Exhibiting the Chinese War of Resistance in the People’s Republic of China

16. Sep 2009

Karl Gustafsson, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, Stockholm University

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, there were only about 20 museums in the whole country. These museums were deemed ill-suited to the needs of the revolutionary leadership. PRC officials hence travelled to the Soviet union to learn how to create revolutionary exhibitions that could act as tools for educating the people. Until the 1980s, the number of museums dealing with the War of Resistance Against the Japanese Invaders (kangRi zhanzheng), as the war between 1931 and 1945 is usually called, was fairly modest. Since the second half of the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, however, such institutions have mushroomed up around China. Chinese researchers sometimes claim that the construction of such museums started as a direct reaction to Japanese denial of war time atrocities. Non-Chinese observers have been more prone to emphasizing the need to stress nationalistic themes as the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping led to the undermining of the socialist ideology. As Chinese were encouraged to become rich social cleavages grew and class identity, which had previously been important, became potentially subversive. After the events that took place at Tiananmen in 1989, often referred to as an “incident” by Chinese and a “massacre” by other observers, patriotism became an even more central theme in Chinese society. Patriotic sites was one among many instruments to be used in the patriotic education campaign that was launched during Jiang Zemin’s reign. These patriotic sites include not only war museums but also ancient remains providing proof of the greatness of Chinese civilization. Places such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the site where the Peking man was discovered all fit into this category. Revolutionary sites, for example places where revolutionary conferences were held, such as the site in Shanghai where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded, make up another category. Other revolutionary sites include the former residences of great comrades. War museums make up a third type of bases for patriotic education. Among these, some deal with the War of Liberation, sometimes labelled the Chinese Civil War outside the PRC. Others concentrate on foreign aggression in the form of for example the Opium Wars, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and most commonly the War of Resistance. These wars, understood as “national humiliations”, are often conceptualized as a “century of humiliation”, lasting from the first Opium War until Japan was defeated in 1945.

Museums dealing with the War of Resistance are spread out over large parts of China with an emphasis on regions that made up the war theatre. Hence, regions that experienced little or no fighting during the war have no such museums while in occupied parts, along with places in which battles occurred, a large number of museums can be found. Especially in the Chinese Northeast, which was occupied by Japan since 1931, there are a large number of museums dedicated to the war. With very few exceptions, Chinese war museums are located where events took place during the war. While this arguably increases the authenticity of these museums, it means that some are located in not so accessible places. Some museums counter this weakness by targeting schools and workplaces, thereby receiving visitors in large groups.

In July 2008, 90 per cent of Chinese museums, all categories, were run by the government. In recent years, however, some private museums dealing with the War of Resistance, several smaller institutions have been set up. However, most of these do not rival the government-run ones in size. There is, however, one exception – the Jianchuan Museum Cluster outside Chengdu in Sichuan created by multi-millionaire Fan Jianchuan. Being not just a museum but a “cluster” of museums, it is an extremely ambitious project. It contains a two halls dealing with folk customs, three halls dealing with the “Red Age”, i.e. the Mao era, in a nostalgic way. The remaining halls, five in April 2009 with two more under contruction, deal with the War of Resistance. An entrance ticket to the Jianchuan Museum Cluster cost 80 yuan in April 2009. This is in stark contrast to the government-run museums dealing with the same theme, most of which, have stopped charging entrance fees after a government decision taken in January 2008, according to which patriotic and other education sites are to become free of charge in 2009. This, of course, means that it is difficult to make private war museums profitable considering the competition. Moreover, it suggests that most visitors to the Jianchuan Museum Cluster are probably relatively economically well off. However, the most important conclusion to be drawn is probably that a large number of Chinese will visit the museums that have become free of charge, thereby receiving a dose of patriotic education. Some museums, such as the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum, the Military Museum in Beijing and the War of Resistance Museum close to the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing where a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese soldiers on 7 July, 1937 sparked full-scale war, have received huge numbers of visitors since opening. The Military Museum received more than 40 million visitors from its opening in 1960 to the end of 1990. According to an article published in 2008, 10 million visitors had come to see the exhibition at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum since it opened in 1985. The War of Resistance Museum outside Beijing had in 2008, according to its website, received 15 million visitors since it opened in 1987. Waiving entrance fees will likely lead to even larger crowds showing up to be educated.

