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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Military cemeteries

There is no tradition in China of national war cemeteries. Ironically, some of the few war cemeteries for Chinese are in France, the cimitieres chinoises for the Chinese labourers who died of influenza at the end of the First World War. In China itself there are no such cemeteries. Babaoshan 八宝山, in Beijing, was set up in 1951 to hold the remains of key revolutionary figures. It was formerly the last resting place of eunuchs from the imperial palace. There is a military cemetery in Taiwan, at Wuzhishan, where places are reserved for senior figures.

The lack of cemeteries is based on the traditional assumption that the dead will be buried at home, no matter how long it takes for their remains to be taken there. This did not happen for many of the dead of the Resistance War. Besides those who died during the war and were never buried at home, those who survived the war were often not buried at home. Soldiers from the PLA who died away from home were buried or cremate where they died; the CCP’s attacks on feudal customs included refusing to follow the practice of sending the remains of the dead home. In Taiwan soldiers from the Mainland who died were buried where they lived. Many former GMD soldiers died in remote parts of China, in the prison camps or army farms to which they were sent after 1949.


Burial in underground mausolea was the imperial Chinese tradition for three thousand years. The Ming and Qing Tombs outside Beijing are only the last of an ancient imperial tradition. The vast structures were usually built long before the death of their eventual inhabitants. The Wan Li Emperor spent six years of his sixty year reign planning his immensely lavish tomb, the Ding Ling 定陵. They were not the last years of his reign, but midway through, after he had reigned for twenty years. Three hundred and fifty years after his death the tomb was ransacked and his remains burnt by Red Guards.

A version of the tradition was followed for Sun Yat-sen 孙中山the founder of the Republic. He was reburied several years after his death in a mausoleum high above Nanjing, against the wishes of his widow, Song Qingling 宋庆龄, but at the instigation of her brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-shek. Sun’s coffin initially lay in the Temple of the Azue Clouds 碧云寺 outside Beijing. At the end of the Northern Expedition that reunified China, in 1928, Chiang Kai-shek and other leaders went to report the victory to Sun. In an access of grief Chiang threw himself on the coffin.

One of the few mausolea for a leading figure in the Resistance War is the memorial in Beibei (Chongqing) to Zhang Zizhong 张自忠, the highest-ranking general killed in battle in the entire Second World War. It is particularly poignant because Zhang first fled before the Japanese armies, in 1937, but then recouped his reputation by being killed in battle in 1940. None of the other GMD generals have received official commemoration on the Mainland.

That tradition of mausolea has gone. Mao Zedong 毛泽东 has not been buried at all, but lies unburied, in a crystal sarcophagus, in the middle of Beijing. The presence of his remains runs against the Chinese tradition of burying bodies outside a city, never within.

Chiang Kai-shek has not been buried either, but lies in his coffin in Taoyuan 桃园, waiting for his remains to be sent back to his native place in Zhejiang. Offers come from Beijing occasionally to his heirs that he be buried in his native Fenghua. Chiang does have a memorial hall in the centre of Taibei, above a museum dedicated to his life. It is now often closed, given the gradual erosion of his reputation in Taiwan.

The rather creepy idea of an unburied body is far less appealing to many Chinese than the means Zhou Enlai 周恩来determined for the disposal of his body; he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the whole country, so that, in a twist on the tradition of being buried in the place where one belonged, he could belong to the whole country.

Private Memory Places

For ordinary people, as we have seen, the expectation has always been that a person’s remains should be buried at home, either the whole body, or, if that was not possible the bones alone. If someone died away from home his body would often be given temporary burial, then exhumed a few years later and the bones preserved for return to the native place. The ossuary in Victoria B.C. was run by the Chinese community there for many decades, so that those who died in Canada might eventually be buried in their native places in China. After 1937 it was impossible to send the bones back to China; eventually they were buried in a seaside graveyard, gazing at China across the Pacific. More recently, a common means of disposal of the remains of those who died away from home is cremation, followed by the ashes being buried at home.

