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.
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
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