Essays

From History to Fiction

Dung Kai-cheung on inventing Hong Kong stories

History is not fiction, nor fiction history. The two are not the same thing, or else we do not need two different words, two different notions. It is dangerous to confuse them. Yet, history and fiction are closely related.

In a narrow sense, where facts are verifiable, we have to defend history from fiction. The Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre are two of the most obvious cases. But in a broader sense, things don’t seem so clear-cut. Historians do their best to verify the facts, but nearly always facts do not exist by themselves. What we have instead are documentation and testimonies, which are seldom without inadequacies or biases. Then comes the necessary step of interpretation, the area where historians excel at contending with one another, individually or as representatives of political or ideological perspectives. In principle, the line between facts, documentation and interpretation may still be drawn to a certain extent, but in fact the gradation is often blurred or the division has become hardly discernible. As the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm has repeatedly argued, national histories are invariably inventions of traditions. The result is that we simply take the interpretation or inventions as the facts themselves. It is in this sense that we may call history fiction.