Graves were always the sites of remembrance of the dead, the place to which the living at regular times of the year, or on important family occasions. The whole family would take offerings to the dead, and often have a picnic for the living close to the grave. Traditionally the affluent had their own graveyards, always outside a community, surrounded by dark thuja trees. The less affluent were buried in the fields or on hill sides, in graves covered with low earth mounds. Many of these graves were moved, in the 1950s, to increase agricultural land, or destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

The absence of a grave makes remembrance very difficult, and is a reason why the living may not be willing to accept that a relative is dead unless there is a grave. Without a grave the dead cannot rest.

Revival of commemoration

China entered the period of reform and opening up in the early 1980s. Since then, starting gradually and then increasing in tempo, the commemoration of the Resistance War has become a major industry. China now has an enormous number of museums and sites devoted to the Resistance War, created by national, provincial and regional governments. As the regionalist impulse has strengthened in China, every place has wanted to commemorate its own past, far distant or recent. There are memorials now at all the major battle sites There are even several sites dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek, the wartime generalissimo, including his eerie in Chongqing on Nanshan, Chongqing.

Families have responded eagerly to the freedom to remember. All over China graves have been rebuilt, often more than once, depending on the financial success of the descendents. It is a duty now for those who can afford it to rebuild family graves, and family shrines.

The Qingming Festival has been fully revived. The family gathers to perform the three bows, and to leave gifts of fruit and cakes. Paper replicas of the necessities of life are burned over the grave. As the living have got richer, so the gifts have gone beyond necessities of life and now include paper cell phones, flat-screen TVs, cars, computers and share certificates, as well as traditional paper money.


Commemoration and memory are intimately linked. Commemoration is designed to keep memory alive, but memory can and often does persist without commemoration. For a very long time this was the case in China, where open commemoration of the dead of the Resistance War was outlawed. Now many of those personal memories have been revived.

Memories may also be revived or kept alive by a sense of continuing injustice. With the Resistance War this sense of indignation has to with Japan’s attitude to the war. I quote one of the most perceptive observers of Japan, Ian Buruma. `The timing of memory retrieval is intriguing. Does memory go away when those who actually lived through particular events die? It seems not, in the case of a time as momentous as the Resistance War. There is clearly a collective memory of the war. Is this collective memory manipulated by the state? The state certainly enables it, in much the same way that it denies memories of much more recent events, particularly June 4th. But I find the insistence on manipulation demeaning to those people and their descendents whose lives were drastically altered by the war. I wish that the Japanese government would be more open about what did happen in the war, more willing to make amends.’[2]

The resurgence in memory of the Resistance War has much to do with how long memories had to be hidden, as commemoration was impossible. Official permission to be open about the war has come just in time to unlock hidden personal memories, when the survivors, now very old, can see the end of life approaching. There has been a spate recently of near-end-of-life memoirs, oral histories and blogs. The stated intent of many of these works is not to allow the past to be forgotten, a determination shown in the title of David Michael Kwan’s biography, Things that Must not be Forgotten. Kwan grew up in the Resistance War; tragically he died just after his book had been published.[3] Other works are intended to reverse unjust or negligent judgments on those who fought in the war. One of the most moving is Bai Xianyong’s Fuqin yu Minguo, a photo-biography of his father, Bai Chongxi, the greatest commander of the Resistance War who has not been given the historical prominence that his contributions merit.[4] The fact that the son is a famous writer put great pressure on him to write about his father – and has helped to make the book a best-seller.

These books, and many others, make sure that the dead are not forgotten, either in their families or in the collective memory of the Chinese people.

[1] The numerical pattern of 9/9/9 may follow the 11/11/11 end of the First World War.

[2] Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of war in Germany and Japan (London: phoenix, 2002).

[3] Michael David Kwan, Things that Must Not be Forgotten. (Toronto: Macfarlane, 2000)

[4] Bai Xianyong 白先勇, Fuqin yu Minguo 父亲与民国(Taibei: Shibao wenhua, 2012)

PDF of this keynote can be downloaded here.