The Battlefield of Memory: On Rana Mitter’s “China’s Good War”

December 15, 2020   •   By Yangyang Cheng

China’s Good War

Rana Mitter

WHEN THE SOLDIERS on the screen fell down in a hail of bullets, their screams drowned out by the sound of gunfire, there was an audible gasp in the auditorium. I winced and turned around to look at my mother, who was seated a few rows behind me. The lights were dimmed, so I could not make out her face. She whispered to her colleague next to her, and I imagined them discussing if the film was suitable for a young audience. At home, whenever a gory scene appeared on TV, even if it was in a nature program, she would cover my eyes or change the channel. Here at the cinema, she was no longer a soft-hearted parent, but the stern head teacher to a class of 50 rambunctious eight-year-olds, her daughter among them.


In our provincial city in the late 1990s, an afternoon at the movies was a rare treat for my classmates and me. Before we left for the theater, the teacher — my mother — had reminded us that the trip was not for entertainment but for our “patriotic education.”


We were watching The Bloody Battle of Taierzhuang, which we had been told depicted the first major Chinese victory against Japan in World War II. At the end of the two-hour-long saga, the sight of a red flag flying over the battered city filled my heart with pride. What I did not notice was the cerulean sky and white sun on the crimson fabric, the banner of the Republic of China, which was led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party. The red flag I knew had five gold stars and represented the People’s Republic of China, the country founded in 1949 in which I was born.


As a young child, I did not put much thought into who had led the Chinese against Japan. Once, at home, I had heard my father make a casual comment that the War of Resistance, as World War II is known in China, was mostly fought by the Nationalists. When I repeated the statement over dinner, my mother stared at her husband as if he were one of her disobedient students. After a long, awkward silence, she turned to look at me and said, “the Nationalists and the Communists cooperated,” before telling everyone at the table to never speak of this again.


For Chinese people of my parents’ generation, their youth was marred by years of extreme political fervor, during which expression of sympathy for the Nationalists was deemed treasonous. The Bloody Battle of Taierzhuang, released in 1986 to wide acclaim, marked an important transition in the public memory of the war. Since then, instead of allowing only Communist heroes, the official account in recent years has depicted the Nationalists in a more positive light. This shifting narrative, as well as the political calculations behind the reassessment, is the focus of China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism, a new book by Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford whose previous publications include Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945.


While Forgotten Ally offers an engaging account of World War II in China, the new book explores its aftermath: how the war is remembered and whom the memory serves. As Mitter notes in both works, China’s role in the war deserves more attention in the Anglophone sphere. Studies in this field are critical for constructing a more balanced record of the conflict, as well as for understanding contemporary China. From academic journals to museum exhibits and from books to films, the Chinese government has permitted, and at times embraced, a more diverse and confident remembering of the war, which it uses to command devotion at home and respect from abroad. Ambitious in theme and scope, China’s Good War is a valuable contribution to this important topic. The subject is especially timely at this moment of geopolitical upheaval, when the old postwar order is breaking apart and a new world is struggling to be born.


Having enjoyed Mitter’s earlier books on China, I was eager to delve into his latest work. After reading China’s Good War for the first time, I kept going back to the different chapters, checking if I had missed anything. Considering the breadth of its theme, the new book is surprisingly short. It rushes through several topics which deserve more careful discussion, and leaves certain key issues unsaid. By presenting World War II as a geopolitical event, not first and foremost as a human tragedy, the book follows a state-centric framework which, at critical points, accepts Beijing’s definitions of “China” and “Chinese-ness” without proper interrogation. I find myself unsatisfied not just for what a book on this topic could have been, but also because it reflects the prevalent approach in the Anglophone world when writing about China: to focus on the Chinese government, its actions and its intentions, to view Chinese identity as easily bound by political borders and Chinese experience as filtered through the lens of the state.


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“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” wrote the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. In China, the battle over memory is a condition of living; the recollections of World War II form a landscape constantly redrawn.


During the ideological rigidity of the Mao years, political discourse centered on class struggle. The war against Japan was remembered, but its events, as Mitter summarizes, were interpreted as part of the Communist revolution. The role of the Nationalists was minimized. Iconic films in the 1960s wove fantastical tales of peasant militia in the Communist-controlled regions, who thwarted Japan’s invasion with clever and daring raids.


By the time I started elementary school in the mid-1990s, World War II had taken a prominent place in the national conversation. As Mitter explains in the book, the brief period of liberalization in the 1980s had broken old taboos, allowing for a more honest evaluation of China’s past. After the death of Mao in 1976, his relentless campaigns having left the country in shambles, communism lost its mass appeal. The government needed a new ideology to buttress its legitimacy. One answer was nationalism. The war against Japan, writes Mitter, “proved to be a powerful vehicle for that new nationalism.”


