The best books on how states manipulate historical memory

Shane Strate Author Of The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation
By Shane Strate

Who am I?

As a teacher and historian, I’m interested in the collision of cultures that resulted from western intervention in Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For young Asian nationalists, historical writing was a weapon to be wielded in the fight against imperialism. It is equally important for us to understand the forces that shape our collective memories and to recognize that historians don’t just uncover the past—they produce it. 


I wrote...

The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation

By Shane Strate,

Book cover of The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation

What is my book about?

Like the titles I’ve suggested, this book delves into how states manipulate historical memory to produce narratives that reinforce their own power. The grand narrative of Thai history celebrates the monarchy for preserving the nation from western imperialism. This selective memory ignores important episodes of loss and victimizationfor example, the perceived loss of territory that still forms the basis of irredentist sentiment in Thailand. I argue that Thailand’s twentieth-century history cannot be understood without accounting for this ‘National Humiliation’ narrative, which has generated support for border conflicts, Anti-Catholicism, and the country’s war-time alliance with Japan.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

By Viet Thanh Nguyen,

Book cover of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

Why this book?

The United States may have lost the war against North Vietnam; but it has since defeated the Vietnamese in the war for memory. Nothing Ever Dies is an examination of what Nguyen calls, “The Industry of Memory,” the production and distribution of collective memory in the service of powerful interests. He explains how the United States utilizes memorials, film, and print journalism to promote its own stories of the war while marginalizing Vietnamese narratives. Meanwhile, the post-1975 Vietnamese regime works to erase the memory of South Vietnam. Our goal, he suggests, should be the realization of an ‘ethical memory,’ one that creates space for the remembrance of both ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is a beautifully written, deeply personal, thoughtful discussion of the legacy of a conflict that continues to define both countries.  

Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

By Viet Thanh Nguyen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing Ever Dies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award
Finalist, National Book Award in Nonfiction
A New York Times Book Review "The Year in Reading" Selection

All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer comes a searching exploration of the conflict Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War-a conflict that lives on in the collective memory of both nations.

"[A] gorgeous, multifaceted examination of the war Americans call the Vietnam War-and which Vietnamese call the American War...As a writer, [Nguyen] brings…


The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

By Louisa Lim,

Book cover of The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

Why this book?

June 4, 1989 changed everything in China. When People’s Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians, they killed hundreds of people and destroyed the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. A quarter-century later, this event remains buried in China's modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People's Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim investigates how the Chinese state re-wrote its own history to absolve itself of those killings. By explaining state efforts to erase Tiananmen, and how non-state actors attempt to revive its memory, this book invites us to consider the consequences of suppressing the past.  

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

By Louisa Lim,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The People's Republic of Amnesia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"One of the best analyses of the impact of Tiananmen throughout China in the years since 1989." -The New York Times Book Review

On June 4, 1989, People's Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people. A quarter-century later, this defining event remains buried in China's modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People's Republic of Amnesia, NPR correspondent Louisa Lim offers a much-needed response to the silence surrounding the events of June 4th, charting how deeply they affected China at the time and in the 25 years
since.

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations

By Zheng Wang,

Book cover of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations

Why this book?

In the 1980s, Chinese students seeking democratic reforms pushed the Communist Party to the breaking point. Why then, is this current generation of Chinese youth so fiercely nationalistic? This question motivated Zheng Wang to examine how Beijing re-structured the country’s education system beginning in the 1990s. Chinese educators began cultivating suspicion of The West by teaching a history of ‘National Humiliation,’ creating a collective memory of how China was bullied or victimized by Europe and Japan. This narrative of National Humiliation, Zheng suggests, also explains China’s disproportionate responses to perceive slights on the international stage. There is an entire industry of books claiming expertise on the Chinese worldview, but this is one of the best. 

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations

By Zheng Wang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never Forget National Humiliation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How could the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only survive but even thrive, regaining the support of many Chinese citizens after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989? Why has popular sentiment turned toward anti-Western nationalism despite the anti-dictatorship democratic movements of the 1980s? And why has China been more assertive toward the United States and Japan in foreign policy but relatively conciliatory toward smaller countries in conflict? Offering an explanation for these unexpected trends, Zheng Wang follows the Communist government's ideological reeducation of the public, which relentlessly portrays China as the victim of foreign imperialist bullying during "one hundred years…

Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992

By Shahid Amin,

Book cover of Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992

Why this book?

In 1922, protestors in the northern Indian town of Chauri Chaura set fire to a local police station, killing the twenty-two policemen trapped inside. The event prompted Ghandi to question whether Indians were ready for independence and led to a suspension of the non-cooperation campaign. In his book, Amin explores how memory of this local affair, marked by violence, became entangled in a larger national narrative that emphasized non-violence. The result is a work that deconstructs how historical narrative is produced, and how the story of Chauri Chaura differs based on whether it's told by regional or state and national parties. This book is highly original in its presentation, use of source material, and methods of analysis. 

Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992

By Shahid Amin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Event, Metaphor, Memory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Taking Gandhi's statements about civil disobedience to heart, in February 1922 residents from the villages around the north Indian market town of Chauri Chaura attacked the local police station, burned it to the ground and murdered twenty-three constables. Appalled that his teachings were turned to violent ends, Gandhi called off his Noncooperation Movement and fasted to bring the people back to nonviolence. In the meantime, the British government denied that the riot reflected Indian resistance to its rule and tried the rioters as common criminals. These events have taken on great symbolic importance among Indians, both in the immediate region…

Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

By Thongchai Winichakul,

Book cover of Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

Why this book?

What happens when a society is unwilling to acknowledge acts of barbarism in its past? In 1976, while leading a student protest at Thammasat University, Thongchai Winichakul watched in horror as government forces and rightist elements stormed the campus, killing over eighty of his fellow students and committing unspeakable acts on the living and the dead. He wrote this book to help process memories of an atrocity that took the lives of his friends and haunted his career as a Thai historian. To this day, the Thammasat massacre is marked only by silence from official sources. As a result, Thongchai observes that Thai society is trapped in a state of ‘unforgetting,’ unable to either remember or forget the trauma.

Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

By Thongchai Winichakul,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moments of Silence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The massacre on October 6, 1976, in Bangkok was brutal and violent, its savagery unprecedented in modern Thai history. Four decades later there has been no investigation into the atrocity; information remains limited, the truth unknown. There has been no collective coming to terms with what happened or who is responsible. Thai society still refuses to confront this dark page in its history.

Moments of Silence focuses on the silence that surrounds the October 6 massacre. Silence, the book argues, is not forgetting. Rather it signals an inability to forget or remember-or to articulate a socially meaningful memory. It is…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, politics, and activists?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, politics, and activists.

China Explore 420 books about China
Politics Explore 434 books about politics
Activists Explore 18 books about activists

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Telling the Truth, Afterlives of Chinese Communism, and The Dynamics of Chinese Politics if you like this list.