The Fifteen-year War in the PRC's School Textbooks and National Museums (1949-1982)

Chan Yang

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Research on the evolution of the PRC’s Fifteen-year War remembrance is a relatively new genre.[1] Most of this research gives much greater weight to the era after the 1982 Textbook Incident, and deals with the period before that merely as a ‘preface’.[2] Thus, inevitably, this research’s examination of the pre-1982 period was insufficient.[3] One of its insufficiencies is that some important realms of the Fifteen-year War memory - i.e. literature, music, academic research, school textbooks and museums - have not been examined thoroughly enough.[4] The first aim of this paper, thus, is to provide a close-up study on two such realms: it will explore how the Fifteen-year War was presented in the PRC’s school history textbooks and national museums, and how the presentation of the war in these two realms changed or stayed intact between 1949 and 1982.

Although there are a few studies which discussed the presentation of the Fifteen-year War in the PRC’s pre-1982 textbooks and museums, there seems to be no study exclusively and systematically dealing with this topic. For instance, the study ofZhang et al., which examined the history textbooks published in different periods of the PRC, briefly introduced some narrative related to the Fifteen-year War in these textbooks. However, this study deliberately avoided the textbooks published during the Cultural Revolution period, and its introduction of the war-related narrative was reportive as well as lacking in in-depth analysis.[5] Similarly, in their works which mainly focused on the post-Mao era, He briefly discussed how the Fifteen-year War was presented in the PRC’s textbooks before 1982, and Mitter and Denton discussed the presentation in museums during the same period. Their discussions share a common problem - it is unclear what kind of sources these discussions were based on.[6]

Moreover, this paper also aims to explore which facets of the Fifteen-year War were specifically favoured, and the kind of memories of the war which were popularised in mainland China, by the CCP regime from 1949 to 1982. In addition, it aspires to challenge a well established ‘myth’ believed by both scholars working on the PRC’s war remembrance and the general public. The myth is: the atrocities perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Fifteen-year War, were deliberately omitted by the CCP regime from the public discourse before the 1982 Textbook Incident and especially during the Mao-era, because any victimhood narrative of the war was considered to have a negative impact on Chinese people’s morale. According to newly discovered data, however, the tragic side of the war was in fact widely portrayed in the PRC’s realms of the war memory before 1982.[7] This point will be further illustrated in this paper through its examination of the presentation of the Fifteen-year War in the PRC’s textbooks and museums.

In this paper, I will first introduce the basic narrative of the Fifteen-year War in the PRC’s school history textbooks and museums between 1949 and 1982. I will continue to discuss ways in which the narrative changed and stayed the same throughout the period. This paper concludes that the CCP regime preferred to remember the war as a tragically heroic war led by the CCP, and that not only the Fifteen-year War itself but also the tragic aspect of the war played an important role in the CCP regime’s practices of nation-building before 1982. Moreover, this article injects new insights as well as fresh primary materials into the relevant literature, and opens a door to the discussion of the similarities and differences between the PRC’s national war memory and various war memories that thrived in the local areas.

History Textbooks and Museums

Between 1949 and 1982, the Fifteen-year War was taught in the PRC’s schools and national history museums as an important part of Chinese modern and contemporary history. The exhibitions related to the Fifteen-year War in the museums were basically ‘supplementary reading matter’ to the relevant parts of the textbooks. The textbooks set the basic tone, while the museums provided more detail, sometimes in a more flexible manner. In this section, I will summarise the basic narrative of the Fifteen-year War in these two realms throughout the period in turn.

Selected Covers of the PRC's school history textbooks. Source: Author, 2012.

Selected Covers of the PRC's school history textbooks. Source: Author, 2012.

Prior to 1982, apart from several periods (e.g. the Cultural Revolution period), the manoeuvre of compiling, publishing and distributing school textbooks was controlled centrally in the PRC. The People’s Publisher (which was administered by the PRC’s Ministry of Education) published the first PRC made textbooks in 1955. All the textbooks published afterwards were based on the 1955 edition with minor changes until the 1990s, when a completely new series of textbooks were made. [8]

I have surveyed a selection of history textbooks used in the PRC’s primary and secondary schools, which covers the first Seventeen-year period after the PRC’s foundation, the Cultural Revolution period and the post-Cultural Revolution period. [9] The Fifteen-year War was usually divided into two parts in these textbooks: the war related events that occurred between 18 September 1931 and 7 July 1937, which were incorporated into the ‘second Civil Revolution War period’;  and the events between 7 July 1937 and 2 September 1945, which were included in the ‘War of Resistance against Japan period’. [10]

