Know thy neighbour

WHENEVER THE DOORBELL rings late at night in our small Peking University apartment, we know who to expect. Our Chinese colleague in global politics at nearby Tsinghua University keeps late hours. There is now a pattern to these visits: we offer tea, he always declines – ‘no, no,’ – he says with a wave of his hand, ‘just talk, plain talk’. He had visited Japan over the long Spring Festival holiday. Late in February 2014 the doorbell rang and there he was, rugged up against the winter cold, wanting to talk.

Like a number of Chinese people we know, he admires the cleanliness and order of Japan. He had once described himself as half-Buddhist and half-Muslim. The comment came over lunch in a Buddhist temple that had been turned into a ‘vegetarian’ restaurant; the menu included beef and chicken dishes. The temples of Japan are not restaurants or museums as is often the case in China, but living places of worship.

I asked if he had visited Japan for research. He brushed that aside – he went there ‘just to look around’. Well, that was his business. I inquired if he had been to Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo commemorating those who had died serving the Japanese Empire including, controversially, fourteen A-class war criminals. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe visited the shrine in December 2012, and a number of his ministers have also been there. These visits are seen as acts of provocation throughout the region, particularly in China and South Korea. My colleague said he had been to the shrine several times, adding, ‘terrible, terrible’.

Then he leaned forward and asked rather sharply what 2014 meant to me. I knew the wrong answer was the centenary of the First World War. The chess master had me cornered.

It was the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of the first Sino–Japanese War of 1894–95, which proved a national humiliation for China. The defeat is commemorated in an imposing museum on Liugong Island, near the coastal city of Weihai in Shandong province.

At the outbreak of this war, most informed contemporaries, including the Royal and US navies, expected a Chinese victory. It wasn’t to be. The Chinese fought very bravely, sometimes heroically, but the Japanese were much better trained and more disciplined. The Chinese navy had also been undermined by corruption and mismanagement – an all-too-common story. Naval funds had been diverted to smarten up the Summer Palace by officials seeking to curry favour with the Dowager Empress Cixi. Though often blamed for mismanaged naval funds – and much else – Cixi was devastated by China’s defeat. It not only brought down the navy, but also stalled the reformist ‘self-strengthening’ program that she had long supported. The Liugong Island humiliation highlighted the difference between effective modernisation following the Meiji Restoration in 1867 in Japan and the progressive collapse of the Qing Dynasty in China.

The circular conversations with our colleague had arrived at an intriguing place. While there was plenty I did not understand about our conversational excursion, I did know that the most important Chinese anniversaries follow a sixty-year cycle. Sixty years traces the journey to wisdom across a lifetime, making one hundred and twenty years more powerful still. Our visitor had thawed out by now, but it was clear that 2014 marked an anniversary I should have known.

I HAD VISITED Liugong Island with several staff and two students from the University of Shandong, Weihai. The lovely campus meandered down to a beach so golden we might have been in Australia. The students were in their early twenties. We spent a lot of time in the museum. Each took me aside and confided that 1894–95 had been a terrible humiliation for China. It had lost most of its fleet (the Beiyang or Northern Seas Fleet) in 1894, but worse followed with the Battle of Weihaiwei in early 1895 and the surrender of Liugong Island to Japan, along with what was left of the Beiyang Fleet.

The students and I studied Xie Juantai’s famous 1898 map showing China torn apart by European nations represented as predatory beasts. I did not know then that Xie Juantai (otherwise known as Tse Tsan-tan or James See), was born in Sydney in 1872. He was an early cartoonist and co-founder of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. His map was produced a few years after Kaiser Wilhelm’s even more famous depiction of die gelbe Gefahr – the Yellow Peril. China worried about being dismembered by predatory Japan and prowling Europe; Europe worried about invasive Asia. During the 1900 Boxer Uprising, the European powers invaded Beijing as part of the Eight-Nation Alliance to lift the siege against their embassies – the only time in history that leading European powers (with the US and Japan) have acted in concert against any enemy. Troops from the Australian colonies were also involved. Over the next half century, China had more reason to worry about invasion than Europe or Japan.

