This article will appear in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Public memory in the simplest terms can be defined as the common understanding of history within a culture. This memory is reinforced by remembrance days, schoolbooks, media, literature and film, and other cultural and institutional factors. Public memory continues to dominate the ways in which a nation or culture not only interprets its own history but its place within the international community. Chinese public memory concerning the Second Sino-Japanese War has been perhaps one of the most controversial topics of recent history and present-day international relations. Nevertheless, Chinese public memory regarding the Second Sino-Japanese War remains a worthy topic of discussion, as 1949 gave the world two case studies of Chinese culture, one in mainland China and the other in Taiwan. Mainland China after 1949 became a single party communist state established by Mao Zedong, whereas Taiwan after 1949, became home to a military dictatorship under Chiang Kai-shek until his death in 1975, when it began a transition to democracy. Both Communist China and the island of Taiwan present a remarkable difference in how the memory of the Second Sino-Japanese War has influenced Chinese culture and international relations. 

Since martial law ended in 1987, the Republic of China in Taiwan has enjoyed a relatively open democratic society. Taiwan, despite being burdened by the history of Chiang Kai-shek’s military despotism and obsessive hatred of communism, has made instrumental strides in the fostering of reconciliation between itself and the Peoples’ Republic of China and Japan. President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China in 2008 made an official apology to the victims of Chiang’s 1927 White Terror which had involved the widespread murder and torture of suspected communists. President Ma Ying-jeou’s apology was an attempt to reconcile and restore good relations between the Republic of China, the CCP and the Chinese people. No such meaningful apology has ever been issued by either Japan for its wartime atrocities according to Beijing or by the CCP itself for any human rights abuses recognised by the international community. Yinan He in a 2011 article for Europe-Asia Studies theorised that the harmonisation of national memories facilitates genuine reconciliation, while the divergence of memory between nations prevents such reconciliation. Therefore, according to He’s reasoning national memory can serve both as a bridge and a divide between nations. The Republic of China in Taiwan, at least from a diplomatic position, has done far more than both the CCP and Japan to form a bridge of reconciliation by openly admitting its guilt.  

According to Rana Mitter, under Maoist China many aspects of the war remained undiscussed until the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping and the Tiananmen demonstration of 1989 forced both the CCP and the public to revisit their memories of the war. This reflection on the past however was not part of an attempt to mobilise public sentiment, as the CCP had learnt the dangers of provoking mass movements from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. Rather, this revision of the past was something that everyone felt was necessary but dared not speak of. Beijing in the twenty-first century, as a result of this revision, has been forced to confront a type of tragic symmetry in which their racial policies, posed against the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang over the last few years, show considerable similarity to the racially motivated conduct of wartime Japan. Maoist China however, had delayed the realisation that Beijing continues to keep at arm’s length, largely due to Mao’s desire for international recognition for the Peoples’ Republic of China. When this international recognition was achieved in 1972, by China’s UN seat being reallocated to Beijing, Mao was much less neglectful of Japan’s wartime activities but still suppressed any public recollection that may have endangered China’s trade with Japan and the thawing of tensions with the U.S after Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing.

The Nanjing Massacre of 1937 has been perhaps the most traumatic scar of the war for China, memorialised today by public monuments, textbooks and demonstrations that continue to cause diplomatic rifts between Tokyo and Beijing. I remember being in my A-level class in 2019 and covering the Nanjing Massacre and taking away from that sobering lesson at 10am that this single event in modern Chinese history must have tortured the minds of every person that held it in living memory. I was later to learn while looking at CCP propaganda posters from the Chinese Civil War, that certain aspects of the Nanjing Massacre had been remembered more than others in Maoist China. These posters depicted a cowering detachment of Chiang’s troops quickly swapping their uniforms for civilian clothing in order to escape the advancing Japanese military. Under Mao the Nanjing Massacre was a reference to the incompetency of Chiang’s nationalists rather than Japan’s wartime atrocities. It was not until the 1980s that public memorials of the Nanjing Massacre began to even be constructed in Nanjing itself. In 1985, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall was built and inscribed on it were the names of the victims, and the hall itself remains located near what is referred to as the “pit of ten thousand corpses”.

It is certain for both mainland China and Taiwan that the memory of the Second Sino-Japanese War has had a far greater influence on international relations than Chinese culture itself. Memory by nature is temporary and what is remembered and forgotten is so often swayed by current events and political regimes while not having enough time to become fully embedded into the cultural psyche. Therefore, in studying historical memory we are always left with the unsatisfactory conclusion that it is always changing. 

By Isaac Feaver