The Power of Collective Memory

The Power of Collective Memory

In China, people remember the period from roughly 1849 to 1949 as the “century of humiliation.” The time was turbulent, from the First Opium War (a defeat by the British) through many other defeats and unfavorable treaties in which Chinese people were dominated by the Japanese, French and English. Although the century was declared over in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established, the Chinese remember the sting of those times and still interpret modern events through them. For example, in 1999 during the NATO bombing of Belgrade as a part of the war in (former) Yugoslavia, U.S. smart bombs hit the embassy of the People’s Republic of China, killing three reporters. Chinese leaders were infuriated, calling it a “barbaric act” and a “violation of the Geneva convention.” Chinese people held huge rallies and demonstrations against the U.S. The U.S. claimed the bombing was an accident, guided by the C.I.A.’s faulty intelligence, and President Clinton apologized. For the Chinese, the bombing was a sharp reminder of the century of humiliation and fit the narrative of domination by the west, carried forward. A friend who was recently visiting China told his hosts that their remembrance of the embassy bombing was wrong, that the bombing was an accident. They looked at him with pity, saying “You can’t possibly believe that.” They saw him as another American duped by government propaganda. Collective memory refers to how groups remember their past. The Chinese remember the century of humiliation, while Americans remember 9/11 and subsequent events, and the people of many nations remember the era of World War II. Collective memories may occur at more local levels, too. Families may remember their history or a particular salient event (e.g., a vacation in an exotic locale). Each of us has some sort of collective memory for any important social group to which we belong. These collective memories can be about facts or about interpretations, as in the remembrance of the embassy bombing. Read More: Scientific American
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