As I was about to leave Weihai, I was given Weihaiwei Under British Rule (Shandong Pictorial Publishing, 2006), a beautifully illustrated paperback. The preface called it a work of national significance that detailed the ‘historic disgrace of our nation, and encourages every Chinese to understand his/her responsibilities to make our great nation strong again’. Before the title page are the words of the ‘Song of Seven Sons’ by Wen Yiduo:

Let me guard China’s most ancient sea once more
Our great philosopher’s tomb lies back of this shoreline
Mother, don’t forget that I am the brave guardian of the sea
I have the island of Liugong for my shield.
Make haste to rescue me, the time is ripe!
Behind me are buried the remains of our great forebears!
Mother! I want to return to you, Mother!

The philosopher Confucius is buried in Qufu in Shandong province. The ‘seven sons’ of the song refer to the territories taken over by foreign powers in the aftermath of the first Sino–Japanese War: Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Weihaiwei, Guangzhou Bay, Kowloon and Luda (Lushun and Dalian). Wen Yiduo composed his patriotic song in 1925, soon after the 30 May massacre of Chinese students by British authorities in Shanghai – another humiliation, and yet another demonstration of China’s inability to stop foreigners killing its citizens. Wen’s poem (set to new music) became an anthem to mark Macao’s return to mainland China in 1999.

For those of us currently in the Asia literacy or Asia capability business – which is supposed to be everyone, or at least it was at the time of the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper in 2012 – the anniversaries that nations in our region celebrate (or remember with shame) are fundamental to knowing Asia. As a settler society, Australia’s major anniversaries are regular ‘milestones’ in the nation-building process. While Aboriginal Australians find little to celebrate, the inheritors of settler Australia are encouraged to feel proud of what their forebears have achieved. These anniversaries affirm their idea of the nation. The museum on Liugong Island is very different; it speaks of the humiliation of the Chinese people. The two students came away with a clear message: ‘never let this happen to China again’.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the first Sino–Japanese War, was signed on 17 April 1895. It ceded Taiwan and quite a few other territories to Japan in perpetuity. The Diaoyu Islands are very close to Taiwan (and not particularly close to any other part of China or Japan). Like other unequal treaties, Shimonoseki made China pay a large indemnity for being humiliated, having some of its territory taken away and its fleet destroyed.

ONE DAY, IN July 2014, I took line four on the subway to meet a colleague at nearby Renmin University. Her given name translates roughly as ‘red star’, one of many patriotic names bestowed upon children throughout China in the ’50s and ’60s. Beijing, the ‘northern capital’, had turned from bitter cold to suffocating heat, from icebox to oven. My colleague and I had barely got past saying ‘hello’ when she told me that this day marked the beginning of the second Sino–Japanese War on 7 July 1937.

It had begun with what my history books told me was the ‘Marco Polo Bridge’ incident.

I discovered that Marco Polo Bridge (known to the Chinese as Lugou Bridge) is no more than an hour from Peking University – I am constantly surprised (a shameful admission) that places in China, which once seemed so utterly remote that they might have belonged to another planet, are as real as Gundagai or Jerilderie. In 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army captured this bridge, isolating the nearby city of Peking. Lugou Bridge is now the site of a huge Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War Museum.

The Marco Polo Bridge ‘incident’ recalls an even earlier one: the ‘Mukden Incident’ on 18 September 1931 in which Japanese troops set off some explosives near their own railway line. The Japanese blamed the Chinese for this, and promptly ‘retaliated’. We visited the site of the incident in Shenyang – a city that I hadn’t previously realised was the old Mukden – and the 9.18 Historical Museum, a huge memorial to this event. The Mukden Incident inspired the popular patriotic song ‘Along the Songhua River’. Our travelling companion, Li Yao, knows the words and he sings the song, softly and with feeling. It tells of a hurried departure from a home on the river following the sad events of ‘9.18, 9.18’, the repeated line driving home the date.

After the Mukden Incident, the Japanese progressively overtook what was then Manchuria, renaming it Manchukuo with Pu Yi installed as the ‘last emperor’. A trip by rail into Northeast China anytime between April and October makes the attractions of Manchuria to the invading Japanese very apparent: the train glides hour after hour through vast plains of deep, rich, well-watered soil.

In far Northeast China, in Mudanjiang (north of Vladivostok), they claim to grow the best rice (and watermelons) in the country. While almost every city or region in China claims to have the best of something desirable – peaches, apricots, grapes, beer – few dispute the Northeast’s claim to have the best rice. Mudanjiang has its own anti-Japanese war memorial and its stories of brave resistance. A large sculpture commemorates the ‘eight brave girls’ who drowned themselves rather than surrender to Japanese soldiers. As we leave the park, a mighty river of school children – led by their teachers – approach the monument to be told the story. They giggle and wave
cheekily as we pass.

The Japanese invasion took a more sinister turn in Harbin, site of Unit 731. Once again, the experience of visiting the place is so different from anything I had imagined; I’d formed the view that this was a small and rather remote ‘unit’ for experiments with biological warfare. While modern Harbin has certainly expanded, in the late 1930s Unit 731 was still within an hour or so of the city centre. There was nothing obscure about this purpose-built industrial complex designed to torture and kill the Chinese, ostensibly in the name of medical experimentation. These low, solid, sinister buildings have become another museum, carrying a none-too-subtle message about Japanese war crimes on Chinese soil.

There are many other reminders of the war against Japan. China’s State Archives Administration released the confessions of Japanese war criminals on a daily basis from 7 July to 15 August 2014. In September, authorities began publishing testimonies of one hundred survivors of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre on the website of the massacre’s dedicated memorial. All major decisions relating to Sino–Japanese relations, including the release of archives and victim testimonials, are authorised by the central government in Beijing. While these memories are certainly ‘managed’, it would be wrong to conclude that they have lost their cultural power in modern China.

THE INJUNCTION TO know and learn from history is not something the Chinese seem in danger of forgetting. It is a lesson we need to learn.

In early July 2014, Shinzō Abe was Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s very welcome guest in Australia; Abbott had earlier described Japan as Australia’s ‘best friend’ in Asia. Abe addressed both houses of parliament on 8 July. The text of his speech and Abbott’s reply have been extensively commented upon, not least the Australian prime minister’s reference to the skills and sense of honour of Japanese soldiers in World War II. But I wonder about the timing; was thought given to whether a visit on the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident was appropriate? Was an effort made to avoid 7 July? If so it was not mentioned in the commentary.

I was struck recently when the Chinese–Australian artist Jiawei Shen mentioned that he had just completed a new, thirty-metre long painting titled ‘China 1936–1937, Years of Change’, one of a series of paintings that will depict the Chinese Revolution and its aftermath. It is emphatically an epic historical painting, and on a scale that an Australian painter would be unlikely to attempt. There may be many reasons for this, but one must be that as a genre, ‘epic history painting’ does not speak to Australian sensibilities and art practices in the way that it still does in China. The depth, sweep and scale of that history make for big gestures and big emotions. In the telling of these stories, the dates matter; they are specific historic events. Shen’s work references key historical figures (four hundred and twenty of them) and events.

Australians also inhabit a big continent, but one better suited to the smaller scale and emotional ironies of personal histories. Moreover, while the First World War helped kill the heroic mode and ‘elevated diction’ in Australia and the West more generally, as Paul Fussell has argued in The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 1975), the long battle for sovereignty in China reinvigorated the heroic mode and the epic imaginary. These stories are told and re-told in songs, art, stories, operas, museums and, perhaps above all, in films. It is no easy matter to establish the number of Chinese films and documentaries that take the first and second Sino–Japanese wars as their theme, but it is well over a hundred.

There is a sound case to be made for having our history texts record 7 July 1937 as the start of the Second World War. To do so would not mean a weak-kneed capitulation to Asia literacy (or to China). On the contrary, it would help acknowledge that we are an Asia–Pacific nation whose history has been directly influenced by the rise of Asia.

Clearly, Japan’s ultimate defeat owed a great deal to its long and brutal war with China. As Rana Mitter notes in his authoritative history, China’s War with Japan 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane, 2013), China’s role in defeating Japan and the Sino–Japanese conflict more broadly has been treated as marginal to the Allied war effort. Where China is noticed at all in accounts of the Second World War it is, Mitter notes, often as ‘a bit-player’.

Yet twelve million Chinese died and millions more became refugees in an eight-year war that was critical to the defeat of the Axis powers and the making of modern China. To regard the second Sino–Japanese war as marginal to the main conflict is to misunderstand twentieth century history, the geopolitics of East Asia and the making of our world.


The author would like to thank Chengxin Pan, Changwei Chen, Colin Mackerras and Richard Rigby for valuable comments and suggestions.



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