China’s Historical Memory helps form Present-Day Policy towards its Territorial Disputes


Chinese military honor guard march © Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen (USAF) / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

China’s historical memory of the ‘century of humiliation’ can be found across society, in various forms. The century of humiliation was a time in which China was dominated militarily and diplomatically by western colonial powers from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. The impact of imperialism by western powers, Russia and Japan in China was torrid and led to much suffering by the Chinese people. Even to this day, there remains little accountability or guilt from those who engaged in these nefarious acts. Historical collective memory is a term to define particular narratives about historical periods or events that groups, collectives, and nations construct and identify with.


In the present day, China’s rapid rise to a global power is impressive. In Chinese government rhetoric and in the Chinese education system, China’s modern day success is often viewed with China as in contrast to the century of humiliation. This historical memory is a vital part of nation building, strengthening existing Chinese national identity, not only in China, but around the world. Globally distorted historical memory can cause problems and lead to instability. For example, the rising in tensions in the United States of America and Britain is related to the ‘whitewashing’ of history and erasure of slavery and systemic racism. Overall, historical memory can help scholars analyse existing international relations including territorial disputes because political discourse often taps into the public psyche of historical memory to further nationalist causes.


In Harbin there is a museum dedicated to a Biological warfare experiment base called Unit 731. The official title for the base is ‘The Museum of Testimony to the Crimes of Japanese Army Unit 731’. It is striking when visiting the museum, that the sense of victimhood and injustice shines brightly throughout. It is a categorical and systematic evidence based account of what happened, and highlights the lack of Japanese and international recognition or acceptance of what criminal acts took place.


This distrust of the Japanese is embedded into the Chinese psyche through historical memory. In the present day, there remains distrust and scepticism of Japan’s actions. For example, the group of uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has disputed sovereignty claims between China, Japan and Taiwan. In 2012, when the Japanese government bought some of the islands from a private owner, it culminated into anti-Japanese protests across China. This was one of many actions that angered the Chinese, including a boat collision between Chinese fisherman and Japanese border guards in 2010. To underline the importance of historical memory, Japan instructed its schools from 2014 to include the disputed islands as part of Japan in their education curriculum.


This historical memory enables China to celebrate its past whilst moving forward. By enhancing the narrative of China being harshly treated by the world, China retains its citizens' collective solidarity and patriotism with the Chinese state. It also accentuates China’s need to have a prominent international role.


China’s commitment to internationalism is underscored by its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, which is helping improve infrastructure in many countries, especially those who are fellow developing countries. Resourcefulness such as this, enables China to hark back to traditional communist values such as collectivism, the eradication of class and confronting imperialist tendencies. China’s historical memory sees itself as historically being taken advantage of by elite imperialists. Modern-day China’s role in the democratisation of international affairs for the greater good also follows the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Point 13 is to ‘Establish a common destiny between Chinese people and other people around the world with a "peaceful international environment"’.


Patriotic education in China often highlights the continuing striving for and the existing great success of the ruling communist party to restore China to its past glory days.

Dubbed ‘red tourism’, the increase in tourist sites dedicated to communist heroes, such as Mao where one can now visit his birthplace amongst many other memorials and flag poles. Many of these tourist attractions underline the long, hard struggle that those had to work and fight for the stable and equitable China there is today.


In the recent big-budget Chinese movie My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), one of the seven emotive stories about the successes of the 70 Years of the People’s Republic of China was based in Hong Kong. Released in 2019, it tells the story of the various characters from all walks of life (from senior Chinese government delegate to market watch maker) preparing and celebrating ‘going home’ (回归) - the name of the story.

The non-conventional means of inspiring historic memory is not new, the use of propaganda in film has been an international phenomenon since filmmaking was invented. However, this impressive production with many stars young and old made it one of the highest grossing films in Chinese history. Especially in 2019, where tensions in Hong Kong were high, this story reinvigorated and reinforces Chinese narratives surrounding Hong Kong. The storyline tries to reverse the western narrative of ‘negative’ Chinese interference in Hong Kong, to it being a story of being rightfully returned and an injustice righted through diplomatic means. This story supports the narrative that the ruling Communist Party of China is the firmest patriot, often in the face of great adversity. However, it is not the Communist party standing alone, but the clear collectivism of the Chinese people standing alongside. Subsequently, this collectiveness and togetherness of the Chinese people and state, empowers the advance to a better and ultimately prosperous China.


In conclusion, the Chinese reconstruction of historical memory creates a narrative for the current ruling party. Narratives and storytelling have been an effective way of communicating ideas and values for centuries.


These narratives offer legitimacy for current actions being made by ruling elites. Furthermore, it provides reassurance to the masses in security and economic terms; highlighting expansive improvements in the present social contract of China compared to China of yesteryear.


Authorities use many means to rebuild collective memory and use it to mobilize the mass and maintain its rule. In the 21st century, China uses far more than just a history textbook to create collective memory. Modern China uses mass mainstream media such as large-scale film and music productions to underpin its role in society and in the world. The CCP shines a light on its work in modernising infrastructure, but the modernisation of patriotic education is just as impressive. China’s historical memory also brings recollections of poverty and hunger. Whilst looking at the China of the present and the future, poverty in China is all but eradicated. This hope and reassurance that progress is being made gives a sense of belonging and unity to its people.


Historical memory plays an important role in society, and must reflect some shared thinking from the population at large. Black Lives Matter protests across the western world highlight the lack of perceived progression and citizen sentiment in the education curriculum. China’s current patriotic education should take such actions into account when seeing how public sentiment can change rapidly depending on the happiness and well-being of its citizens. Furthermore, as China continues to open up, China needs to look to the future of how to maintain such assertive control of historical memory. As more industries transition away from government control, and more international viewpoints are heard (such as more pro-American Hollywood movies and further digitalisation of media), there could be potential for market forces and foreign actors to assert input into historical memory.


All states in the world have some sort of patriotic education, through various means. China is not alone in creating narratives to suit its own interest. The mutual impacts of China’s historical memory and China’s role in international setting must be emphasised, because historical memories aid public support for policy decisions today, and will continue to do so in the future. Historical memory of the ‘century of humiliation’ is essential in understanding PRC’s policy towards its territorial disputes since the 1990’s.



Walker Darke



The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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