OXFORD, ENGLAND - Around this time of year, speculation in Asia always runs high as to whether Japan’s prime minister or other prominent politicians will visit Yasukuni Shrine.
The shrine, which honors more than a thousand indicted war criminals who took part in Japan’s disastrous war in Asia, remains a place of fascination for Japanese rightists, who persist in claiming that Japan’s war in Asia was a war of liberation against Western imperialism.
This claim sounds particularly hollow in China and South Korea, which suffered horrifically from Imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation of much of Asia.
Yet, there has always been a jarring element in official Chinese protests against the Yasukuni Shrine visits. Such visits are condemned as insensitive to the feelings of the Chinese people. But just as Japanese conservatives are rightly taken to task for refusing to acknowledge the horrors of their country’s colonialist past, so China would do well to expand discussion of its own wartime history at home.
For decades, under Mao Zedong, the only acceptable version of China’s wartime experience was that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spearheaded resistance against the Japanese, honing its armies while preparing one of the world’s most significant social revolutions, and that China’s Nationalist (Kuomintang) government under Chiang Kai-shek, weakened by incompetence and corruption, did little to oppose Japan.
Yet, in recent years, research from China has shown the enormous scale and cost of the war against Japan. Fourteen million or more Chinese were killed from 1937 to 1945, and 80 million to 100 million became refugees. And the invasion destroyed China’s roads railways, and factories.
Other significant changes also began to occur during that period. As the bombs fell on China’s wartime Nationalist capital, Chongqing, the social contract between state and society became more important.
The state demanded more from its people, including conscription and ever-higher taxes; but the people also began to demand more from their government, including adequate food provision, hygiene and medical care. To understand why the war changed China so profoundly, historians had to move away from treating the 1937-1945 period as a simple story of an inevitable Communist victory.
Thus, in the last two decades, China has started remembering its own war history anew. It helped that the Chinese government has been keen to encourage reunification with Taiwan, meaning that a more favorable view of the Nationalist government has appeared on the mainland. Indeed, in recent years, the Nationalists’ reputation in the People’s Republic has been rehabilitated in ways unimaginable just a quarter-century ago.
The Nationalists did most of the set-piece fighting between 1937 and 1945, and the stands their armies made at cities such as Changsha and Wuhan are now commemorated with museums and statues.
In Chongqing, monuments such as Chiang Kai-shek’s old villa at Huangshan have been restored, and the former leader himself is praised for his contributions to resisting the Japanese.
One of China’s top television hosts, Cui Yongyuan, began a documentary project on Communist wartime veterans, only to become distracted by his frequent encounters with Nationalist veterans who had fought the Japanese, but whose contributions had been airbrushed out of history after Mao’s victory in 1949.
Of course, Chinese Communists’ role during the war was very significant. But they did not operate in a vacuum. And historians have come to acknowledge that the Nationalist government’s flaws — corruption, inflation, military weakness — were, in part, a product of its long war against Japan, which it waged essentially alone between 1937 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
I have been a beneficiary of the new openness. Archives that were previously restricted or closed have allowed both Chinese and foreign researchers to gather materials to tell previously forbidden stories. As a result, I was able to give, for the first time in English, a comprehensive account of China’s wartime experience that combined the stories of the Nationalists and Communists who resisted the Japanese, as well as those of Japan’s local collaborators.
Many gaps remain in how China tells its war history to its own people. School textbooks remain simplistic, with the Communist role still the most prominent and the Nationalist role more of a caricature. Video games in which Chinese troops mow down Japanese soldiers are very popular, accounting for a significant share of the massive online multiplayer gaming sub-culture in China.
In general, the war against Japan is used to fuel a sense that history thwarted China’s rightful rise. Of course, the Japanese right’s attempts to distort the history of the invasion should be condemned, as they are by many in Japan itself. But China’s leaders and public culture should not use the revised understanding of the war as a tool to build a new nationalism.
The proper use of history in public culture is to nurture a thoughtful and skeptical attitude toward the complexities of the past. By achieving this, China could really embarrass any Japanese leader who thinks about visiting Yasukuni Shrine.
Rana Mitter is a professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford, and the author, most recently, of “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival” (published in North America as “Forgotten Ally”). © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)