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Chris Zheng

Standing in Silence: One Family’s Stories from the Sino-Japanese War

Chinese soldiers in camoflauge. By U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

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

The vast majority of recent anti-Japanese protesters have never endured the horrors of war. Via Caijing

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.

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Chris Zheng

Chris remembers vividly the overnight train rides of his childhood that took him across China. He lived in New Haven briefly as a kid, where he went Easter egg hunting on the Green. After graduating from high school in Shanghai, he returned to New Haven for college. He is currently a Yale junior.
  • Matthew Cooper

    Very well said, Mr Zheng!

    Militaristic jingoism (and the rose-tinted historical revision that inevitably comes with it) is always a tantalising thing in the short term. But then one thinks of the Battle of Ypres in the First World War with the young German boys marching straight into machine gun fire singing patriotic songs, and the way in which intellectuals on both sides thought prior to going in that a good war was just what Europe needed.

  • Matthew Cooper

    Very well said, Mr Zheng!

    Militaristic jingoism (and the rose-tinted historical revision that inevitably comes with it) is always a tantalising thing in the short term. But then one thinks of the Battle of Ypres in the First World War with the young German boys marching straight into machine gun fire singing patriotic songs, and the way in which intellectuals on both sides thought prior to going in that a good war was just what Europe needed.

  • Yizichen

    The CCTV has been airing endless amount of TV series about the 抗戰, unrealistic, sugar-coated dreams of heroic Chinese and dumb Japanese (always referred to as “devils”), obviously the indoctrination about Japanese people is not limited to textbooks. Very sad. (foreigners also have similarly stereotypical roles in those drama series, they are the tall, handsome and usually harmless guys who got injured and saved by friendly Chinese, who then starts learning the language and falling in love with the prettiest girl in the group)

    • Matthew Cooper

      Oh, GOD!! You just made me remember that MST3K-worthy Huanzhu Gege remake. Now I need brain bleach… :P

      But yes, the anti-Japanese subtext in Chinese television and cinema is really strong, and – more troublingly – it even starts with children’s cartoons.

  • Yizichen

    The CCTV has been airing endless amount of TV series about the 抗戰, unrealistic, sugar-coated dreams of heroic Chinese and dumb Japanese (always referred to as “devils”), obviously the indoctrination about Japanese people is not limited to textbooks. Very sad. (foreigners also have similarly stereotypical roles in those drama series, they are the tall, handsome and usually harmless guys who got injured and saved by friendly Chinese, who then starts learning the language and falling in love with the prettiest girl in the group)

    • Matthew Cooper

      Oh, GOD!! You just made me remember that MST3K-worthy Huanzhu Gege remake. Now I need brain bleach… :P

      But yes, the anti-Japanese subtext in Chinese television and cinema is really strong, and – more troublingly – it even starts with children’s cartoons.

  • Thomas Ret

    I have been trying to reconcile the atrocities Japan has committed in the past with animosity/hatred many Chinese feel today.
    You have subsumed the dilemma beautifully and the conclusion to your story – that the reflection on war should cause sadness and reflection rather than more hatred, is precisely the point to make. Thank you!

  • Thomas Ret

    I have been trying to reconcile the atrocities Japan has committed in the past with animosity/hatred many Chinese feel today.
    You have subsumed the dilemma beautifully and the conclusion to your story – that the reflection on war should cause sadness and reflection rather than more hatred, is precisely the point to make. Thank you!

  • skc

    Fantastic post. You have demonstrated the irony superbly. Those who might have experienced the worst of the Japanese possess the wisdom to realize that today’s Japanese are not the same ones as their tormenters. Those who know not of what they speak also lack the requisite wisdom to realize it.

  • skc

    Fantastic post. You have demonstrated the irony superbly. Those who might have experienced the worst of the Japanese possess the wisdom to realize that today’s Japanese are not the same ones as their tormenters. Those who know not of what they speak also lack the requisite wisdom to realize it.

  • markuc

    The Japanese today are (mostly) not the Japanese of yesterday. However, a big however, if the children textbooks are continuously updated to marginalize this part of history then who is to say that the Japanese of tomorrow will be the same as those of today? As much as people here like to criticize China, Japan have not offer a full, clear apology to China and its people for all of the atrocities committed during their militaristic past. As a matter of fact, the Class A, B & C war criminals are still being displayed prominently and prayed to by the Japanese people (and politicians). How is this okay to the world, not to mention people (Chinese, Koreans, Philipino, etc) who suffered during the war?

  • markuc

    The Japanese today are (mostly) not the Japanese of yesterday. However, a big however, if the children textbooks are continuously updated to marginalize this part of history then who is to say that the Japanese of tomorrow will be the same as those of today?

    As much as people here like to criticize China, Japan still has not offer a full, clear apology to China and its people for all of the atrocities committed during their militaristic past. As a matter of fact, the Class A, B & C war criminals are still being displayed prominently and prayed to by the Japanese people (and politicians).

    How is this okay to the world, not to mention people (Chinese, Koreans, Philipino, etc) who suffered so much during the war? Or does it just seem cooler to the western hipster or the wanna-bes chinese hipsters to bash the “communist” government. As someone who saw how China was 30 years ago before I left for the US, I can tell you that in the past 30 years this “communist” government have lifted so many people out from dire dire poverty and things have changed better for 90% of people. Yes, there are still many problems and yes it’s far from perfect. But can anyone provide another example of a country that has done this much for this many citizens in such a short period of time and against such odds? Show that to me and I’ll show you a lier.

    Don’t worry, Chinese propaganda machines will learn from the US and become more sophisticated. Give it another 20 years. With enough money, It’s not that hard to come up with another CNN or Foxnews.