These textbooks normally started with a section providing its readers with background knowledge of the events of the first period. This section would pass on the following narrative: for a long time Japan had the ambition of turning China into its colony and this ambition was further stimulated by the Great Depression. The KMT was impotent when it was faced with this external threat; furthermore, it concentrated its troops to fight against the CCP, which gave Japan an opportunity. Following this, the Manchurian Incident and the Japanese invasion of Shanghai on 18 January 1932 would be described. These textbooks always emphasised that despite Chiang Kai-Shek issuing an order of non-resistance, the Chinese people’s own resistance (which was either spontaneous or led by the CCP) was never stopped. The Volunteer Armies, Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, the guerrillas led by Kim Il Sung and even the patriotic soldiers of the KMT’s 19th army (who withstood the invading Japanese army doggedly in Shanghai in 1932) were frequently praised. The North China Crisis and the December 9th Movement would be introduced next. The latter was normally evaluated as a stimulus for a new high tide of resisting the Japanese, as a national united front of resistance against Japan was formed after the movement. This period’s narrative would usually finish with a description of the Xi’an Incident and how Chiang Kai-Shek was forced to take action against the Japanese invasion.

Table narrating the ‘War of Resistance period’ . Source: Gaozhong Jiaoxue Cankaoshu, 1960,82

Table narrating the ‘War of Resistance period’ . Source: Gaozhong Jiaoxue Cankaoshu, 1960,82

 The ‘War of Resistance period’ was sub-divided in these textbooks into the initial phase of the war, which was fought under the national united front; and the deadlock period, which was characterised by the split between the CCP and the KMT. These textbooks normally started this period with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident when the Japanese army started the all-round war with China on the pretext that one Japanese soldier was missing. [11] The table above is directly translated from a reference book for high school history teachers. Most textbooks I surveyed followed this narrative.

In terms of the national history museums, the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (thereafter revolution museum) and the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution (thereafter military museum) were chosen as case studies for this paper. [13] As shown in figure 3, the revolution museum’s forerunner was the Central Preparatory Office for the Museum of Revolution. [14] After being established in 1950, the Preparatory Office immediately started to recruit revolutionary period pieces and organised artists to make paintings reflecting Chinese revolution. The Preparatory Office intensified its recruiting work after a decision to construct a new building for the revolution museum was made in 1958. [15]

On the other hand, the Preparatory Office started organising exhibitions soon after its inception, such as the exhibition to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the CCP and the exhibition of the massacres committed by America and the KMT’s operatives.[16] The former (it was modified into the exhibition of the party’s history in 1955) became the basic exhibition of the Preparatory Office. Gradually, relevant officials started considering expanding the exhibition by adding the periods of Old Democratic Revolution, New Democratic Revolution and Socialist Revolution. This idea was reported to the central government and approved by Deng Xiaoping in 1957. [17] In 1958, the Exhibition of Chinese Revolution History was formalised.  After several further revisions, it finally opened to the public on 1 July 1961 as the basic exhibition of the Museum of Chinese Revolution, which was also formally inaugurated on the same day (the Preparatory Office was moved to the new venue in 1959 and renamed in 1960). The building of the military museum was also completed in 1959 as a gift to the 10th anniversary of PRC. The museum as well as its basic exhibition was formally inaugurated on 1 August 1960. [18]

It is very difficult to get access to the archives of these two prestigious institutions, but fortunately, there is another reservoir of sources which can be used to explore the exhibitions organised by these museums between 1949 and 1982 which includes newspaper reports of the exhibitions, memoirs of the visitors and publicly available materials produced by the museums themselves. According to these sources, the period pieces related to the Fifteen-year War were included in both the basic and several temporary exhibitions in these two museums.

Summary of the brief history of the Museum of Chinese Revolution before 1982[12]

Summary of the brief history of the Museum of Chinese Revolution before 1982[12]

For instance, items related to the war were part of the Exhibition of Chinese Revolution History. Similar to the textbooks I surveyed before, the events after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident were presented in the ‘War of Resistance against Japan section’, and those that happened before this incident were exhibited in the ‘Second Civil Revolution War section’. The exhibition suggested that there were four major elements that contributed to victory in the Fifteen-year War: the development of the CCP, the armed struggle guided by the CCP’s strategy of the ‘people’s war’, the united front and international assistance (especially the assistance from the USSR).[19] In the Military Museum, the items related to the Fifteen-year War were displayed in the ‘Hall of the War of Resistance against Japan’, which had been popular with the museum’s visitors since its inception.[20] The periodisation of the Hall of the War of Resistance was the same as that of the Revolution Museum. Nevertheless, the Military Museum focused mainly on the martial aspects of the war.

