Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

A Modern History of Forgetting: The Rewriting of Social and Historical Memory in Contemporary China, 1966-Present

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

A Modern History of Forgetting: The Rewriting of Social and Historical Memory in Contemporary China, 1966-Present

Article excerpt

When speaking about social forgetting, many scholars have drawn insights from the influence of a totalitarian regime. Aleida Assmann (2008) points to the fact that totalitarian states survive on the ongoing alteration or destruction of cultural memory to coordinate the past with their present situation (p.105). "Every scrap that is left over from the past has to be changed or eliminated because an authentic piece of evidence has the power to crush the official version of the past on which the rulers base their power (Assman, 2008, p.105)." Paul Connerton (1989) suggests that a totalitarian government relies on governing how social groups remember in order to maintain control of its citizens (p.14). Their methods ranged from radical destmction to systematical erasure of the remnants of the past (Connerton, 2008). The Party slogan in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, "who controls the past ... controls the future: who controls the present controls the past (2003, p.37)," is the ultimate measure of the psychology of totalitarian regime's needs for enforcing social forgetting.

This essay navigates through China's modern history to unravel the nature and manifestations of this type of forgetting. The following examination is divided into three sections: the radical memory destruction during decade of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); the CCP's adoption of Resolution in the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reform era (1981); and the launching of a Patriotic Education Campaign after the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989-present). By characterizing the ways in which the country's ruling political power has engaged in erasing, manipulating and rewriting history of past atrocities, and later by looking at how Chinese people, especially the youth, engage with the country's recent historical events, this essay demonstrates that almost half a century of state-enforced social forgetting has inevitably resulted in a collective amnesia in the Chinese national consciousness, in which historical memory loss is at stake.


The imposed act of forgetting took its most brutal form during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. To understand its magnitude and scope, we need to begin by looking at the initiator's intention of launching the political movement.

The impetus to remould the Chinese culture had come a long way in Mao Zedong's mind. As a man who believed that "all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines (Cited in Grasso, 1997, p.211)," Mao, in his revolutionary agenda, had always placed great importance on a national cultural transformation (Watson, 1994, p69). In an essay published as early as January 1940, he zealously expressed the following desires:

For many years we Communists have struggled not only for a political and economic revolution, but for a cultural revolution as well. The goal of all these revolutions is to build a new society and a new state for the Chinese nation. That new society and new state will have not only a new politics and a new economy but a new culture ... we want to change the China which is being kept ignorant and backward under the sway of the old culture into an enlightened and progressive China under the sway of a new culture. In short, we want to build a new China. Our aim in the cultural sphere is to build a new Chinese national culture (Mao, 2002, p.79).

Twenty-six years later, however, the reality of the situation proved to be a disappointment to Mao. Not only was his grand vision for a new Chinese national culture never realised, but also his previous launch of several unsuccessful socio-political campaigns had resulted in the ineluctable destabilisation of his political career. Embroiled in an intra-Party power struggle, to regain control and to defeat his political rivals, he once again turned his attention to strategies for national cultural transformation.

At this juncture, rather than directing his efforts at building a new culture, Mao, instead, proposed to destroy the old one. …

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