different based on essentialized cultural traditions and beliefs, and oftentimes it stimulates thinking along the lines of stereotypes—often not helpful.” 

When it comes to China, Yu continued, such stereotypes can grow pernicious. “For American audiences, China tends to represent this kind of authoritarian culture which has some deep historical connections to its own past,” Yu said. “‘China is always like this, and there are no other alternatives,’” Yu said to energetic nods from Puett. “But this is absolutely wrong.”

“It’s a narrative that ignores… a deeper history of debate throughout the 20th century—if not earlier—regarding the future of China’s national identity.” 

Wen YU, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Boston College

Instead, Yu argued, 20th-century Republican China featured a diversity of Chinese political visions. “There is another alternative of thinking about China’s culture in terms of a self-governing society,” Yu said, pointing to theories of governance debated in Republican China. “To create a common space where they can incorporate common people or society into politics.”

Lepore pointed to Cold-War era American political discourse as an example of the inevitability of American misunderstandings of its international counterparts.

“I’m straining to recall a moment during the Cold War when any nationally prominent U.S. politician spoke in any nuanced way about the Soviet Union.” Lepore said. “That’s how you defeated a political argument: ‘I’m a true American, these people are Russkies.’”

“That’s just a political use our partisan system puts [on] a kind of strawman authoritarian state,” Lepore said.

Yu pointed to China’s zero-Covid policies as an example of the Chinese government politicizing an idealized version of itself in contrast to an oversimplified negative view of America.

“The basic idea of the government pushing that policy was still closely tied to the personal identity,” Yu said. “The question of the Chinese, the Chinese nation, or Chinese government, or Chinese Communist Party as the one who cares for the people—while the Americans, they don’t.” 

“It’s dangerous,” Yu continued, when “arguing for alternatives will sound unpatriotic.”

“Is there any exit ramp off this highway toward full frontal ideological warfare? That just seems like where we’re going.” 

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Affiliate Professor of Law, Harvard University; Staff Writer, The New Yorker.

Ultimately, Lepore expressed pessimism about the possibility that either country will soften their clashing narratives of each other, given widening misunderstandings. “Is there any exit ramp off this highway toward full frontal ideological warfare?” Lepore asked. “That just seems like where we’re going.” 

According to Yu, a shift in mindset among educators and academics will be critical to tempering ideological conflict. She pointed to “Globalization,” a 250-student undergraduate global history course she teaches at Boston College, as a model for a solution. “When I designed these lectures, I think there is [a] general responsibility on me as an educator [to], in this story, really show different contexts and different positions,” Yu said. “To really remind students to really be cautious about trying to essentialize one society based on stereotypes.” 

But in influencing larger narratives beyond the classroom, Yu was less sure. “I don’t have a clear answer yet,” she said.