Swords and Stockholm syndrome

The new rash of historical revisionism is killing historical understanding

I was recently watching a history-themed show by National Geographic called ‘Samurai bow’ and was enjoying myself immensely until they got to the inevitable ‘comparison with X’ section of such shows. In this case, the comparison was between a Japanese longbow (or Yumi) and an English longbow of equal draw weight. Which is where I start to have problems.

Now, for those of you interested enough not to immediately click away on seeing a looming nerd fight over historical accuracy, allow me to explain my pedantry.

The whole point of a program about historical objects is to put them in context, because the other option is to simply regurgitate a list of facts about said object for an hour (which does not make for good television). To its credit, this is exactly what the National Geographic show set out to do with the Yumi. Its construction, role in warfare and ongoing place in Japanese society were all carefully documented (although this involved a suspicious number of bug-eyed white dudes for some reason). However, when doing a comparison with a ‘competing’ bow, all of this careful cultural and historical context was discarded.

Firstly, the English long bow was scarcely a ‘competing’ design, hailing as it did from a country that had almost no contact with Japan until long after the age of the bow. Secondly, the purpose and context for the longbow’s use in warfare (massed fire of heavy, armour-piercing arrows vs. accurate skirmish-fire in the Yumi) was simply ignored. This lead to a simplistic shoot-off of both bows, with an under-powered long bow facing off against a full-strength Yumi to provide a skewed ‘this one is better’ result. The end result of all this is classic historical revisionism: compare two historical items/ideas/whatever while stripping one of them of the proper context to draw a skewed conclusion justifying the other. The only difference is that this was done counter to the usual trend of favouring a Eurocentric outlook.

Now, I know full well that this is only entertainment. I understand that they producers of the show simply wanted a story and a few snazzy visuals to stick on an otherwise bland concept. But my point is that this is a widespread thing. There is a new wave of historical revisionism, only this time it is not centred on proving European superiority. That does not change the fact that it is wrong and distorts understanding of actual history. Reducing the complex and conflicting thing that is human history down to simple stories that idolise the cultural flavour of the month, even in the name of entertainment, is just stupid.


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