Of course, Chinese Communists’ role during the war was very significant, but they did not operate in a vacuum.
Historians have come to acknowledge that the KMT’s flaws — corruption, inflation and military weakness — were, in part, a product of its long war against Japan, which it waged essentially alone between 1937 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The new openness is of great benefit. Archives that were previously restricted or closed have allowed both Chinese and foreign researchers to gather material to tell previously forbidden stories. As a result, I was able to give, for the first time in English, a comprehensive account of China’s wartime experience that combined the stories of the Nationalists and Communists who resisted the Japanese, as well as stories of Japan’s collaborators.
Many gaps remain in how China tells its war history to its own people. School textbooks remain simplistic, with the Communist role still the most prominent and the Nationalist role more of a caricature. Video games in which Chinese troops mow down Japanese soldiers are very popular, accounting for a significant share of the massive online multiplayer gaming sub-culture in China.
In general, the war against Japan is used to fuel a sense that history thwarted China’s rightful rise.
Of course, the Japanese right’s attempts to distort the history of the invasion should be condemned, as they are by many in Japan itself. However, China’s leaders and public culture should not use the revised understanding of the war as a tool to build a new nationalism.
The proper use of history in public culture is to nurture a thoughtful and skeptical attitude toward the complexities of the past. By properly addressing its history, China could really embarrass any Japanese leader who thinks about visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.
Rana Mitter is a professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate