Here in China’s old southern capital, 100,000 extras gathered to be part of a film, released today, re-creating the 1937 Rape of Nanking by Japanese invaders. Hundreds of people lay on the ground all day portraying bayoneted corpses; several dozen of them were more than 80 years old, survivors of the original massacre of nearly 300,000 by Japanese invaders in this city now known as Nanjing.
“It was very hard for them, physically and emotionally, to do this,” said the film’s director, Wu Ziniu, who shot the sequences in January in freezing temperatures. “But they were afraid their story would be forgotten.”
The Chinese survivors’ desire to remember the carnage parallels that of the 100,000 people who gathered Sunday in Hiroshima, Japan, for a dramatic commemoration of the atomic bomb explosion there half a century ago.
For Japan, the observance at Hiroshima reinforces the image of a country transformed from aggressor to victim by the blast, now a peace-loving nation whose mantra is “never again.”
In China, where more people were killed in the Rape of Nanking than in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts, official history and popular culture combine to trumpet the opposite message: “We must strengthen the nation to prevent another military humiliation.”
Fearing that its role as victim will be co-opted by Japan, that its part in the Allied victory in World War II will be forgotten by the United States and that the power of the Communist Party is waning at home, China has launched a nationwide campaign to foster patriotism and keep wartime passions burning. Groups ranging from party leaders to schoolchildren are marched through exhibits depicting “the war that brought such great pains and casualties to the Chinese people.”
Every night on Chinese television news broadcasts, wizened war heroes recount anti-Japanese battles. Every day, newspapers devote entire pages to survivors’ tales of Japanese brutalities, transforming the personal accounts into collective memories.
On Aug. 5, in an event organized by the government, more than 6,000 Chinese army veterans, including a 104-year-old former soldier, made Beijing’s Olympic Stadium echo with revolutionary songs that troops sang during the 1930s and ‘40s. The battle hymns “highlight the strong will of the Chinese people against Japanese aggressors” and “show the great might of the Chinese nation,” concert sponsors said.
Movie theaters and television have been screening 100 old patriotic war films in the run-up to the anniversary of the war’s end. “These movies are not only an illustrious page in China’s film annals, but also a good textbook for educating people, especially the youth, in patriotism and the revolutionary tradition,” said Sun Jiazheng, minister of radio, film and television.
Academics say the past has a message for the present. “China is not just dwelling on the past,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at Indiana University who has studied war commemorations conducted by China over the decades. “It is concerned with very contemporary issues, the search for an assertive, powerful place in the world.”
The nationalistic overtones of the campaign dovetail with China’s recent military muscle-flexing. Late last month, China conducted missile tests designed to remind Taiwan that Beijing would invade if the island state tried to declare independence. On Thursday, China announced a second set of missile tests in the East China Sea north of Taiwan to start next week.
Other Asian nations worry about China’s recent military buildup and bold claims to contested islands in the South China Sea.
“China’s current military assertiveness is very much part of the power struggle between China’s future leaders,” said Edward Friedman, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. Old army hard-liners have seized the moment to come out of retirement and challenge President Jiang Zemin’s emphasis on economic liberalization, which they say has invited destabilizing corruption.
The campaign also renews the rivalry between China and Japan. The two have been locked in an uneasy duet all century, switching roles between victor and victim, allies and enemies.
“During the war, China was the mirror image of Japan--heroic soldiers warding off the little yellow men,” said historian John Dower, an expert on World War II propaganda and images. “Then, postwar, the mirrors switch: Suddenly we have democratic Japan versus China, the red menace.”
China feels that Japan, the loser of the war, has received better treatment from the United States, and it resents Japan’s economic dominance in the region, he says. Despite postwar shifts and new economic alliances, memories of Japan’s brutalities may remain crystallized here until Japan apologizes for them. Until that happens, Beijing finds a certain political advantage in exploiting Tokyo’s unresolved war guilt.
When Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama visited China recently, Beijing asked to renegotiate loan repayments that were escalating along with the high yen. Implicit was the assertion that Japan still owes China not only for unacknowledged atrocities and Chinese casualties during the war--22 million, China says--but also for huge economic losses.
“The unstated nature of [Japanese] aid to China is compensation for World War II,” said a source close to the governmental talks. “Japan is vulnerable to that kind of pressure.”
At the same time, Beijing must carefully control the anti-Japanese sentiment the recent campaign has stirred up, in order not to spook its No. 1 trading partner, and provincial officials in areas dependent on Japanese money have had to soothe investors, encouraging them to look to the long term and “build a lasting partnership for peace.”
“I want to go back to Japan,” a Tokyo businessman half-joked this week. “The anti-Japanese message has been in all the newspapers for months--and in business meetings, someone always mentions the war.”
On Monday, police raided a press conference held by war victims preparing to file a lawsuit against Japan demanding compensation, then detained leading campaigner Tong Zeng two days later. The government “did not agree with [the activists’] position,” an official news report said.
Although the Chinese government gave up rights to reparations when the two countries normalized relations in 1972--a hugely unpopular move--just last year, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official encouraged Japan to settle with individual claimants. But, Wasserstrom said, “Beijing doesn’t want to have poor relations with Japan and the United States at the same time.”
China is currently feuding with the United States over several issues, including Chinese missile sales to Pakistan and the arrest of Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu. While China barely appears in American wartime commemorations, which have been focused on Japan and Europe, the role of U.S. wartime cooperation has been alternately highlighted and downplayed in China, according to the changing tenor of relations between the two countries.
As moves toward a capitalist-style economy erode the Chinese Communist Party’s authority, the patriotic campaign is also aimed at maintaining domestic stability.
Indeed, a major chord of the war commemorations is party-led Chinese heroism and strength--a theme that resounds in the current nationalistic campaign. In June, state scholars met at Yanan--where Communist leaders were headquartered in caves during the war--to reaffirm the party’s role in ending the 14-year struggle.
The scholars concluded that Chinese killed more than 1 million Japanese soldiers on the mainland, more than all the Allied troops together. “Because of the Chinese people’s bitter struggle, the Japanese war machine was blocked on the Chinese battlefield and couldn’t make its way out of Asia to meet up with Nazi Germany,” said party academic Chen Shu.
That, he said, “allowed both time and breathing space for the Allied countries’ victory.”