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History and propaganda clash in China's war museums

A wave of war-related exhibitions sets out to bolster the CCP view of the past

NANJING, China -- One of the more striking exhibits at the Nanjing Museum of the Site of Lijixiang Comfort Station is the story of Akiko, a married Japanese woman conscripted to be a "comfort woman" in a military brothel in China during World War II. Greeting a visiting soldier one day, Akiko realizes that he is her husband, drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. Despairing at their situation the pair commit suicide together.

Newspapers in wartime China trumpeted this calamity to demonstrate the depths to which Japan had demeaned its own people. A popular dramatic production of the tragedy followed, reproduced on stage in China in 2014 and later. But the story is of dubious veracity: According to Chinese history enthusiast Zhu Delin and others, it initially appeared in an anti-war literary arts magazine in 1938. It is a pastiche of real events and a fictional story that served as excellent propaganda during the war, but should not be presented in a museum as fact.

The museum, opened in 2015 in a formerly run-down section of central Nanjing, contains a wealth of archival evidence about the suffering of comfort women. But the apocryphal story of Akiko both undermines the goals of the museum and demonstrates the difficulty of establishing historical truth in China, where every narrative, even when mostly accurate, is shrouded behind a veil of patriotic education. Beijing constantly proclaims the idea that history is a mirror to reflect the past, but when the mirror is not properly aligned, the results can be distorted.

Until the 21st century, the Chinese government was largely focused on the history of its humiliation at the hands of the Western powers and Japan from the mid-19th century. In the republican era that followed, China sent more than 100,000 men to work in British and French factories during World War I, but was ignored during the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations at the end of the war.

Lately, Beijing's historical focus has shifted from China's historical humiliation to World War II and the quest for justice. Museums and commemorative sites have mushroomed across the nation, offering detailed explanations of Chinese suffering and Japanese atrocities. But China's one-party state does not allow for competing historical views, and the Chinese Communist Party has taken an increasingly strident stand on the interpretation of the postwar period and the subsequent reconciliation between China and Japan.

Top: The comfort women museum in central Nanjing is made up of several buildings that were formerly part of a large comfort women station that served the Japanese military while it occupied the city. Bottom: A sign inside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum. The idea of serving and finding "justice" now pervades many more museums and sites of commemoration than it did in the past. (Photos by Barak Kushner)

In April 2013, the Central Committee of the CCP circulated a Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, known more colloquially as Document Number 9. Ostensibly secret, the directive focused on affirming the "correctness" of the party and pushing the media and everyone else to toe its ideological line. The ultimate aim was to prevent any questioning of the party's determination of historical truth. "The goal of historical nihilism in the guise of 'reassessing history,'" the party wrote, "aims to distort Party history and the history of New China."

The CCP's narrative about the war against Japan and its aftermath is directly linked to Beijing's political legitimacy, which in today's world means tying China's role in World War II to the Allied victory in the West. This leads to a search for equivalence between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany as a way of affirming the connection between Chinese history and the West. As a result, Chinese academics and media outlets now frequently use the term "Holocaust" to equate Chinese wartime suffering with the German treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe.

The Taiyuan Prisoner of War Camp, recently reconstructed in the middle of what has become an industrial park in the capital of Shanxi Province, is one such example. It has been popularly described in a recent Chinese book as the country's "Auschwitz" even though it was nothing of the sort -- Japanese imperial occupation was brutal, but not genocidal. And at the Nanjing Civilian War of Resistance Against Japan Museum, the haunting soundtrack from the film "Schindler's List" -- which portrays the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust -- is played as background music in the main exhibition hall. The museum also uses Hebrew in prominent signage, deliberately linking Holocaust imagery and soundscape to East Asia.

The former site of the Shenyang Military Tribunal Hall of Japanese War Criminals. It is now a museum. (Photo by Barak Kushner)

In Shenyang, in northern Liaoning Province, the Military Tribunal Hall of Japanese War Criminals was abandoned until 2014 but is now a museum dedicated to the trials of accused Japanese that took place there in 1956. Explanatory panels explicitly state that it was the CCP that brought the most sincere justice to China in relation to Japanese war crimes.

Not all museums are created equal, however. The Historical Site of the Fushun War Criminals Management Center, a 45-minute drive from Shenyang, is administered by the military and not a civilian or municipal agency. This prison, where the CCP housed accused Japanese for years before their 1956 trials, has no books for sale and scant explanations throughout the exhibit.

In 2017, while on a research trip to Dandong, on the border with North Korea, I was unable to see exhibits at the Korean War Museum (known in Chinese as the "War to Resist America and Aid North Korea Museum") because it was being vastly expanded across its hillside location to accommodate several new wings. When the museum head was asked if the modernization would include a reinterpretation of the war, the response was a stunned silence. A temporary exhibit stored downtown at the top of an old department store precludes any acknowledgement of new research discrediting the 1950s Chinese propaganda stories of American use of biological weapons.

The Fushun War Criminals Management Center, where Japanese suspected war criminals were incarcerated from 1950-1956, after having already spent five years detained by the Soviet Union under harsher conditions. (Photo by Barak Kushner)

All of these museums offer only a partial story, even if their prime purpose is to examine postwar justice. While Mei Ruao, China's only judge at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials (1946 to 1948), is lionized across the nation in sculpture, and is remembered in the eponymous new chair of law at Tsinghua University, little is said about his denigration as a capitalist "running dog" during China's Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). Chinese Red Guards stole half of his personal diary and tried to burn the robe he wore at court.

Yang Zhaolong, a towering figure in Chinese republican law with a Harvard University pedigree, played an equally important role in war crimes trials in China. He was released from prison in 1975, after receiving a life sentence for being a counterrevolutionary in 1963, only to discover that his wife had committed suicide and that his son had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and his son-in-law to 20 years.

Yang was later rehabilitated by the party. However, the experiences of Yang and Mei demonstrate how the Chinese pursued justice against the Japanese but failed to find it for themselves. The latter narrative does not negate the former, but offering just half the picture can only add to regional tensions.

While the newly emerging Chinese museums are mainly well-scripted, and narrate war history with only a modicum of emotional opprobrium toward Japan, it is important to note that the histories they offer have been reinvigorated decades after the war's end to serve Beijing's drive to mandate a "proper historical understanding" of China's postwar history.

As a tour of these sites reveals, while these museums stand for history, they do not necessarily stand for historical investigation. The difference is important. For China, history serves as a shield for the nation's emotional defenses, and here lies one of the principal causes of political friction between China and its neighbors. Until the politics of the nation can be divorced from opinions about history, reconciliation remains a chimera.

Barak Kushner is professor of East Asian history at the University of Cambridge and the author of "Men to Devils, Devils to Men" (winner of the American Historical Association's 2016 John K. Fairbank Prize).

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