Memories of massacres
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Within contemporary Chinese society, the Nanjing Massacre has become a preeminent symbol of Chinese nationalist pride. This recently acquired political significance, however, is not a reflection of the natural, coherent development of national memories of the 1937 Massacre. Conversely, the development of a national narrative of the Nanjing Massacre is an expression of a contentious interplay between continually evolving social and political currents within Chinese society. During the twentieth century, the Chinese nation-state experienced the dislocations associated with its transition from a dynastic political system to a socialist society led by an oppressive communist regime. Within this context of evolving national political identity, the Nanjing Massacre became an important political tool with which both Chinese government elites and citizens derived nationalist identity. Through an analysis of the evolution of national memories of the Nanjing Massacre from 1937-1997, one discerns a highly complex interplay between social, intellectual, and political actors in the development of a nationally-shared understanding of the Massacre’s implications for Chinese nationalist identity. Chinese leaders, from Chiang Kai-shek to Hu Jintao, utilized muddled public understandings of the Massacre’s events to manipulate national memories of Chinese victimhood in ways that legitimized their right to political power. Similarly, Chinese citizens, whose diverse experiences and memories of the Massacre—ranging from collaboration with the Japanese occupational government, to victimization, to ignorance of the event’s occurrence—also used the Massacre as a historical tool with which to derive Chinese nationalist identity in an era in which the Chinese sociopolitical and economic character was continually changing. This analysis thus sheds light upon the significant influence of sociopolitical trends and nationalist identity in framing contemporary understandings of the Nanjing Massacre within China.