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Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Nationalism, History and Memory in the Beijing War of Resistance Museum, 1987–1997*

  • Rana Mitter

At Wanping, around 50 kilometres from the centre of Beijing, the shots that began the eight-year war between China and Japan were fired in 1937. On the site there now stands the Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan (the museum's own translation of its title, Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan). Inside, a wide array of materials is displayed, but among the most prominent are the waxwork diorama reconstructions of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese. One such display shows a Japanese scientist in a white coat, intent on carrying out a gruesome bacteriological warfare experiment, plunging his scalpel into the living, trussed-up body of a Chinese peasant resistance fighter. But just in case this is not enough to drive the message home, the museum designers have added a refinement: a motor inside the waxwork of the peasant, which makes his body twitch jerkily as if in response to the scalpel, an unending series of little movements until the switch is turned off at closing time.

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1. Waldron, Arthur, “China's new remembering of World War II: the case of Zhang Zizhong,” Modem Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, (1996), pp. 869899.

2. On the delegitimation of communism, see Ding, X. L., The Decline of Communism in China: Legitimacy Crisis, 1977–1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

3. Schwarcz, Vera, “Strangers no more: personal memory in the interstices of public commemoration,” in Watson, Rubie S. (ed.), Memory, History and Opposition under State Socialism (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1994), p. 49.

4. For a recent example, see Friedman, Edward, “Reconstructing China's national identity: a southern alternative to Mao-era anti-imperialist nationalism,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1994), pp. 6791. For another perspective, see Fitzgerald, John, “‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’: the history of the death of China,” in Goodman, David S.G. and Segal, Gerald (eds.), China Deconstructs: Politics, Trade and Regionalism (London: Routledge, 1994).

5. On the changing meaning of Mao, see Barmé, Geremie, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996).

6. Waldron, , “China's new remembering,” p. 950.

7. Hamlish, Tamara, “Preserving the palace: museums and the making of nationalism(s) in twentieth-century China,” Museum Anthropology, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1995), p. 20.

8. Ibid. p. 22.

9. Watson, Rubie S., “Palaces, museums, and squares: Chinese national spaces,” Museum Anthropology, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1995), pp. 719. Hung, Wu, “Tiananmen Square: a political history of monuments,” Representations, No. 35 (1991), pp. 84117.

10. Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: jianjie (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: Introduction) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan, 1997), p. 3. Descriptions in this article which cite the museum's own publications are supplemented by my own research in the museum in September 1997.

11. Hung, Wu, “Tiananmen Square,” p. 85.

12. Jiachang, Liu and Han, Tie, Ri, wei, Jiang zhanfan gaizao jilu (Records of the Re-education of Japanese, Puppet, and Pro-Chiang Kaishek War Criminals) (Shenyang: Chunfeng wenyi chubanshe, 1993). Author's visit to War Crimes Museum, 09 1997.

13. Chengjun, Zhang, “Chongfen fahui jinianguan de aiguozhuyi jiaoyu zhendi zuoyong” (“Fulfilling and giving full rein to the Memorial's position and role in patriotic education”), in Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: wencong (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: Essays), Vol. 1 (1990), p. 198.

14. For a concise summary of recently published primary sources and academic monographs from the PRC on the War of Resistance, see van de Ven, Hans, “The military in the Republic,” The China Quarterly, No. 150 (06 1997), n. 46, pp. 367–68.

15. Dirlik, Arif, “‘Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide to the future’; or, what is a text? The politics of history in Chinese–Japanese relations,” in Miyoshi, Masao and Harootunian, H. D. (eds.), Japan in the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 71.

16. Taiwan wenti yu Zhongguo de tongyi (The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China) (Beijing: Guowuyuan xinwen bangongshe, 1993), p. 23. Jianjie, p. 7.

17. Jianjie, p. 10.

18. Ibid. p. 9.

19. Ibid. p. 9.

20. Barmé, Geremie, “History for the masses,” in Linger, Jonathan (ed.), Using the Past to Serve the Present (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), p. 278. Waldron, , “China's new remembering,” p. 974.

21. There is a massive literature on Chinese nationalism, and it continues to grow year by year, if not month by month. An excellent starting point is Unger, Jonathan (ed.), Chinese Nationalism (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996).

22. Two stimulating works on these two concepts respectively are Ong, Aihwa and Nonini, Donald M. (eds.), Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Chinese Transnationalism (London: Routledge, 1997), and Wei-ming, Tu (ed.), The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

23. Dirlik, , “‘Past experience,’” p. 50.

24. This distinction also allowed the then Japanese prime minister, Murayama Tomiichi, to attend the opening of a new section of the museum in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.

25. Jianjie, pp. 1314.

26. Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: jiangjieci (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: Explanation) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan, 1997), p. 34.

27. ibid. p. 34.

28. Ibid. p. 34.

29. Hung, Wu, “Tiananmen Square,” pp. 99100.

30. Ibid. p. 94.

31. Winter, Jay, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 2728.

32. Waldron, , “China's new remembering,” p. 965.

33. Jianjie, pp. 23.

34. Ibid. p. 3.

35. Author's visit to museum, September 1997.

36. On the manipulation of language for political purposes in China, see Schoenhals, Michael, Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics: Five Studies (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, China Research Monograph, 1992).

37. Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 179.

38. Jianjie, p. 3.

39. Ibid. p. 17. Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: kangzhan yinglieting minglu (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: List of Names in the Hall of Martyrs of the War of Resistance) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan, n.d.).

40. Jianjie, p. 17.

41. Ibid. p. 17.

42. Ibid. p. 17.

43. Jiangjieci, p. 34.

44. For example, see Jianjie, pp. 1, 3, 6.

45. Ibid. p. 16.

46. Chengjun, Zhang, “Fulfilling,” p. 197.

47. Ibid. p. 198.

48. Ibid. p. 198.

49. Jianjie, p. 1.

50. Waldron, , “China's new remembering,” p. 976.

51. Private conversations, Beijing, 09 1997.

52. Appadurai, Arjun and Breckenridge, Carol A., “Museums are good to think: heritage on view in India,” in Karp, Ivan, Kreamer, Christine Mullen, and Lavine, Steven D. (eds.), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, p. 46.

53. Ibid. p. 45.

54. Yanjun, Yu, “Chongfen liyong bowuguan shehui jiaoyu youshi peiyang aiguozhuyi jingshen, zengqiang gongzhong mmzu yishi” (“Making full use of social education at the museum effectively to nurture a patriotic spirit and strengthen public national consciousness”), in Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: wencong (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: Essays), Vol. 5 (1994), p. 379.

55. Ibid. p. 378.

56. Ibid. p. 378.

57. Yanjun, Yu, “Jianhao qidi, bozhong weilai: kangzhanguan qingshaonian jiaoyu jidi gongzuo qingkuang huibao” (“Build up the base, sow the seeds of the future: a report on the groundwork on basic youth education at the Memorial Museum of the War of Resistance”), in Zhongguo renmin kang-Ri zhanzheng jinianguan: wencong (The Memorial Museum of the Chinese People's War of Resistance to Japan: Essays), Vol. 4 (1993), pp. 329330.

58. Yanjun, Yu, “Making full use,” pp. 379380.

59. Ibid. p. 380.

60. Ibid. p. 381.

* I am grateful to the British Academy-ESRC China Exchange Scheme for funding which supported the research on which this article is based. I thank Henrietta Harrison who made many suggestions to improve the text.

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