Memory Times, Memory Places: Public and private memories and commemoration of the Resistance War in China

Diana Lary, Professor Emerita, University of British Columbia

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Keynote delivered at the International Workshop “Asia’s ‘Great War’: Memories and Memoryscapes of the 1937-1945 Conflict”, University of Essex, 22 March 2014

2014 is a jiawu year, in the traditional twelve-year dating cycle. Jiawu is a year name with an ominous association. I894 was the start of the first war between China and Japan. 2014 started with a round of threats and counter threats between China and Japan, ostensibly over the ownership of a group of tiny islands, but actually over the unresolved events of the past 120 years.

Chinese leaders thunder about Japanese recalcitrance, about her failure to come to terms with the Resistance War, sometimes known as the Second Sino-Japanese War. Public protests against Japan are permitted by authorities that normally stamp hard on demonstrations. Officially-sanctioned channels have run, over the past few years, more than seventy TV series set in the Resistance War.

The Japanese prime minister, Abe Shinto, meanwhile, has publicly demonstrated this recalcitrance, apparently responding to right-wing pressure. On December 25th he paid a private visit to the Yasakuni Shrine – wearing a tail coat and striped trousers. The visit provoked predictable outrage in China and Korea. The Chinese ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, called Abe Lord Voldermont. The Japanese ambassador riposted by calling China Asia’s Voldermont.

Where does this recent hostility come from? One possibility is the ascendancy of two tough, nationalistic leaders, Xi Jinping and Abe, both men trying to win immediate popularity, so as to avoid dealing with other issues. For Xi these are corruption, inequality and pollution; for Abe there is the continuing aftermath of the tsunami disaster at Fukushima. A longer-term but more compelling reason for current bitterness is that the open commemoration of the most costly war in Chinese history is still very recent, and that the feelings stirred up by this commemoration have revived and aroused deep, raw indignation in China, even in those who have no personal memories of the war.

In the Resistance War upwards of twenty-five million Chinese people died, soldiers and civilians, and over fifty million were made refugees. The war started with a surge of patriotism, and a great sense of self-sacrifice, but within a few years those feelings had evaporated, to be replaced by anxiety and despondency. The war lasted eight years. It touched almost every part of China. At the end of the war China’s economy was ruined, vast numbers of families were separated. To make matters even worse, even before the end of the war another war started, this one the Civil War that brought the Communist Party to power in 1949. The old order in China was gone for good. The next decades, the 1950s to the 1970s, were times of political turbulence and famine, the lowest depth of which came during the Cultural Revolution (1965-75).

The gloom of the latter parts of the Resistance War left memories of hardship, loss and fear. This mood did not lift after the war, or during the Civil War. China’s internal politics and international relations, and the new orthodoxy, after 1949, that allowed only commemoration of Communist achievements in the war, though the CCP’s armed forces played a small role in the fighting as compared to the armies of the GMD.

The course of public and private commemoration of the war dead has been tortuous, heavily influenced by politics, dependent on where people ended up in 1949, on the Mainland or in Taiwan.

Memory Times

Official memory times are now important, but have become so only over the past three decades. It has taken a long time for the critical dates of the war to be officially commemorated. The lengthy delay is connected to the rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1949 the party had just won the Civil War, and was not interested in commemorating the war that had ended four years before. This attitude persisted in to the 1980s, and the start of reform in China.

The last three decades have seen a surge in commemoration. The calendar is now full of dates for commemoration. The start of all-out war in 1937 is commemorated on July 7th (七七), the official Japanese surrender ceremony in China in 1945 on September 9th (九九九)[1], the loss of Manchuria in 1931 on September 18th   (九一八). The National Peoples’ Congress has recently added two new official days of remembrance, the first September 3rd, the Victory Day of the Chinese Peoples War of Resistance to Japanese aggression, the second December 13th, the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre.

Any one of these dates can be an occasion for protests against Japan, an opportunity to express again China’s indignation at Japan’s failure to recognize her wartime actions or to express remorse for wartime atrocities. Whether the dates actually lead to protests or not is unpredictable. What is predictable is that the commemorations that do occur will be sad and bitter. They are associated with suffering and outrage, not with victory or with proud remembrance of the war dead. There is no equivalent in China to Remembrance Day, Memorial Day or Victory Day, solemn ceremonies that honour the war dead, except in Hong Kong, where November 11th ceremonies, to remember those who died during the Japanese occupation (1941-5) are still held, even after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

One time of commemoration of war dead comes outside China. August 15th, the date of the official Japanese surrender, is often the time at which Japanese officials visit the Yasakuni Shrine, where many of Japan’s dead from the Resistance War are commemorated, including among them several convicted of war crimes in China. These visits always provoke indignation in China.

Private memory times are quite different from public ones. Private commemorations of the dead are overwhelmingly family ones. In traditional China the ancestral cult required regular commemorations of the dead of one’s family. `Family’ was a restricted category. It was made up of men, generation after generation. Women were not included in their natal families, nor in the families into which they married. The exceptions were virtuous widows, a small category of exceptional women, exceptional for the fact that they refused to remarry when their husband died. They might expect to be commemorated with a congratulatory archway, a pailou 牌楼 , put up by their devoted sons.

The commemoration of the dead occurs at family festivals, at the lunar New Year and Qingming 清明festivals. At the New Year the living members get together to celebrate the family and to remember dead family members. The stress on family, alive and dead, is deeply entrenched in Chinese society, so strong that at the New Year almost everyone makes enormous efforts to get home, in a process now called the blind flood (mangliu 盲流), as tens of millions take to the trains, planes and buses to get home.

