The ‘Magic’ of Memory: China and its Re-Remembrance of War

The ‘Magic’ of Memory: China and its Re-Remembrance of War

(Short Essay, December 2009)

More than 60 years have gone by since the Second Sino-Japanese war. Although time has moved on, the war is still very much alive in the thoughts of the Chinese. In 2009, two films on the Nanjing massacre have opened in Chinese theatres. ‘Nanking, Nanking’ was an enormous hit all over the nation. Museums keep the memory alive by automised puppets of Japanese torturing Chinese.

Rana Mitter (2000) speaks of a ‘new’ remembering of World War II. China’s war with Japan from 1931 (especially 1937-45) has had a lasting impact on the current relationship between China and Japan. Why is the memory of World War II still so alive in the midst of China-Japan relations?

Memories are an essential part of nationalism, since it gives the nation a sense of identity. Some memories are collectively forgotten or denied in order to ‘serve’ the nation, while others need to be remembered. In any case collective memories change, disappear, or come up as a response to present situations. In this way, memories are very powerful and do not always portray reality. Marketers have found this a good way to influence consumers. An experiment showed that after seeing a Disney advertisement that says “Remember the Magic”, suggesting a childhood meeting with Mickey Mouse, consumers actually started to think that they had seen Mickey when they were little (Braun 2002). This example shows how easily memories can be revived, but also created. It also shows how memory can actually be manipulated to serve as a ‘tool’ for whatever purpose.

The ‘new’ remembrance of the Sino-Japanese war also serves a purpose. According to Mitter (2000), the memories of war bring unity to a divided China, while they also symbolize present-day international threats. The revival of memories comes at a time when China has growing concerns over the US-Japan Security Alliance. In a way, remembering the war ‘justifies’ Chinese anti-Japanese feelings.

Chih-yu Shih (1995) speaks of Sino-Japan relations in terms of Japan being the ‘Other’ who solidifies the Chinese own identity. In ‘The Good War’, Mitter (2007) also names other factors for the remembrance of the war: China’s aim to reunite with Taiwan or the disappearing of Cold War motivations for downplaying Japan. These three articles all, more or less, make a strong connection between the ‘re-remembering’ of the Sino-Japanese war and present-day China-Japan relations. Although it is obvious to analyze the recent trends in this light, I do miss a more critical reading of China’s ‘war hype’. There is not enough focus on another possible purpose for China to remember the war, namely, that the Chinese might use the ‘magic’ of one strong memory in order to forget others. Does the remembrance of the war still have anything to do with Japan at all? Couldn’t it be seen as an intelligent distraction from China’s own recent past?

In ‘The Memory of History’, Michael Frisch (1981) argues against a simplistic approach to public history, since it is rooted in the problematic nature of historical consciousness. ‘Memory’ and ‘history’ have an extremely important connection, yet at the same time an extremely complicated one, since the communal memory of a people is not objective and does not necessarily depict the truth. He therefore propagates the process of historical memory itself as a subject for study.

In this light, it is not surprising to find that Japan and China have a completely different outlook on what happened in the war; they do not have the same memory of what has happened, since neither sides are objective. I do not want to deny the history between China and Japan here. Obviously, Japan and China have had a long, rocky past with atrocious episodes, like the Rape of Nanjing in 1937. Japan was a victim of war itself, as well, by the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, even after nearly 70 years, China will not let go of its grudges. The reasons for this do not necessarily have to be sought in present-day relations with Japan, but could be looked for in China’s goals for propagating nationalism as well.

In China’s political climate there is no room for freedom of press. Nevertheless, China blames Japan for changing its war-past in schoolbooks, whilst China has never openly publicized tortures and atrocities that took place during their own Cultural Revolution. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has demanded that Japan ‘face up to history’ and take ‘concrete steps to show remorse’, while China has not faced up or shown remorse to her own recent past at all yet. A common misunderstanding from Japan is that China keeps bringing up the 300,000 deaths of Nanjing in 1937, whilst their own 30 million deaths during the Cultural Revolution remain silenced. Japan blames China for cultivating anti-Japanese feelings amongst the people in order to awake nationalism (Bergstrom 2005). The constant remembrance of the Sino-Japanese war is therefore sometimes labelled as hypocritical.

The ‘re-remembrance’ of the Second Sino-Japanese war has reasons that are deeply rooted in the history and memory of China. However, it also has reasons that can be found in the present and could be beneficial for China. The scope of this position paper is too small to explore this topic. What I would like to emphasize here, is that the importance of historical memory should not be taken lightly. The concepts of ‘history’ and ‘memory’ deserve proper attention in the field of nationalism.

After all, if Disney can affect the way people remember their childhood, then China can most definitely influence the way Chinese remember their war.


Bergstrom, John. “China’s grievances and Japan’s politics” American Thinker. 4 May 2005. 23 Nov 2009.
Braun, K.A. Ellis, R. and Loftus E. “Make My Memory: How Advertising Can Change Our Memories of the Past.” Psychology & Marketing (19:1): 2002.
Frisch, Michael H. “The Memory of History.” Radical History Review (25:9): 1981.
Mitter, Rana. “China’s Good War: Voices, Locations, and Generations in the Interpretation of the War of Resistance to Japan.” In Ruptured Histories:War, Memory, and the Post-Cold War in Asia, edited by Sheila Miyoshi Jager & Rana Mitter. US: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Mitter, Rana. “Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Nationalism, History and Memory in the Beijing War of Resistance Museum, 1987-1997.” The China Quarterly. Vol. 161 (2000).
Shih, Chih-Yu. “Defining Japan: the nationalist assumption in China’s foreign policy.” International Journal Vol. 50 (1995).
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1991

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: , , ,

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *