Pirates, Collaborators, Students, and Martyrs: Nationalism and the Memory of War in Modern China

AHA Session 171
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Morgan Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Diana Lary, University of British Columbia
Diana Lary, University of British Columbia

Session Abstract

Renowned scholar of Holocaust memorials James E. Young wrote, "Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of memory are never pure." Historical memory about war and collective suffering in the twentieth century has become a critical issue for China's uneasy relationships with its East Asian neighbors, especially Japan. Events like Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō's recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine provoked widespread outrage, while traumatic memories of imperialist intrusion and warfare continue to incite strong patriotic feelings in China even today. As political scientist Zheng Wang argues cogently in his recent book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, state-sponsored memory via public education has become a major factor shaping the exercise of Chinese power and is central to understanding Chinese nationalism and intention today. Yet, despite the appearance of a converging national memory, historical narratives of wartime China remain fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions due to the shifting state agendas of the PRC and the continued division between China and Taiwan. This panel brings together four papers, each offering a study of historical figures representing both the paragon and the antithesis of nationalism and patriotism in the Anti-Japanese War or the Chinese civil war. The protagonists were collaborators, students, pirates, and martyrs; all had an afterlife longer than their own mortality. The panellists take an interdisciplinary approach, drawing theoretical inspirations from sociology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism to demonstrate how multiple and oftentimes conflicting narratives and representations about these figures were produced, altered, and reproduced across time and space. Hua Rui examines the "intellectual founding fathers" of Manchukuo-Chinese who held prominent positions in the Japanese puppet state/colonial regime. In contrast to conventional images of self-serving, morally-corrupt collaborators, Rui illustrates the founding fathers' resistance against Japan and their active role in constructing the political ideology behind Manchukuo. Jonathan Henshaw discusses a 1943 student protest under the occupation state of Wang Jingwei. He explores some of the factors that have shaped the changing official interpretations of the protests, especially since the emergence of Jiang Zemin, a former protestor himself, as President of the PRC in the 1990s. Weiting Guo investigates a Chinese guerrilla group operated in coastal Zhejiang during the Anti-Japanese War that engaged in piracy and racketeering and even collaborated with pro-Japanese elements in the region, yet was lauded as heroic by the Nationalists in the fight against the Communists. Dominic Yang explores the tale of Taiyuan's "five hundred martyrs," another group commemorated by the Nationalists, but at the same time, absent from the PRC’s historiography. Dominic demonstrates that the martyrs' heroic last stand against the Communists at Taiyuan was largely a fabricated story constructed by exiled Nationalist leaders in Taiwan, who attempted to reshape public memory of the traumatic defeat and mass dislocation of 1949. Taken together, these papers use the experiences and interpretations of local or regional groups and events to challenge the Manichean narratives of good versus evil that continue to shape Chinese collective memories of war today.

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