by Junyi Han
In 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China and quickly isolated the country from the rest of the world. Chinese resistance led by the Nationalist government heavily relied on the supply line through the Burma Road, and Japan wanted to cut it off. In December 1941, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the British colony Burma. Consequently, the Sino-Japanese conflict merged with World War II, and China, Britain, and the United States became allies. In 1942, the CEF was formed in China and later dispatched to Burma and India to deter Japanese invasion. In 1944, the CEF recaptured Tengchong. It was the first Chinese city taken back from Japanese armies during World War II (Wo Nu Salon). After this victory, China started moving to an offensive position in the war. Although it seems that the sacrifice of CEF should have received acknowledgment in post-war China, the following Chinese Civil War between Nationalists and Communists completely denied that assumption. After Communists won the Civil War and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the history of CEF was excluded from the public discourse for a long time due to their political affiliation with the Nationalist government. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that in the 1980s, that situation began to change. The stories of CEF started to be heard in China and many veterans from the CEF are now honored as national heroes. This thesis will examine this shifting narrative, and ultimately answer how and why the memory of World War II has changed in post-war China through the case of CEF.
On the collective level, the shift took place as the political environment changed in China in the late 1970s. According to Rana Mitter, a British historian at Oxford University, bac then the domestic faith in Maoism and his wartime revolutionary strategies “was shaken by the Cultural Revolution.” Also, because “there was a desire to reunify with Taiwan,” more discussions of Nationalist war efforts appeared. Also, by that time it was not necessary for China to “soft-pedal diplomatically on Japan” (Mitter, 551). As a result, a new wave of war memory began and the way that the CEF was collectively remembered within the Chinese society also changed. For instance, the Graveyard of the National Heroes (国殇墓园), a memorial originally established by the Nationalist government in 1945 for the fallen soldiers of the CEF and later destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, was reconstructed in 1984 (Guo Shang Mu Yuan). In 1991, the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China approved the proposal to build Dianxi Anti-Japan War Museum (滇西抗战纪念馆) next to the Graveyard of the National Heroes (Guo Shang Mu Yuan). Also, starting in the early 2000s, many TV shows and novels about the CEF popped on the market. Although some works were not very objective, they let more people notice the existence of the CEF and become interested in this historical event.
On the individual level, some people started to do field research voluntarily. They conducted interviews and recorded the stories of veterans from the CEF to examine the war based on their descriptions. Also, more veterans became more willing to share their stories as the political environment changed. Moving into their late years, these veterans were willing to pass on their stories to the next generation. Some interesting patterns can be observed in their reflections. For instance, I notice that there is a tendency for these veterans to talk about experiences that made sense under contemporary circumstances so that it was easier for them to communicate with interviewers from the next generation. Back to high school, when I visited the veterans from the CEF in China, I always asked them to share their life stories with me. Interestingly, almost all veterans chose high school or college as their starting point when they constructed their auto-biographical narratives. They liked to start a conversation with “when I was at your age…” or “when I was a student/ teenager…” and then moved on to their struggles during the war. Moreover, they usually ended their stories with sentences like “How fortunate are you! I did not have an opportunity to be educated when I was at your age. Please work hard at school!” In this way, the 90-year-old veterans managed to build up rapport with me, a high school student. Without any wartime experiences, I still managed to situate myself in their story frame and imagine what I would do if I encountered a bloody war at a young age. In this way, their stories were able to overcome the generational gap and be understood by younger people. What’s more, I notice that there is a strong sense of patriotism in their war reflections. They tended to downplay the party differences and address the fact that they were fighting for all Chinese people. They all considered fighting during the Anti-Japanese War a necessary responsibility and therefore their sacrifices should be remembered. Passed on to the younger generations, these stories have facilitated the preservation of a unifying national identity within the Chinese society.
Overall, through the case of the Chinese Expeditionary Force, it is noteworthy that as the political circumstances changed in the late 20th century, how World War II was remembered in China also shifted. On the collective level, there were more favorable discussions of Nationalist war participation. On the individual level, war memory became an important element for Chinese people to understand their own national identity.
Guo Shang Mu Yuan Jian Jie. Accessed on July 20th.
Mitter, Rana. “War and Memory Since 1945.” The Cambridge History of War, edited
by Roger Chickering, Dennis Showalter, and Hans van de Ven, vol, 4: 542–65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. doi:10.1017/CHO9781139021203.026.
Teng Chong Xian Guo Shang Mu Yuan Ji Gou Guan Li Gong Zuo Qing Kuang Hui
Bao. Accessed on July 20th.
Wo Nu Salon. “An Interview with Writer Ge Yu.” Accessed on July 20th, 2019.