Being in another country—if you are paying attention—really helps you learn things. Something I was oblivious to before coming to China was the antipathy some Chinese still have towards Japan. If you’re like I was, you’re essentially in the dark as to why. Dredging up some high school world history might give you at least an inkling of the cause. Japan. Empire. WWII. Leading you possibly to the ….Nanking Massacre. Remember that? Probably at least a little light bulb for most of you. While Americans focus almost exclusively on Pearl Harbor as the sign of Japanese aggression, Chinese have their own terrible tale of woe. And it truly is a terrible tale.
If you’ve ever seen Empire of the Sun, you remember that Shanghai was lost to the Japanese. A young Christian Bale does a fantastic job playing a young British boy who gets separated from his parents. Yes, yes, very sad. But while the foreigners seem to be having such a tough time of it all, you sort of lose sight of that fact that the Japanese continued pushing into China, arriving in the city of Nanking at the end of 1937.
In Nanking the Japanese committed numerous atrocities on the populace, including theft, arson, rape and murder. An estimated 200,000 women were rape, 100,000 people slaughtered in cold blood, with a possible total of 200,000 killed, including both civilians and POWs. Some of these numbers were difficult to verify due to how the bodies were disposed of, but eye-witness and survivor accounts leave little doubt of the atrocities being committed. It’s truly terrible stuff.
Understandably the Chinese still remember and grieve. And they will not brook any denial of the events or any cover-ups, which unfortunately has been the Japanese policy in the past. In 2006 the Japanese prime minister issued a formal apology to China and the rest of Asia, but many Chinese are not mollified. The actions of some Japanese to down-play what happened in Nanking or to outright deny them has enraged Chinese in the past. Think about how we feel about Holocaust deniers. Yeah. Not much patience for those types of people.
A Chinese movie was recently released about the Nanking Massacre, titled The Flowers of War in English. The director is Zhang Yimou, who has done a number of movies that Western audiences would be familiar with, including House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and others. The movie is based on a novel. However, one article states that the movie is also based on the journal of an American missionary, which records an event similar to what happens in the film.
I saw the movie when it came out and it is an understandably grim, tragic movie. I returned home to read up on the events surrounding the Nanking Massacre, to get a better understanding of the Japanese empire and their actions pre-Pearl Harbor.
I saw the movie with a friend, but also with two Chinese international students who were home for Chinese New Year. Before the movie, the topic of Japan was clearly on the mind of one of them as she made several negative comments about Japan. I was curious because this was the first time I’d heard this from any Chinese, but especially someone so young, which initiated me into this whole anti-Japan sentiment which still prevails to some degree today.
She was very adamant that The Flowers of War be nominated for the Academy Awards and she also felt that the film deserved to win. But from the way she talked about it, it wasn’t so much that the film deserved to win, but that the Nanking Massacre deserved to win. That it deserved and needed recognition on that level. A world-wide acknowledgement of China’s suffering and possibly Japan’s bad behavior.
While The Flowers of War was nominated for the Academy Awards, it did not win and some Chinese were very disappointed and/or angry about it. The producer of TFOW declared that the Academy was in the pockets of the Japanese, as they own several studios, and, even more seriously, that the United States was denying the Nanking Massacre. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Fortunately this producer has a long history of flying off the cuff and making baseless accusations of this nature, so it doesn’t appear that anyone takes him too seriously. To accuse us of denying the Nanking Massacre is a bit much. Based on my personal response alone, I can’t believe any reasonably intelligent person would seek to deny what happened in Nanking. It is well-documented and well-researched. Maybe the totals for each crime and the overall number of deaths cannot be precisely verified, but there is no denying that these things happened on a wide scale. There are photos and films, eye-witness accounts and survivor accounts. There are Japanese soldier accounts. Newspaper articles from the time. It’s a ridiculous accusation.
The movie is emotional affecting, of course, but simply the style of the film didn’t lead me to expect it as an Oscar winner. Just something about the chronology of it, the character development, the script, etc. didn’t scream “Oscar!” Sorry, nice try. Though I highly recommend the film for anyone interested in getting a different perspective on WWII and the Japanese empire.
What is interesting to me about this whole exploration of Chinese feelings towards Japan and also the Nanking Massacre is two things. One, the fixedness of American attention on Pearl Harbor, possibly to the obliteration of all other examples of Japanese aggression. Meaning, I think the Nanking Massacre is worthy of maybe a bit more attention in our world history classes, as well as a need for more Sino-focus in general. Two, the fact that bad juju towards Japan has been passed on to the current young adult population. I can only compare this to what it would be like if my generation still harbored animosity towards Germany for the events of WWII and the Holocaust.
I appreciate being exposed to some of the different threads of through in modern China. I appreciate being made aware of things that I haven’t known before. In that regard, living abroad is invaluable. China is such a mysterious place to Westerners. Its portrayal in the media is all about the politics, the human rights violations, the currency manipulation, the economy, etc., etc. But there’s a very human side to China, to every country. And that’s what living in a country allows you to explore.