Engaging historical memory as a lens to view the Communist Party of China’s 100th anniversary


By Dr Rebecca Cairns, Lecturer in Education, Deakin University

Throughout 2021, the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) campaign to commemorate its centenary utilised a range of strategies to promote official Party history and its preferred narrative. These included new editions of history books, exhibitions, advertising, opera, apps, light shows, TV dramas, the promotion of “red” tourism to memory sites significant to CPC history, a rap song performed by 100 rappers, documentaries and films, such as the historical drama 1921 and the children’s film, Zhou Enlai in his childhood. The CPC’s English language news site, The Global Times, zealously reported on the celebrations, including articles about the high sales of children’s Red Army costumes and Gen Z apparently flocking to play games about Party history on their mobile phones. The campaign culminated in a confident display of patriotic pageantry and power on the 1st of July when 70,000 people filled Tiananmen Square in Beijing to see president and CPC general secretary, Xi Jinping, address the nation in a one-hour speech.

As a history education researcher, I am interested in the ways this overt display of public pedagogy shapes and is shaped by collective historical memory in China, as well as how this has been interpreted by commentators in English language media outside of China. Numerous international observers have criticised the commemorations as self-indulgent propaganda and vehicles for the ‘rewriting’ of history. Commentary around the CPC’s fight against “historical nihilism” ­­­– historical accounts and commentary seen to challenge the Party’s revolutionary achievements ­– contribute to ongoing debates around an apparent national amnesia when it comes to recognising the human tragedy caused by CPC policies.

These divergent views on the use of history raise important questions about historical memory and the need to better understand how it functions in different cultural and political contexts and in different nation-states. Historians and history educators use historical memory and the related concept of historical consciousness to understand how historical awareness is formed by particular groups and particular practices. Historian Jörn Rüsen describes historical consciousness as the way individual and collective memory recalls the past in the present and as a process for generating sense of the past in the present.[i] As a process it shapes what gets consciously and unconsciously remembered and how it gets remembered, as well as what gets consciously and unconsciously forgotten.

Zheng Wang, Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Stenton Hall University, applies the concept of historical memory to foreign relations research. In this context, Wang suggests it can help us consider “how historical memory influences the actor’s interpretation and understanding of the external world in a specific situation and the conditions where historical memory influences the decision-making process.”[ii]

Wang has written extensively about how China’s hyper-nationalistic collective memory is driven by the mantra, wu wang guo chi 勿忘国耻 – never forget national humiliation.[iii] Contemporary Chinese historical consciousness, Wang says, is “powerfully influenced by the century of humiliation from the mid 1800s to mid-1900s” and is key to understanding how Chinese power is projected and its vision for the future. This is echoed in President Xi’s July 1 speech when he describes China as a nation that “will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us”[iv] – a quote seized upon by Australian media, perhaps signalling anxieties about the current state of bilateral relations. The collective memory generated around the trauma caused by foreign imperialism and war crimes – which includes events such as the Opium Wars, European treaty ports and concessions, First and Second Sino Japanese Wars, Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Nanjing Massacre – is actively channelled into future objectives around national rejuvenation at the China Dream but also acts to obscure the trauma and tragedy caused by CPC policies since 1949.

Historical memory functions in different ways in different nations and societies. Wang argues that while historical memory is difficult to quantify, when it is applied as a variable in foreign relations research, it is useful for comparing the types or levels of historical memory in different political and cultural contexts. This is helpful for trying to understand the motivations and actions of other nations, particularly in times of conflict. The framework he offers for investigating historical memory is based on a nation’s level of:

  1. Reconciliation of past conflicts/traumas
  2. Historical consciousness
  3. Openness and diversity of opinion in society regarding historical issues
  4. Political usage of historical memory

According to Wang, China’s political usage of historical memory is high, whereas its openness and diversity of opinion in society regarding historical issues is low. Applying this to Australia, we could argue that political usage of historical memory, while evident, is comparably lower and openness to diversity of opinion is comparably higher.

It is important to avoid simplistic comparisons and acknowledge that this framework cannot account for all the complexities around the function and effect of historical memory. However, recognising such patterns can challenge us to look beyond ideological differences and recognise that all nations have dominant historiographical traditions and contested discourses, and all governments participate in their own processes of historical sense-making.

In settler colonial Australia, unresolved tensions around historical memory are powerfully expressed through First Nations peoples’ calls for voice, treaty, truth, as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. To take another example, the Centenary of Federation in 2001 generated considerable political anxiety about an apparent lack of civic and historical literacy, based on research that showed few people could name Edmond Barton as Australia’s first Prime Minister or knew what federation meant. This led to a national advertising campaign that asked: “What country would forget the name of its first Prime Minister?” and governments pledging millions of dollars to history and civics education. Less attention, however, was given to the racist legacies of the White Australia policies that accompanied Australia’s Federation, which continue to have implications for Australia today.   

At moments when national, collective historical memory is officially on display to the world, as it has been in China, conceptions of historical consciousness push us to contemplate the role of the politics of memory across all nations and how these processes contribute to shifts in bilateral relations. Reflecting on how collective historical memory operates in our own national contexts also compels us to think more reflexively about these dominant discourses and remind us that an individual’s historical consciousness does not necessarily reflect that of the collective historical consciousness. Lastly, the concepts of historical memory and historical consciousness offer a promising nexus for transdisciplinary research that draws on perspectives from the fields of international relations, history and history education.


[i] Rüsen, J. (2002). Introduction: Historical Thinking as Intercultural Discourse. In J. Rüsen (Ed.), Western historical thinking: an intercultural debate. Berghahn Books.

[ii] Wang, Z. (2017). Memory, Politics, Identity and Conflict: Historical Memory as a variable. Springer International. p.59.

[iii] Wang, Z. (2012). Never forget national humiliation: historical memory in Chinese politics and foreign relations. Columbia University Press. Wang, Z. (2020) The Past’s Transformative Power. Wilson Centre Quarterly. https://www.wilsonquarterly.com/quarterly/the-ends-of-history/the-pasts-transformative-power/

[iv] Xi, J (2021). Speech by Xi Jinping at a ceremony marking the centenary of the CPC. Xinhua. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2021-07/01/c_1310038244.htm 

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