In terms of the temporary exhibition, the most famous one related to the Fifteen-year War before 1982 was probably the revolutionary museum’s Exhibition to Commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Victory of the Great Anti-Japanese War, in 1965. This special exhibition had four parts. Part one told the audiences about various ‘criminal activities’ conducted by the axis countries via items such as the notorious Tanaka Memorial and photos of the Japanese invasion of the three provinces in Northeast China. Part two displayed items that suggested how the CCP led the Chinese people to fight with Japan during the war. Part three was about the Civil War and part four was about American ‘crimes’ of occupying Taiwan, re-arming Japan and West Germany.

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A newspaper report about the Revolution Museum. Source: Xinhua Ribao, 30 June 1961.

A newspaper report about the Revolution Museum. Source: Xinhua Ribao, 30 June 1961.

As Meisner concludes, the main theme of the Maoist era, especially during the Cultural Revolution period, was the permanent revolution, and the main task was construction and class struggle. Also, the external enemies were the US as well as its ‘running dogs’(including the right-wing Japanese government), the KMT government in Taiwan, and gradually the USSR. After Mao’s death, China experienced a short period of political turmoil, as well as sharp economic decline, often accompanied by violence. Deng Xiaoping returned to power after July 1977 and declared ‘reform and opening up’ as the party’s new line in the Eleventh Central Committee in 1978.[21] Correspondingly, a few adjustments were made to the above textbooks and museums over time according to the domestic and international atmospheres between 1949 and 1982. Nonetheless, there were also some aspects of the narrative of the Fifteen-year War that stayed intact in these realms between 1949 and 1982. The next section will discuss these adjustments and intact aspects in greater detail.

The changed and the intact

The Fifteen-year War remembrance was used in the political struggles of the factions within the CCP regime, and was also employed by the regime to mobilise Chinese people to support its position in the international community. Consequently, along with the changes in the PRC’s political climate, and the country’s altered relations with its socialist ‘friends’ and capitalist ‘enemies’, the contents related to the Fifteen-year War in the textbooks and museums were also modified.

The first major adjustment occurred after the ‘leftist’ atmosphere became increasingly severe in the PRC. For example, initially, the left-wing literature movement and the literature during the War of Resistance period were substantially discussed in the history textbooks. These two parts had been omitted from the textbooks published around the Great Leap Forward period. The part about the left-wing literature movement reappeared during the Cultural Revolution period; nevertheless, the movement was criticised and used to attack the individuals who were involved in the movement. [22] Similarly, the Battle of Pingxing Pass, which was led by Lin Biao (a CCP statesman and general of the PLA, who died after an unsuccessful coup in 1971), disappeared from the textbooks after his fall. Although it was introduced again after the Cultural Revolution, Lin’s name was no longer associated with the battle in these textbooks. The two museums were also disturbed by the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution: some people who had been praised in the museums were defamed and the displays relating to them were banned as a result. For example, items relating to Peng Xuefeng (a famous commander of the New Fourth Army who died during the war) were removed from both museums. [23] Nonetheless, after the Cultural Revolution, many people were rehabilitated, and consequently some items which had been banned from the national museums, were once again on display. Items relating to Peng Xuefeng also reappeared in the new basic exhibition - the Exhibition of the CCP’s history (democratic revolution period) - in the Revolution Museum. [24]

An archival document revealed by the exhibition “Centennial of National Museum of China”

An archival document revealed by the exhibition “Centennial of National Museum of China”

The second major adjustment was with regard to the role of foreigners in the Fifteen-year War. The alleged American and British scheme to encourage Japan to invade China in order to preserve their interests in the country and make money through ammunition trade, was taught in PRC’s schools in the 1950s and 1960s. This ‘scheme’ was seldom mentioned after the improvement in China’s relations with Western countries in the 1970s. Nevertheless, despite the improvement of the relations, wartime Westerners (i.e. the US, UK etc.) were still denounced to some extent. For example, in a middle school textbook printed in 1980 (the PRC normalised its relationship with the US on 1 January 1979), there was still such criticism, for example: ‘with the help of American imperialist’s support, the diehards of the KMT... scrambled the fruit of victory of the People’s war’. [25]

