Histories

I am currently reading this absolutely fascinating book about Khubilai Khan’s attempts to conquer Japan.

Legend has it that both the times Kubilai Khan attempted this, his grand armada was completely destroyed by an act of divine intervention: the kamikaze. I know very little about Asian history, so everything in the book is an education.

A particular section, excerpts of which I reproduce below, resonated with me.

Japanese society was revolutionized by these developments. Instead of loyalty to a lord or a clan, samurai and the citizenry at large were encouraged to shift their support to the idea of the nation, as symbolized by the emperor, who was portrayed as the living embodiment of the gods. The emperor’s advisors, … chose to reintroduce and reinforce key elements of the “past” to support their main themes…

In this vein, the story of the Mongol invasions and the powerful myth of the kamikaze were dusted off and polished up for a new generation, who were taught to believe in the legend and the ideals behind it. The story of the invasions was not common knowledge in 1868, or even as late as 1890. It was at this time that Takezaki Suenaga’s scrolls “reappeared.” …

…Suddenly the scrolls were reproduced and published everywhere….The story they held, of the heroism and bravery of Takezake Suenaga, was retold as an exaggerated legend underscored by the divine intervention that saved Japan from an overwhelming foe…

All over the world, we grapple with history, trying to make sense of our place in the world and in the grander scheme of things. How much is truth and how much is conjecture, concoction, or sheer fantasy — these are hard questions to answer, and the answers are even more difficult to swallow. Every culture, every race, every people has had to deal with this. How do we reconcile faith, belief, and rationality? Where do we draw the line?

When we studied history in school, it was presented as absolute statements about the past. There was no sense that much of what we knew was still dynamic, still changing with the studies being done and artifacts being unearthed. We chewed up dates and events and spat them out in utter boredom. (To be fair, Asoka and Akbar did plant trees and build rest-houses. 😀 )

But how fascinating it would be if history was presented as the shifting sands that it truly is, how pasts can be obscured or unveiled, how partial facts can either make or mar the entire jigsaw puzzle, and how histories can be adroitly manipulated.

Indeed, the journey of discovering the histories is as engrossing as the histories themselves.

(Interestingly, the edition I have has the tagline “History’s Greatest Naval Disaster”, whereas the Amazon version has the tagline “In Search of a Legendary Armada”.)

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