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.
The collective memories of a people can change over generations. A recent study showed that both younger and older Americans listed the U.S. bombings of Japan as a critical event in World War II. However, older adults (ones alive during the war) rated the bombings quite positively (the bombs ended the war; they spared American lives) whereas younger adults rated the bombings as negative (the bombs killed and injured thousands of civilians; the war would surely have ended soon anyway). When President Obama recently visited Hiroshima, U.S. news reports referred to similar shifting opinions about the bombings over the years, as assessed by public opinion polls since the war. Collective national memories are not fixed but change with the times.
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