Also, during the earlier years of the PRC, the CCP regime overwhelmingly associated the Chinese victory in the war with the Soviet assistance, which was also evident from the textbooks and museums’ basic narratives. Gradually, with the Sino-Soviet alliance becoming increasingly unstable, the CCP regime started to downgrade the Soviet contribution to defeat Japan. For instance, the Exhibition to Commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Victory of the Great Anti-Japanese War, which was a temporary exhibition organised by the Revolution Museum in 1965, manifested this change. The official reviews suggested that the main theme of the exhibition was to declare how great the Chinese people, who had won such a difficult struggle under the leadership of the CCP, were. However, there was no mention of Soviet assistance. [26] This coincided with a so-called indigenisation process of the Chinese national identity after the Sino-Soviet split. [27] Nevertheless, the CCP regime did not totally invalidate the previous discourse. It still encouraged the Chinese people to be grateful for the assistance from the Soviet people led by Stalin during the war, despite the fact that the ‘revisionist Soviet Union’ had become an ‘insatiably avaricious socialist imperialist’. [28]


However, school textbooks and national museums (besides temporary exhibitions) cannot be exploited by the authority as flexibly as other realms of war memory, say, the memorial days, and the content related to the war presented through these realms have more stability.  Further, as the national anthem, history textbooks and national history museums are also very essential symbols of a nation, what can be presented through these realms must be chosen very carefully by the regime. Thus, although the textbooks and national museums have a limitation in terms of reflecting the diverse picture of Fifteen-year War remembrance in the pre-1982 PRC, these two features – stability and careful selection by the regime - makes these two realms great candidates to explore the CCP regime’s preference in terms of the Fifteen-year War remembrance. Next, I will explore which facets of the Fifteen-year War were specifically favoured by the CCP regime, by discussing the intact parts of the basic narrative of the war.

First and foremost, both the school history textbooks and the museums’ narrative of the Fifteen-year War were CCP-centric, according to the surveyed textbooks and museums. For instance, when discussing the events of the War of Resistance period, the textbooks claimed that: although in the initial phase the CCP and the KMT were united to resist the Japanese together, the former’s fighting and strategy was actually independent from and superior to the latter’s. Thus, from the beginning of the war, the KMT’s army was defeated in quick succession, while the CCP thrived by developing guerrilla forces in the Japanese occupied areas, and won several battles.  After talking about the deadlock phase, the focus of the textbooks’ narrative was on how the CCP became the leader of China’s resistance against Japan as well as its ‘running dogs’ (various puppet governments and the KMT regime), by beating back Japan’s attacks on the CCP’s bases as well as the KMT’ anti-CCP campaigns, and supporting the democratic movements in the KMT occupied areas. Furthermore, the main theme which the Revolution Museum’s basic exhibition tried to convey, was that there had been many failed revolutions in Chinese modern history. Only after the establishment of the CCP, did the Chinese revolution take on an entirely new look. It was the CCP and Mao Zedong, who led the Chinese people: they experienced a 28-year struggle but finally defeated imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism to build the new China. The period pieces related to the Fifteen-year War were also organised to be in line with this main theme.[29]

The presentation of the Fifteen-year War in the surveyed textbooks and museums was generally in a victorious tone as well. The majority of items that stayed intact in the revolution and Military Museums were things which reflected the braveness of the CCP’s army, the militia soldiers and normal Chinese people who supported the CCP. [30] For example, some letters written and a pistol used by Zuo Quan (a famous Eighth Army commander who was killed in action by the Japanese army in 1942), have been in the Revolution Museum and the Military Museum since 1952 and 1959, respectively. [31] Also, a Five-star Medal was awarded to Song Xueyi, one of the famous ‘Five Warriors of Langya Mountain’, who jumped from the Mountain after devoting his final strength to fighting the Japanese soldiers, but miraculously survived. Song donated the medal to the Revolution Museum in 1959, which was displayed in the Revolution Museum’s 1965 exhibition and it has survived until now. A boat, which was used to ambush Japanese boats by some of the CCP-affiliated militia soldiers in Baiyangdian, Tianjin, was turned over to the Revolution Museum in 1959. It was displayed on some occasions and has also survived until nowadays. [32] Interestingly, considering the CCP had fallen out with many of its communist friends during this period, the Canadian doctor Bethune was consistently applauded. [33]

