Comparing the Songhu Memorials of 1934 and 1989.

The first of a series of articles by Lewis Tatt.
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Before the opening and reform that followed the death of Chairman Mao, the past century of Chinese history was told as a narrative of revolution. Japanese invasion and the Second World War were merely chapters in this narrative, sandwiched somewhere between the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the civil war between the Communist Party of China (CCP) and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT).

The Shanghai Longhua Martyrs Memorial Hall (上海龙华烈士纪念馆) exemplifies this traditional narrative, stating that ‘the battle of resistance against Japan […] added a glorious page to the military annals of the Chinese revolution…’

In this historiography, the Chinese nation was not viewed as a weak victim of Japanese aggression. Quite the opposite, China’s war casualties became ‘outstanding sons and daughters of the Chinese nation’ who ‘died heroically’.

Since China’s opening and reform in 1978 this narrative has changed. The 1980s saw an increasing emphasis upon Japanese wartime atrocities, an emphasis that the national consciousness was previously lacking. Consequently, many memorial sites to Japanese atrocities sprang up, such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall (侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆) which was constructed in 1985.

One book on the Nanjing Massacre, written in 1962, by scholars at Nanjing University’s history department was even, according to its English translator, made a classified document in China and ‘could not be published openly’. This pre-reform period emphasis away from atrocity might have been an attempt to consciously overlook the KMT’s role in the war of resistance against Japan.

The Second World War in China was preceded and followed by civil war between the communist CCP and the nationalist KMT. Defeated in 1949, the KMT fled to Taiwan, where a ‘rebel’ government held China’s seat at the UN until 1971.

Since the defenders at Nanjing in 1937 were nationalist forces and the nationalist government on Taiwan remained a potential threat, this event did not sit easily into a heroic revolutionary communist narrative.

However, following the opening and reform, China has moved towards what Wang Hui describes as ‘depoliticised politics’. In other words, China’s population is discouraged from being politically active. The government desires above all social stability and continuing economic growth. Political activity, particularly of the type witnessed during the Cultural Revolution, could only damage China’s recent economic success.

It has been argued that, under market reform and depoliticised politics, the traditional narrative of heroic revolutionary upheaval became obsolete. Such a narrative, glorifying revolution and encouraging political activity, might even be threatening to post-reform China.

Increased emphasis placed upon Japanese wartime atrocities, therefore, might well have been an attempt to provide a new focal point for Chinese nationalism that was not part of the revolutionary ideal that had been left behind in the wake of market reform.

Most of this idea of a changing narrative is pieced together from relatively recent public history sites and museums. One thing that seems to be conspicuously missing in large cities in China is war memorials produced during or soon after the war. I am of course referring to the types of memorials to World War I and World War II that are found all over Europe.

Perhaps this is down to cultural difference. Chinese culture traditionally places great importance upon revering dead ancestors, with a national holiday designated ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’ (清明节), in which families will gather together to clean the ancestral tombs. Since the family unit has both a designated place and time for remembrance of the dead it is possible that public remembrance in the form of memorials is not as necessary as in Western Europe.

However, at least some memorials were made very soon after conflicts took place. The Battle of Songhu took place in 1932 in what is now a suburb of Shanghai. Two years later a monument was built near the West Lake in Hangzhou. This was probably China’s first monument to the anti-Japanese war, and was dedicated to the 88th division that was sent in support of the 19th Army Corps defending Shanghai.

Songhu Memorial (1934)
Songhu Memorial (1934)

The monument was, however, dismantled in the 1960s. The fact the monument was commemorating the heroic deeds of a KMT army division might not have been entirely unrelated to the dismantling, considering that a nearby monument to the Chinese Volunteer Army of the Korean War survived the 1960s unscathed.

Contemporary photographs (above) reveal the original appearance of the monument, which consisted of a tall concrete block topped with a statue of two soldiers. It is tall, proud and militaristic.

An inscription describes the 88th Army as inflicting serious damage on the Japanese forces (重创日军), but otherwise information is minimal. In many ways, this monument is in sharp contrast with another monument – dedicated to the 19th Army Corps, which the 88th Army had been sent to support in the Battle of Songhu.

memorial (1989)
Songhu Memorial (1989)

Firstly, the 19th Army monument is located near the site of the battle, in a district of Shanghai. Unlike the monument to the 88th Army, it was not constructed soon after the battle and during the continuing conflict with Japan, but over fifty years later, in 1989. The appearance is smaller and much simpler in scale and, perhaps most significantly, it is surrounded by an abundance of large information boards (no less than 18).

Gone is the heroic aura of the monument to the 88th Army, instead, an inscription on the monument itself describes almost tragically the 19th Army Corps being completely wiped out by the Japanese (被日军炮火所毁). A nearby information board echoes this tone, explaining that, because of the huge disparity of strength between the Japanese and Chinese forces, the 19th Army Corps was completely wiped out. (在敌我实力悬殊下终告失败。 十九路军番号亦被取消。)

Rather than just reflecting on the military campaign, as the monument to the 88th army does, the information boards go much further, describing and events that cannot help but anger the reader. One such information board shows a photograph of a Japanese soldier bayoneting what appears to be a bound body with the caption describing the soldier as ‘torturing to death an innocent Chinese civilian’. (虐杀着无辜的中国百姓。)

Evidence of alledged torture at the hands of the Japanese displayed at the 1989 memorial.
Evidence of alleged torture at the hands of the Japanese displayed at the 1989 memorial.

The large number of information boards suggests that visitors to the site need to go away with certain knowledge. This is not a memorial in the sense of being a place where people come to mourn and remember the dead, but a site of patriotic education where everyone from local party members to school children take part in activities. With this in mind the date for the construction of the monument becomes significant; September 1989, three months after a certain incident involving students and tanks in a Beijing public square.

Just as the Chinese population was increasingly beginning to question the government, monuments were appearing that focused not on revolutionary spirit or military heroics, as they previously had, but on an external enemy. The 1934 monument to the Songhu battle fills the viewer with pride, both with its physical presence and its description of martyrs (阵亡将士) who died inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese.

By contrast, the 1989 monument lectures on a victim narrative that angers the reader, once again unifies the Chinese nation against an external aggressor many decades after the event and potentially distracts attention away from other current domestic problems.

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