Aftershock and Multidirectional Memory


Aftershock is a 2010 Chinese movie in which a young woman is abandoned by her mother in favor of her twin brother after the Tangshan Earthquake. This movie presents a different side to the Tangshan story ending it with hope and forgiveness rather than the expected pain and grief that could come from losing about 250,000 people (Aftershock). As a tool for recording and regenerating history, film is a very strong concept that impacts to a certain degree the track that collective memory will take. This means that in its own way, Aftershock is playing to the tunes of collective memory to build the Chinese history for a better historical context. In the movie, a good family takes care of the adopted Fang Deng. Eventually, after the death of her adoptive mother, she abandons her adoptive father and returns with a daughter named Diandian after four years (Aftershock). In the end, she also forgives her birth mother, restoring sanity to a world driven by pain and grief. This essay focuses on the Aftershock movie to illustrate and confirm Rothberg's concept of multidirectional memory.

Rothberg's Concept of Multidirectional Memory

The concept of multidirectional memory investigates the society’s ability to remember various histories and hold them in accordance with their deserved esteem. In his book where he examines the concept, Michael Rothberg considers that remembering one historical event does not eliminate the other significant historical events but only belittles them in some way unless otherwise is considered. He uses the Holocaust as an example of historical injustice which is given so much importance that it overshadows American racism and slavery among other injustices of the past (Rothberg 9). By elevating the Holocaust as the worst injustice in human history, there may be a danger of eradicating the topic of slavery and American injustice against the African American community. However, this cannot happen because the society is capable of remembering all the injustices within the right context. This is the concept of multidirectional memory which states that no matter how much one may try to belittle an event by elevating another, there are fragments of the society that will remember this particular event through generations.

How Aftershock Illustrates and Confirms Multidirectional Memory

There are two ways to appreciate the concept of multidirectional memory when watching this movie: with the first one being within the movie itself, and with the context of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake (Aftershock). Either way, it is clear that the director of the movie was trying to show that memory does not always have a linear path, and thus different people are likely to remember different things without affecting or altering the reality. In order to understand how the movie confirms this concept, it is important to look at Fang Deng in the context of the general society.

Fang Deng

Fang Deng is Li Yuanni’s daughter and Fang Da’s twin sister. The girl is stuck with her brother under the ruins and is further abandoned by her mother who has been told that she could save only one child. Rather than leaving them both under the rubble, the woman agrees to rescue her son thus condemning herself to a life of emotional turmoil and guilt. She feels the pain of a mother who could not save her daughter, and thus had to pick her son instead. She is a disappointment to herself and her daughter, who she thinks actually died under the concrete slab (Aftershock). Nevertheless, the girl managed to survive. When Fang Deng grows up, she leaves the university after getting pregnant and refusing to terminate her pregnancy as advised by her boyfriend. She disappears thus disappointing her adaptive father and abandoning him so soon after he has lost his wife. This is like a cycle in which Fang Deng is disappointed by her birth mother, and then disappoints her adaptive father.

The concept of multidirectional memory is demonstrated in this scenario when Fang Deng is readily forgiven by her adoptive father, but when she meets her birth mother, she hesitates to forgive her. The fact that she has abandoned her father in favor of her daughter should in some way overshadow the fact that her mother abandoned her in order to save her twin brother. However, she looks at the two factors differently until she hears from Fang Da how Li Yuanni has been hard on herself while thinking of her supposedly dead daughter; consequently, she manages to forgive her mother (Aftershock). In addition, the movie confirms the concept of multidirectional memory portraying a situation where the society may be able to move past any wrong after some time, but one wrongdoing does not ultimately erase or justify the others. Each one is treated individually and within its own context no matter how similar they may seem. This is why the Holocaust should not be seen as the event belittling slavery and other injustices but rather as a memory by nature.

The Tangshan Earthquake

The 1976 Tangshan Earthquake is the catastrophe that the world will not forget soon. With close to 250,000 lives being lost, this was a moment of darkness and despair, especially for the Chinese nation (Aftershock). However, the movie tells a very different story. Rather than dwelling on the fact that the earthquake tore their nation apart, the Chinese have chosen to show a bright future for their nation after the destruction brought on them by Tangshan. The two stories here are of the real history and the movie.

Back in 1976, no one would have expected the Chinese to survive and even prosper to compete with the United States as a major economic powerhouse. With all those deaths and destruction, the memory in this country was doomed to negativity and tears. However, the example of the nation’s prosperity demonstrated how the countrymen have chosen to direct their memory.

The movie ends with a scene in front of a stone memorial engraved with the names of all the people who lost their lives in the Tangshan earthquake. This signifies that people choosing to look at their history with a positive attitude and hopes about their future are not in denial about what happened. Around 250,000 names shown at the end of the movie are a clear indication that the history is solid and sad, but the future is full of hope for the Chinese nation (Aftershock).

By having the stone memorial as the final screenshot in this movie, the director intends to illustrate the concept of multidirectional memory by asserting that the victims have not been forgotten, their suffering is not belittled, and the promises of the present and the future cannot be ignored. Putting this in the Holocaust context, it may be assumed that slavery was a greater injustice, or that American racism is just as bad; however, at the time, the Holocaust was truly frightening for the Jewish people.


Remembering one aspect of a people’s history does not suppose belittling the rest of the history. The movie not only honors the memories of the people who lost their lives in the Tangshan earthquake but also offers hope to the survivors and those who have not yet born at the time. The important thing about history is that it can take many directions without eroding from one side in favor of the other as long as the agents of collective memory remain true to the facts. Therefore, history retains its value as long as it is told and retold, and remembering one thing is not the same as denying others that may have occurred within similar context.

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