Monday, 27 August 2012

Past Present


If I were to chose the point where modern Chinese history began it would not be the overthrow of the Imperial Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911; no, it would be even more precise than that – it would be 4 May, 1919. 

It was on that day that students demonstrated on the streets of Beijing, protesting against the Treaty of Versailles, specifically the transfer of the German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan, contrary to past promises.  Protest spread across the country, the first spontaneous and populist movement in the country’s history, an upswing of Chinese nationalism far more significant than the events of 1911.

Anger over past grievances, particularly over grievances at the hands of Japan, continues to be an important measure of Chinese national feeling.  The Japanese are also good at remembering past sorrows…at least when it comes to their own.  It's not long since the annual commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, attended this year by the grandson of President Harry Truman, the man who ordered the attack. 

I’m sure there’s lots of genuine feeling here, a desire that history should be remembered and never be repeated.  I might feel more sympathy but for the fact that I see Hiroshima and Nagasaki used, abused, if you like, as alibis, conveniently wiping out inconvenient memories.  Where is the sorry and wringing of hands, the Chinese might very well, ask, over the Rape of Nanking in 1937, one of the worst atrocities in Japanese imperial history?  That single incident left more dead than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. 

Japanese school texts make fulsome mention of the atomic bombs.  They are a bit more reticent when it comes to other aspects of the the country’s history between 1931 and 1945.  Virtually no mention at all is made of the war, as John Dower highlights in his recently published Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan and the Modern World.  Japanese conservatives are a little less reticent, passing off Imperial Japan’s rampage across Asia as a “holy war” against Western colonialism.

That’s not how the Chinese see it.  They have their own memories of Western colonialism, but Japanese colonialism is much more immediate in the national mind.  The spirit of 4 May 1919 has never really gone away.  It was revived again recently, when thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against Japan.  The 19 August Movement, if I can call it that, was triggered by a long-standing dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea

Like the May 4 Movement, the demonstrations appear to have been quite spontaneous in nature, sparked off by micro-blogging sites.  There clearly had to be some kind of official sanction – the Communist Party is not averse to occasional expressions of the vox populi – but the authorities are concerned least matters get out of control.  Nationalism in China is a dangerous tiger, ridden at some peril. 

Now directed against Japan, the anger could just as easily turn inwards as the economy begins to show serious signs of slowing down.  It’s particularly sensitive as the Communist Party heads towards its eighteenth national Congress in October, when a major change in the present leadership is expected. 

For China and Japan the past is not a foreign country; it’s part of a naturalised present.  They do things much the same as they have always done.  

21 comments:

  1. Modern China probably began when Richard Nixon opened relations with them. You can't trust the Nipponese but they do make good cars.

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    1. I take it you have one? :-) They seem a bit tinny to me!

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    2. How much room do you need?

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  2. Also, the Japanese were more dedicated to filling Hirohito's orders to fight to the last drop of blood than the Germans were to this command from Hitler. The atom bombs, in that context, saved more lives than they took, not least Japanese.

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    1. Joe, that's an argument that I've also made here on a past anniversary.

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  3. Ana, I think something you may need to consider is that what you and I label as "the Present" & "the Past" isn't the same as how the Orientals might label them. In the same sense as the joke about the difference between Yanks and Brits being that to the former, 100 years is a long time, and to the latter 100 miles a long distance, so do we need to view (using the mindset of those involved) how long ago the events you described took place.

    Everything said, despite MY family's Colonial roots, 100 years (compared to the 400 we've been here) is significant. YOUR kin arriving in England ~1000 years ago (to an area that had had some form of civilization for the previous 3500 years) not so much. But where it's a "long time" for us Yanks, and "a bit of time" for you Normans, it a "blink of the eye" for the Orientals!