So what then is the content of these exhibitions? The answer to this question not only gives us an understanding concerning these exhibitions but also provides us with insights into the contents of the patriotic education campaign. In this section, the main contents of what Chinese museums teach visitors as part of the patriotic education campaign is briefly summarized. The focus will be on narrative content and the lessons to be learnt. Three main narrative themes can be discerned in these exhibitions. The first is Chinese heroism, the second Chinese victimhood and the third Japanese aggression. The order in which these themes have been listed here should not be interpreted as implying that the theme of Chinese heroism is more common than that of Japanese aggression. Moreover, it should not be assumed that specific exhibitions necessarily only feature one of these themes. While at some museums one kind of narrative dominates, most exhibitions, at least to a certain extent, contain elements of all three narrative types. It should be noted, however, that heroic narratives, in scholarship dealing with the issue, are often associated with the Mao era and that victim narratives have grown more prominent since the 1980s. This is sometimes attributed to the claim that the PRC, after its founding, was in need of heroes to show it was strong in the face of the challenges with which it was confronted. The victimhood narrative, which could be seen as closely interrelated with the narrative of Japanese aggression, on the other hand, was suppressed during the Mao era in order for the leadership not to be regarded as weak and not to jeopardize ties with Japan. Furthermore, since during this time the Guomindang (GMD) leadership in Taiwan was seen as a major threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy, the GMD, rather than Japan, was depicted as the main enemy of the Chinese people. During this period, Chinese pre-1949 modern history was interpreted through the lense of class, stressing the people’s, and the CCP’s, struggle against reactionaries, such as capitalists and landlords, represented by the GMD. In the 1980s, the class dimension of the struggle was deemphasized and China’s modern history came instead to be interpreted as a national strugg
le against external enemies, among which Japan came to figure most prominently.

In the heroic narratives, the Japanese enemy is present to a much lesser extent than in the stories emphasizing Japanese aggression. To the extent that Japanese aggression is dealt with in narratives strongly stressing heroism, this is mainly in the form of Japanese strategies that the CCP’s military heroically and successfully handled. Still, the Japanese enemy is labelled an aggressor in these accounts as well. Even in these descriptions, then, there is no mistake about the nature of the actions of the Japanese military – they were despicable acts. The point is simply that these despicable acts constitute the background against which the heroic picture is painted rather than being the centre of attention. While it is possible to label some exhibitions as characterized chiefly by heroism, the line between stories about Chinese victimhood and Japanese aggression is a considerably more blurred one. This is logical since where there is a victim of war there is usually also an aggressor. At the same time, a theoretical distinction is possible. This is evidenced in that Japanese depictions of victims of for example the nuclear bombings, the aggressor is often more or less omitted. Furthermore, there is always the option of stressing sacrifice, with its volitional and heroic connotations, rather than victimhood, which lacks such implications and to a greater extent suggests the existence of an assailant.

While in the tales of heroism the focus is on the great comrades who sacrificed themselves for the motherland, when victimhood is stressed the atmosphere is more solemn. Finally, when the spotlight is on aggression, the main actors of the stories are the Japanese military aggressors, whose hideous acts are often vividly illustrated and condemned. Even though there are clear differences between these storylines regarding the aspects of the war experience that are emphasized, in the end the lessons to be learnt are strikingly similar. The moral of the stories being told is, simply put, that Chinese people should work together, united under the leadership of the CCP, to rejuvenate China and thereby create a stronger Motherland. The rationale for doing this differs depending on the kind of narrative given prominence in specific exhibitions. If aggression is highlighted it is likely that the logic will be one according to which the visitor is instructed to work for the rejuvenation of China in order for the country to be able to avoid becoming the victim of aggression in the future. In heroic narratives, the visitor is sometimes told to “carry out the behest of the martyrs”, the behest being “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. While victimhood is rare as the basis of these kinds of instructions, reflecting the fact that among the three narrative elements it is the least common as a dominant component, in one exhibition the visitor is urged to exert herself for “the revival of the Chinese nation” because that is the best way to comfort the compatriots killed.

This brief discussion of the role of museums dealing with the Chinese war effort against the invading Japanese military and the narratives presented at these institutions illustrate how this episode in modern Chinese history has played and continues to play an important role in the PRC and in the patriotic education campaign. The past could be said to be very much alive in the present. These narratives are important ingredients in Chinese identity construction. The CCP makes sure that the stories being told about this period fit into its agenda and contributes to the legitimacy of the Party. At the same time, as is also verified by the brief historical exposition above, these kinds of stories constantly evolve and are always open to redefinition. Hence, what the future holds in store for the stories about the past is yet to be seen.