For most Chinese, antagonism toward Japan is as much of a given as the rice they will have for dinner. The source of this antagonism, the Sino-Japanese War of 1931-45, is often evoked, but rarely reflected upon.
Ask any protester in the recent anti-Japanese demonstrations about the war, and they will likely mention three things: The Nanjing Massacre, the infamous Unit 731 that carried out horrific human experiments, and “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army. All of these are true. However, the salience of these particular events, all emphasized heavily in history textbooks, reflects a particularized memory of the war in the Chinese collective psyche.
The protesters who recently took the streets in China to protest Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands represent a younger generation that has not experienced the horrors of war. Many of them have little memory of the Tiananmen Square uprising, not to mention the Cultural Revolution. To these young men and women, kang zhan (the War to Resist Japanese Aggression) exists as a collection of images, statistical figures, and well-conditioned emotional responses. Such an understanding of the war is neither invalid nor inconsequential, yet it is by nature artificial and thus subject to manipulation.
As a member of this new generation, I cannot claim access to a more complete understanding of the war than my peers. However, I would like to share a few wartime stories that my grandmother recently told me. Hopefully, these personal stories will offer another perspective on the historical enmity between China and Japan.
Chinese life in wartime
My grandmother’s family lived in a rural village just outside of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. My great-grandfather, a small landlord, owned many shops in the town nearby and was thus quite well off. His proudest feat was having travelled to Shanghai to buy a gramophone, the first in the village, for his sister’s dowry. She was very pleased and entered her husband’s family with a lot of mian zi (face).
Soon after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7th, which marked the beginning of the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of mainland China, the wealthy province of Zhejiang fell into enemy hands, despite a valiant resistance effort by the Nationalist Army.
As the Japanese army advanced upon Hangzhou, my great-grandfather, famous for his cowardice, was the first to flee. He abandoned all his property, and left behind his pregnant wife, infant son, and five-year-old daughter (my grandmother). Yet somehow, one of the female workers my great-grandfather hired caught early wind of his escape and managed to convince him to bring along two of her own sons.
My great-grandfather escaped into the mountains with two children that weren’t his own. Ironically, because he was the first to flee, he was also the first to run into the Japanese. He came across a Japanese patrolling squad on the edge of a hill and was promptly confronted. Held at gunpoint, he tried to back away, unknowingly towards a cliff, and fell off still clutching the little boys’ hands. Miraculously, they all survived—the cliff was probably not very steep.
Those two boys under my great-grandfather’s care had eight other siblings. While they survived, all of their brothers and sisters, as well as their father, perished in the war.
As the Japanese invaded the village, my great-grandmother fled with her maid. Pregnant with her third child, she didn’t have the strength to walk more than a few miles. Knowing that Japanese soldiers were going to catch up to them, she urged the maid, still in her teens, to run ahead. She herself sat down in a small wood, clutching her infant son in one hand and my grandmother’s hand in the other.
The Japanese duly came. Alarmed by the cloth wrapped bundle that my great-grandmother was holding, one soldier stepped up to her, pointing his bayonet directly at the baby, demanding to be shown what was inside. When my great-grandmother unwrapped the cloth to show the infant’s face, the Japanese soldier laughed. He waved for her to go, and then turned around and left with the others.
Having walked miles and miles, my grandmother, then only five years old, was exhausted by nightfall. As her mother rested at the bottom of a small hill, she lay down on the ground, pressing her facing onto the dirt, and soon fell asleep. She woke up to a cold, sticky sensation on her cheek and neck. It was blood that had trickled down from atop the hill.
My grandmother remembers frantically running around, struck numb by fear. There were so many dead bodies, she said, the stream was dyed pink. The most frightening moment was when she tripped and fell on what she thought was a log. As she reached down, her fingers touched someone else’s, but they were cold and stiff. She’ll never forget that coldness, she said, just as she will never forget those long nights of hiding.
Chinese life today
Before I left for a language program in Japan this summer, I jokingly asked my grandma what she would think if I dated a Japanese girl. She didn’t explicitly forbid me from doing so, but from her expression I could see deep disapproval. She said that she knew that today’s Japanese were not the ones that invaded China, but she could not overcome the instinctive sense of discomfort that comes with thinking about Japan.
I understood how she felt after hearing her story. War leaves one scarred for life. Yet what I don’t understand is how the twenty and thirty year olds of today can proclaim to harbor such strong feelings of resentment and hatred towards a people many of them have never met, for a war that they have never endured.
War is a deeply personal experience, devastating beyond imagination, and can never be distilled into a few pages in a textbook. When one reflects upon war in its details and nuances, the reaction should not be one of anger and animosity, but rather one of grief and remembrance.
Despite what they proclaim to be, those advocating for war against the Japanese over the Diaoyu Islands are the ones least familiar with history. The Chinese people should not seek to perpetuate only a selective memory of the Sino-Japanese War, nor should we try to forget it altogether. To continue to de-personalize war, without reflecting upon its consequences, is truly to betray our past.
To know more about what happened before 1945, perhaps we should turn first to our grandparents, while we still have the chance.