Historical Trauma, National Identity, and Portrayals of Sexually Assaulted Chinese Women in the 1930s and 1940s

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:10 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Lin Li, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Research on trauma has shown that traumatic moments are fundamental to the shaping of historical memory and national identity. China's traumatic experience of Japanese invasion (1895-1945) has always been an essential part of narratives of modern Chinese history. Japanese men’s sexual violence against Chinese women in particular is emblematic of China’s historical trauma. My presentation surveys a variety of Chinese-language sources regarding Japan’s sexual violence against Chinese women in the 1930s and 1940s, including newspaper articles, paintings, and novels, to examine how the troubling image of “sexually assaulted Chinese women” became essential to the creation of a unified national identity and the mobilization against Japan. Though deeply critical of Japan’s wartime sexual crimes, the repeated reference to images of “sexually assaulted Chinese women” is problematic and deserving of serious analysis.

First, victims of sexual violence were predominantly depicted as women of Han ethnicity, the Chinese majority ethnic group, ignoring ethnic minorities. Furthermore, resistance to Japanese imperialism was often framed as Chinese men saving "their" women from Japanese men, constructing Chinese women as vulnerable and passive. Notably, some Chinese writers considered rape by Japanese men as a “punishment” for “promiscuous” Chinese women, agreeing that only “well-behaved” women could qualify as victims. Moreover, by equating Japanese men with perpetrators, sexual violence against Chinese women conducted by their countrymen was trivialized. Therefore, criticism of sexual violence became only possible from the standpoint of nationalism, while justice for victims could only be achieved within the nation-state. I hold that portrayals of “sexually assaulted Chinese women” were simultaneously Han-centric, patriarchal, and nationalist. I argue that a feminist understanding of historical trauma must be critical of imperialism but wary of nationalism, and I hope to explore an alternative means of understanding and telling the narrative of sexual violence against women in modern Chinese history.