Captured equipment and small items belonging to the Japanese soldiers, like weapons and a Japanese flag with buunchokyu (武運長久 continued luck in the fortunes of war) written on it, were also permanent fixtures in the two museums. For example, Okamura Yasuji submitted his sword as a token of surrendering his arms in the Surrender Ceremony of China Theatre. It was found by the PLA in the Office of the President in Nanjing and displayed in the PLA’s own weapon display hall. The sword was then turned over to the Military Museum in 1959 and has stayed there ever since. [34]

However, despite the overall heroic tone, Japanese atrocities were also mentioned to varying degrees in almost all of the surveyed textbooks and museums, and the narrative directly related to war atrocities stayed almost intact between 1949 and 1982.[35] In the textbooks, the detailed descriptions of the Japanese army’s atrocities were normally put in three places. The first of these was after the account of the Manchurian Incident, where how the Japanese had cruelly ruled Northeast China was described, to foreshadow its main narrative - how the Northeastern people had not surrendered and had started to resist the leadership of the CCP:

After having occupied Northeast China, the Japanese imperialists began their cruel colonial rule over the Northeastern people. Both the central government of the fake ‘Manchukuo’ and its local administrations were controlled by the Japanese invader. There was a kind of tithing system - if one person broke the law, ten households related to that person would be punished - this was in practice widely. The Japanese imperialists carried out slave education in order to suppress Northeastern people’s patriotism. They also encouraged people to plant and smoke opium, which destroyed the Northeastern people’s health. The Japanese army’s atrocities, such as arson, killing, loot and rape, were countless. The Japanese imperialists monopolised the economic lifeline in the Northeast. They controlled the mines, factories, transportation and so forth, forced Northeastern people to work like slaves, and grabbed the land as well as properties of the Northeastern people as they wished...but the Northeastern people did not surrender...they established the “anti-Japanese” guerrillas ... in 1935 the “anti-Japanese” guerrillas in various places were reorganised as the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army [which was under the leadership of the CCP’s Manchuria branch] [36]

The second was after the account of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, where how the Japanese army brutally occupied Chinese cities was described to criticise the KMT’s one-sided resistance. The Nanjing Massacre was singled out in a 1960 high school textbook and its successive editions. [37] An accompanying reference book for teachers (in Shanghai) included more detail about this history, which indicates that the students might have received a different degree of teaching about the Japanese atrocities from their teachers. [38] During and after the Cultural Revolution, the Nanjing Massacre was still described in the textbooks and there seemed to be a tendency to describe it more graphically:

The Japanese army carried out an insane massacre after occupying Nanjing. Some peaceful citizens in Nanjing were used as targets for practicing shooting, and some of them were used as objects for competing bayonet [skills]; some of them had gasoline thrown on them and were burned to death, some of them were buried alive and the hearts and livers of some of them were dug out. Within one month, the number of people killed was more than 300,000 and more than one-third of the houses had been burned. During that period, in the city of Nanjing, there were skeletons everywhere, rubble was heaped up and the sinister wind was blowing sadly: the whole city became a hell on earth. [39]

The third was where the textbooks narrated the difficult situation faced by the CCP’s bases in the Japanese occupied area. How the Japanese created a miserable world, where ‘there was no village which was not in mourning and where the noise of grief could be heard everywhere’  through brutal methods such as ‘burning all, killing all and looting all (the Three Alls policy), would normally be described to demonstrate how great the soldiers and people of the liberation army were to have fought back bravely and overcome the difficulties. [40]

Items relating to the Japanese atrocities, such as how the Japanese army carried out the three-all policy in its occupied area, were also exhibited in the two museums. [41] For example, a map of the ‘no-man’s’ district of Xinglong county in Hebei Province, designed by the Japanese army, was turned over by the Hebei Provincial Museum in 1959. Since then, this map has been exhibited in the Revolution Museum, and it remained there now. [42] Also, a photo of a Panjiayu village in Hebei province, where around 1,000 residents were killed by the Japanese soldiers, was displayed in the pre-1982 Revolution Museum. The swords and hand grenades of the ‘Pangjiayu revenge delegation’, comprised of the survivors of the Pangjiayu massacre as well as villagers from the adjacent area, were exhibited in the Military Museum. [43] Moreover, a skull dug out from a ‘pit of ten thousand corpses (万人坑 wanrenken) in Shandong province, was exhibited in the Military Museum, which might be the museum’s most sensational ‘ironclad proof of the Japanese invasion of China’. A cadre, originally from Shangdong province, could not help but tell of a miserable experience, that his sister and ten members of her family were killed by the Japanese, after seeing this skull. [44]

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