The official story is never the only story. Even in an authoritarian state like China, scholars, journalists, and artists have probed the limit of what is permissible by preserving and presenting more nuanced perspectives of the war. The book is at its strongest when exploring these divergent narratives. Mitter documents how the writer Fan Jianchuan used World War II memorabilia as starting points for his 2000 book One Person’s War of Resistance, where the Nationalists were portrayed as patriots fighting on the same side as the Communists. In 2010, the popular TV host Cui Yongyuan launched a documentary series, My War of Resistance, featuring interviews with former Nationalist soldiers. While both Cui and Fan were firm in their criticism of the ones who collaborated with Japan, they also expressed sympathy that, in war, people made difficult choices.


In the chapter on regional memory and wartime identity, arguably the highlight of the book, Mitter tells the story of two very different Chinese cities: Chongqing in the south, the temporary capital for the Nationalist government, and Yan’an in the north, the base for Mao and his comrades. A wide range of issues are covered in brisk, but thoughtful, manner. In both locales, sexism endangered women’s lives and hindered their political participation. Refugees endured extreme hardship to flee Japanese aggression. Both parties resorted to dictatorial tactics to ensure political loyalty. Away from the frontlines, the humanizing lens complicates the narrative of victor or victim, adding depth and dimension to the intellectual landscape.


It is regrettable that in exploring regional differences, China’s Good War speaks only of the Han majority’s experience. Other than brief mentions of Manchuria in the northeast, the book does not include discussion of China’s borderlands or ethnic minorities. Some of these regions were not involved in sustained military conflict with Japan, but their present-day status as “Chinese” was a result of the war and its immediate aftermath, including geopolitical maneuvering among winning powers and colonial settlements by Han Chinese. In a new book to be published later this fall, China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, the historian Kelly A. Hammond shows that Imperial Japan appealed to Muslims in northern China in order to obstruct the Nationalists’ nation-building efforts.


A single book cannot cover the full complexity of a country as vast and diverse as China. What concerns me about China’s Good War is not so much its choice of topics but the underlying assumption such a choice implies, that China is a Han nation and “Chinese-ness” is defined by Han culture. If a book about the United States includes only white people, it can contain plenty of worthy insights, but its image of the country is still irredeemably skewed. To grasp the idea of a nation, one cannot look only at those comfortably at the center. The many layers of a national identity, with all its promises and deception, only unfold at the margins.


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While Beijing has shown considerable willingness to broach previously forbidden topics about World War II, its tolerance fractures when historical truth challenges the state’s founding myth. The Communist Party assumes power not as the rebel who won the Civil War, but as the savior who liberated the people from a corrupt, inept ruler. This domestic narrative, which demands some degree of villainizing the Nationalists, inevitably comes into conflict with the government’s other objectives. Rehabilitating the Nationalists, Mitter explains, helps with national cohesion and serves as an olive branch to Taiwan. As China sheds the Mao-era image of a revolutionary state and recasts itself as a responsible stakeholder, its claim of being “present at the creation” of the postwar order also relies on the legitimacy of the Nationalist government at the time.


The final chapter of the book focuses on China’s foreign relations, which, according to Mitter, “have been significantly shaped by its attempt to change the collective memory of the war.” The Chinese government routinely uses its interpretation of history to justify territorial claims. In its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Beijing refers to the 1943 Cairo Declaration, ignoring the fact that the relevant clause addresses the Republic of China and does not explicitly mention the islands. Mitter says the dispute “lay dormant for decades until the early 2010s,” which is less than accurate. As political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss documents in Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, jurisdiction over the islands was a frequent source of tension in the early 2000s, contributing to large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations across China in 2005. The controversy also erupted on multiple occasions in the 1990s, but the Chinese government stymied the protests.


Over the past few years, the Chinese government has forced everyone from foreign airlines to clothing manufacturers to abide by its version of the map. “A part of China since ancient times” is the phrase it attaches to every contested territory. The land Beijing governs is home to some of the oldest civilizations, but China as we know it is a modern creation. The borderlands with majority ethnic minority populations were never fully controlled by previous Chinese empires. They became “a part of China” as a result of state expansion and conquest by the Nationalist and later Communist governments.


Mitter identifies “one element of genuine continuity” between the two Chinese governments: “the drive to end imperialism in Asia.” By describing both parties as “anti-imperialist,” even in their territorial ambitions, it is unclear whether Mitter agrees with the label, which would be problematic, or is simply acknowledging the parties’ own rhetoric. In the latter case, the book would benefit from a clarification that a state can simultaneously resist imperial aggression from other countries and be a perpetrator of similar behavior itself.


In the early days of the People’s Republic, partly inspired by the internationalism in communist ideology, the Chinese government adopted a relatively inclusive ethnic policy, as it tried to forge a multicultural nation from the ruins of war. China today is no longer an impoverished backwater. As the country contends with its new superpower status, which is the backdrop for Mitter’s book, its assertiveness is increasingly manifested as an aggressive ethnonationalism, where minority customs, languages, and religious practices are violently suppressed. By essentializing Chinese-ness and defaulting it as Han-ness, the book misses this critical development in Chinese national identity. By paying attention to only external belligerence, but not internal strife, its concept of Chinese sovereignty is also incomplete.


China’s Good War concludes with a section on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s much-hyped overseas infrastructure investment program. BRI is frequently compared to the Marshall Plan, despite key differences between the two and the governments that initiated them, as Mitter details in the book. I must confess personal disappointment that, when pointing out issues with BRI, the book makes no mention of Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China where the mass internment of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities is mounting to cultural genocide. Xinjiang borders several BRI countries, and Beijing has applied financial pressure to silence them over its human rights abuses. By sticking with a Han-centric approach and omitting discussion of Xinjiang, the book also fails to identify the connections between Beijing’s ethnic-based oppression, its relationship with other countries, and its weak moral standing on the international stage.


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I left China in 2009 for graduate school in the United States, where I live and work. It is only from an ocean away, on a foreign land and in a foreign tongue, that I have been able to fill in the lost segments of my country’s history and absorb details about its decades of unspeakable trauma. In the government-sanctioned materials for “patriotic education,” Japan never felt like a real country, nor its soldiers like actual people. The nation existed in abstraction, like a character in a fable; all the verbs were frozen in past tense. As Mitter argues, when events of World War II are portrayed in the public sphere, ostensibly centering wartime “Chinese virtue in the face of Japanese savagery,” “[t]he Japanese are a foil, while the real target is some perceived sense of Chinese moral weakness” in the present day, be it consumerism or a lack of national allegiance.


In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen describes a “just memory” of war as remembering both the humanity and the inhumanity, in us as well as in the other. Painting the Japanese as uniquely evil makes easy propaganda, but believing so only obstructs one’s understanding of the self. The Chinese, as any people, are capable of great cruelty, especially when the violence is incited and institutionalized by the state. While the war with Japan is given national spotlight, the devastations caused by one’s own have largely been obliterated from the public consciousness. Those affected suffer in silence. My birth country is a society in post-traumatic distress and collective amnesia, the latter a coping mechanism for the former. In the epilogue to Forgotten Ally, Mitter observes that the experience of World War II has had a profound and lasting impact on Chinese society. For example, the wartime capital of Chongqing, as well as its neighboring city of Chengdu, saw some of the fiercest street battles during the Cultural Revolution. I wish the new book had followed up on this illuminating suggestion.


The Chinese government has always been careful in managing public sentiments in the aftermath of tragedy, seen again in this year’s COVID-19 pandemic. The reluctance to shoulder any blame plays a role, but the more fundamental reason is about state control and its limits. Like any authoritarian ruler, the Communist Party is afraid of uninhibited expressions of grief, a language so completely individual it excludes all pretenses of the state. Behind curated displays and choreographed ceremonies of mourning, there is a pain pulsing through the nation, so deep and primal it holds a power the government dare not unleash.


Mitter is clear and precise in pointing out the many contradictions and falsehoods in the Chinese government’s claims. However, by engaging the state on its own terms, the book leaves the more fundamental assumptions unchallenged: what constitutes a Chinese nation, who defines it, and whether lessons from a war fall neatly along state lines. While the book devotes significant space to variances from the official narrative, Beijing’s perspective is always foregrounded, and everything else is compared against it.


The limitations of China’s Good War are reflected in its title. The first word, “China’s,” gives me pause. In the text, the name of the country is often used interchangeably with the government that rules it. The term “the good war,” as Mitter notes, was popularized by the American writer Studs Terkel and his 1984 book, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two. Terkel used the phrase ironically, hence the quotation marks around it: War, though sometimes inevitable, such as the fight against fascism, can never be good, “because it made savages even of the best of young men,” Terkel said. In Mitter’s book, “good” is literal. Though it is presenting the Chinese government’s position, that position is not sufficiently, if at all, refuted.


China’s Good War is a fine study of how Beijing has repurposed the events of World War II to advance its own agenda. Maybe that is what the book aims to do, and I am only projecting my own wishes. At various points in the earlier chapters, it reads like Mitter is reaching for something bigger and richer than geopolitical analysis, toward a more universal truth beyond the confines of national affiliation. What I hope is that the book, as well as his excellent 2013 volume Forgotten Ally, helps create space, that the quest continues, that more Chinese stories are told, and that when the English-speaking world pays attention to China, its gaze is not fixed on the government nor colored by its red flag.


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Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist at Cornell University. Born and raised in China, Cheng received her PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, and her bachelor’s in Science from the University of Science and Technology of China’s School for the Gifted Young.