At Qingming, in early April, the living tend to the graves of the departed, and burn paper offerings to keep the needs of the dead in the afterlife supplied for the coming year. This tradition was interrupted for the first three decades of CCP rule, denounced as feudal and superstitious. So too was burial. Socialism demanded cremation, in the graphic phrase `transformation by fire (huohua火化)’. The earthen grave mounds that dotted the fields were ploughed under.

There have been large problems for families in commemorating the dead of the Resistance War. The most fundamental is that many of the war dead have no grave. This is especially true of soldiers who fell in battle. Their bodies were disposed of on or near the battlefields. Many soldier families could not even mourn a man who had not returned from the war because they did not know whether he was dead or not. The GMD military systems of notification of relatives were completely inadequate, quite apart from the fact that at the start of the war its armies were in defeat and retreat. All that could be known was that all trace of the man had been lost. He was a homeless ghost.

The opening up of China allowed the search for soldiers from the Resistance War to be revived, in the hope that they might be alive and in Taiwan. Since the 1980s relatives have been putting tiny, heart-breaking announcements in regional journals published in Taiwan, asking if for news about relatives. In 2011 the relatives of two brothers sent a plaintive message, one of several in a single issue of Guangxi wenxian 广西文献, the journal published by the Association of Guangxi Natives in Taiwan. `They left home at an early age to be soldiers, and have not yet returned. The family thinks of them, and hopes to be in touch. If they themselves, or their relatives and friends, have good news about them, please be in touch.’ The brothers had been gone from home and family for seven decades; if they were still alive they would be at least in their late eighties.

The lack of knowledge of what had happened to relatives affected civilians too. It was the fate of those killed in the incessant bombing of Chinese cities outside the Japanese-occupied areas, and in many massacres of civilians within the occupied areas. In the Nanjing Massacre, for example, the dead are nameless. The Japanese authorities did not do what the German authorities did during the Holocaust, that is keep precise records of every person transported and eliminated. It is on these hideously detailed records of the dead that much of our knowledge of the Holocaust is based. The Japanese military in Nanjing disposed of an unknown number of bodies by throwing them into the Yangzi River; others were buried in charnel pits. With no counting or identification of bodies, it is impossible to establish the number of people killed. Right-wing Japanese estimates downplay the number, Chinese sources quote figures up to two hundred thousand. The true number will never be known.

A quite different difficulty was that for powerful political reasons many of the known war dead could not be commemorated until quite recently. Most of the soldiers who died in the war were fighting in the GMD armies. The Communist government was not interested in commemorating them, after it had defeated the GMD. Some were commemorated in Taiwan; most were not.

Some people may never be able to commemorate relatives who died in the war. Some soldiers served in puppet armies (weijun 伪军) of the Japanese during the war, as did many politicians and administrators. After the war they could not be mentioned, if still alive, or commemorated if dead. The revulsion for people deemed traitors is seen in the treatment of the body of Wang Jingwei 汪精卫, the leading collaborator of the Japanese. Chan Cheong-choo, nephew of Wang’s wife, described what happened to Wang’s remains (buried after his death in 1944) in late 1945:

One night, soon after the return of Chiang Kai-shek to Nanking [Nanjing], a loud explosion was heard coming from the `Plum Flower Hill’. Vandals had laid explosives to the grave, the concrete compartment was blasted, the lid forced open, and Fourth Brother’s [Wang Jingwei] remains had disappeared. Rumours had it that the body was hacked to pieces and taken away in a sack to be dumped in a secret place known only to the perpetrators or thrown in to the Yangtse [Yangzi]. Who did it, and why the desecration? It could only had been done on explicit orders from the highest authority.

Memory Places

Official memory places are the places designated by the state for the commemoration of events and people the state deems important. They are the sites of official ceremonies, and often too the focus for collective memory.


Like memory times many official memory places of the Resistance War have been recognized only recently. The memorial to China’s largest victory in the war, at Taierzhuang台儿庄, was opened in 2006, sixty-eight years after the battle. The generals who won the victory, Li Zongren 李宗仁 and Bai Chongxi 白崇禧, and the tens of thousands of men who fought under them, were long dead.

The earliest official memorial to wartime losses at the critical battle of Hengshan 衡山(1944) was announced in 1947, seems to have disappeared, if it was ever built. There is a memorial at Hengshan a massive one, not to those who fell resisting Japan, but to Ouyang Hai 欧阳海, a Mao Era soldier martyr. He was killed in 1963, while rescuing a Peoples Liberation Army train from a runaway horse (or vice versa). Ouyang’s heroic efforts to drag the horse off the railway track as it ran towards the speeding train are portrayed in stone and bronze.

The Memorial to the People’s Heroes 人民英雄纪念碑in Tiananmen Square in Beijing was erected in the 1950s; it commemorates all who died for the revolutionary cause over more than a century; the heroes of the Resistance War scarcely count. The National Revolutionary Martyrs Memorial 國民革命忠烈祠 in Taibei, is similar in its coverage. It commemorates the dead of a very long period of revolution, going well back in to the Qing Dynasty. The GMD, like the CCP, describes the periods before and after 1911 as `revolutionary’.

That Beijing memorial was designed by two celebrated architectural historians, Liang Sicheng 梁思成 and Lin Huiyin林徽因 By a strange coincidence Lin Huiyin was the aunt of Maya Lin, the brilliant young architect who designed the memorial for the Vietnam War in Washington, though the two never met, and Maya Lin claimed never to have heard of her aunt.

What is missing in China are memorials that name the dead, such as the huge Menin Gate or the soaring Vimy Ridge Memorial on the Western Front in France. They commemorate dead soldiers whose remains were never found and thus have no individual memorial. Other, nameless soldiers are commemorated at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey.