Around this time of year, speculation in Asia always runs high as to whether Japan’s prime minister or other prominent politicians will visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine, which honors more than 1,000 war criminals who took part in Japan’s disastrous war in Asia, remains a place of fascination for Japanese rightists, who persist in claiming that Japan’s war in Asia was a war of liberation against Western imperialism.
This claim sounds particularly hollow in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea, which suffered horribly from imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of much of Asia. Yet there has always been a jarring element in official Chinese protests against the Yasukuni Shrine visits. Such visits are condemned as insensitive to the feelings of the Chinese people. However, just as Japanese conservatives are rightly taken to task for refusing to acknowledge the horrors of their country’s colonialist past, so China would do well to expand discussion of its own wartime history.
For many decades, under Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the only acceptable version of China’s wartime experience was that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spearheaded the resistance against the Japanese, honing its armies while preparing one of the world’s most significant social revolutions. Meanwhile, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government under Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), weakened by incompetence and corruption, did little to oppose the Japanese.
Yet, in recent years, research from China has shown the enormous scale and cost of the war against Japan. Fourteen million or more Chinese were killed from 1937 to 1945, and 80 million to 100 million became refugees. The invasion destroyed China’s roads, railways and factories.
Other significant changes also began during that period. As the bombs fell on China’s wartime Nationalist capital, Chongqing, the social contract between state and society became more important. The state demanded more from its people, including conscription and ever-higher taxes; but the people also began to demand more from their government, including adequate food, hygiene and medical care.
To understand why the war changed China so profoundly, historians had to move away from treating the 1937-1945 period as the simple story of an inevitable Communist victory.
Thus, in the last two decades, China has started remembering its own war history anew. It helped that the Chinese government has been keen to encourage reunification with Taiwan, meaning that a more favorable view of the KMT has appeared on the mainland. Indeed, in recent years, the Nationalists’ reputation in the PRC has been rehabilitated in ways unimaginable just a quarter-century ago.
The Nationalists did most of the set-piece fighting between 1937 and 1945, and the stands their armies made at cities such as Changsha and Wuhan are now commemorated with museums and statues. In Chongqing, monuments such as Chiang Kai-shek’s old villa at Huangshan have been restored, and the former leader is praised for his contributions to resisting the Japanese.
One of China’s top television hosts, Cui Yongyuan (崔永元), began a documentary project on Communist wartime veterans, only to become distracted by his frequent encounters with Nationalist veterans who had fought the Japanese, but whose contributions had been airbrushed out of history after Mao’s victory in 1949.