The viewer watches an elderly Chinese woman, gaunt, bed-bound and wrapped in several layers of cloth. She seems too weak to even groan. A person approaches, removes plastic bags and rags that bind part of her body. It takes a few moments to realize what the video is depicting: the dying woman’s leg has rotted to the point that it’s a barely recognizable. She is the first person artists James T Hong (洪子健) and Chen Yin-ju (陳瀅如) met and filmed for their ongoing project about the history and victims of Japanese biological warfare in China during World War II.
“Nobody has done a documentary about [the victims]. No one cares. We picked this up because it was the idea of finding [living] proof,” Hong told the Taipei Times.
Pingfan, a suburb of Harbin, China is the starting point of the artists’ more than six-year investigation of Unit 731, the notorious headquarters of Imperial Japan’s biological weapons program, the ruins from which still exist. The scientific military unit, led by microbiologist Shiro Ishii, aimed to perfect biological weapons by experimenting on living humans, and resulted in the murder of thousands.
“When you have disease in your body, your body tries to fight it. And germs that aren’t killed by your white blood cells become stronger. [The Japanese scientists] cut people open, extracted their organs, removed those germs, bred more and put them into other people. Each time the germs became stronger. That’s why they were so good at killing people,” Hong says, explaining the lab’s operation.
In the early 1940s, the secret unit carried out a series of field tests, mostly in Zhejiang Province, designed to disperse biological weapons into large populations. Low-flying planes dropped plague-infected fleas, bacteria-contaminated foodstuffs and other vectors carrying pathogens including anthrax, glanders, cholera and typhoid onto towns and villages. Epidemic outbreaks followed; many civilians died within weeks.
Hong initially made a short video essay titled 731: Two Versions of Hell (2006-2007), which uses the same film footage as seen from the Chinese and Japanese perspectives to illustrate how history is slanted, omitted and constructed for political purposes. As the artist couple dug deeper, they met and interviewed elderly survivors in rural hamlets known as “rotten leg villages” (爛腳村) — so-called because victims of the biological experiments have open wounds on their legs that have never healed, even after 70 years.
Hong and Chen subsequently made three documentary films, all of which are currently on display at the Chi-Wen Gallery. The first part of the exhibition, which runs until July 9, shows Wounds that Never Heal (恆傷, 2009-2010) and Cutaways of Jiang Chun Gen — Forward and Back Again (前進倒退: 切剖姜春根, 2012), a quietly disturbing portrait of an elderly peasant who was infected by glanders in 1942 when he was two years old. Glanders is an infectious disease caused by bacteria mainly found in horses.
Lessons of the Blood (歷史血痕, 2004-2010), to be screened at the gallery between July 9 and July 27, is a feature-length work and a longer version of Wounds that Never Heal.
The film examines Japan’s biological warfare and its legacy in China, and covers issues such as the crimes committed by the imperial government during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the denial of war crimes by Japanese politicians, the changing historical role of the US relationship with Japan and China, and personal stories about those individuals still suffering from the horrendous results of Japan’s biological warfare.