    Archaeologists are now saying [see "Japanese Roots" by Jared Diamond] that the Japanese reached their "Jomon" level of civilization nearly 13 THOUSAND years ago! Even the slightly less advanced Chinese have maintained some form of civilization for over 8500 years. What's 100 years to a people that have been living and making sophisticated pottery in the same place for 13000 of them?
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    More in response to your article, I think an unintended side effect of the Chinese asserting their control over those islands (and oil fields) in the South China Sea is that the Japanese are going to decide that they can't depend on the Americans to protect them from their ancient enemies, and for reasons of national security, it's necessary for them to remove the (foreign-imposed) prohibition of offensive military forces from their Constitution. Also, despite their (relatively) tiny population, the Japanese only RECENTLY lost their #2 world economic rank to the Chinese, and they don't care for that at all. I believe as a result of this, another thing that will be happening soon is that the rest of the world will see why the Nipponese have been investing HUGE amounts of intellectual and financial capital in robotic research.

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    1. As always, CB, you make some great points. I'm going to keep an eye on this, paying particular regard to the question of robotics.

      Your observation about time is also very well made. With reference to China I said recently that the country was in the process of state formation when Rome was turning itself into an Empire. Despite repeated foreign conquest and internal upheavals China is still with us, whereas Rome is no more than an historical memory. How can I not admire their tenacity?

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    2. In a way, Ancient Rome is very much with us, I think. Language, writing, money, religion, measurements, major aspects of the legal system, much technology and architecture, mythology, art . . . are we really that much less 'Roman' than a modern chinese is 'Han'? They had cooler aqueducts and circuses, of course . . . :)

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  4. I want a Denise Milani "Sexbot".

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  5. This is a deep question - and the answers range from: 'There is no modern China, no modern Japan' back through various key events to Emperor Qin or Emperor Jimmu, or to the invention of writing that formalized language and made the past permanent. There was a time when China and Japan were culturally close, but the Mongol eruption breached that trust, and coincidently triggered a series of internal conflicts in both lands that resulted in a long preference, in both lands, for stability and isolation.

    When Europeans later went a a-roving and knocking on doors they disturbed self-induced daydreams and forced both countries into the harsh light of a new day. But China and Japan are still tied to the languages that evolved before the great big nasty outside world woke them up, and that makes it hard even to think in terms of 'change' and 'progress' and 'innovation.' And so far, most of what each culture has accomplished really counts as 'improvement' or 'polish' or 'refinement.' There are a lot of Japanese and Chinese cultural refugees living in Europe and North America. They actually think too differently from the folks back home to fit in any more. Maybe they are the New China and the New Japan. They don't yet have the numbers to take over from the Old Guard back home, but with population numbers stabilizing in both countries, who knows?

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    1. I think it's interesting, Calvin, that Japan adapted much more quickly to external pressures than China. I suppose it was because that China saw itself not just as an empire but a world entire. Why should an elephant bother with a few ants?

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  6. Do you like geopolitics much Ana? I recently found a very interesting article about China's geopolitical imperatives that was quite illuminating. I think you'd enjoy it.

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    1. Very much, Wilson. At a quick glance that looks very interesting. I'm going to print it out and read at leisure.

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  7. Golly, Ana. Joseph Needham filled 24 volumes trying to answer that question and never really did. Perhaps looking for a simple answer is futile. China is vast, diverse, and ancient, but wraps itself in a myth of unity that collapses every couple of centuries due to internal conflict or external weakness, then rinses and repeats. In our culture, repeating the same errors again and again counts as folly.

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    1. Ah, yes, the loss of Heaven's Mandate. Actually I begin to think your country and mine lost this mandate some time since. :-)

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  8. oh, i am so terribly behind news. have no idea about this movement. i need to check out this event. the anti-japanese movement in china is an ever-going and fluctuating "vox populi" (just learned this word:-)) that has been manipulated by communist government. for chinese people, it is a safe place to throw anger, for government, it is a "tool" to use to shift people's attention from their "crimes".

    ana, i am always amazed about how much you know, past or present, west or east. i agree with you that the may 4th movement in 1919 was a remarkable date for modern chinese history. not only politically, it was also the "birthday" of new modern chinese culture - "new culture" as we (chinese people) called it. "vernacular" chinese language was born, all intellects started to write by using this "new language". confucianism was first time seriously challenged. but unfortunately, chinese "new culture" is still a fetus after almost one century.

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    1. Thanks, Yun Yi. As I mentioned previously, I studied modern Chinese and Japanese history as an undergraduate. There are some things one never forgets. :-)

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