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Conspicuous Silence: Veterans and the Depoliticization of War Memory in China*

  • NEIL J. DIAMANT (a1)

This paper explores the unusually weak voice of Chinese war veterans in post-1949 politics society and culture. Although Chinese movies and television often feature military-related themes, it is rare to find frank and politicized depictions of China's military conflicts. In this respect, China departs sharply from the former Soviet Union—China's Leninist model for most of its formative years—as well as Vietnam, European inter-war fascist regimes and democracies. This paper argues that the relative weakness of authentic military voices in China can be traced to several peculiar features of modern Chinese history. The nature of warfare in China, as well as the absence of a national army, veteran organizations and a consensus over the legitimacy about China's wars, has led many to question the validity of veterans’ claims for a higher political and cultural status. Rather than allow veterans the space to portray war as they experienced it, intellectual elites in various cultural and propaganda offices dominate national war memory, presenting a simplistic and artificial rendering of China's wars.

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1 Weiner, A. (2001). Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp. 4344.

2 Edele, M. (2006). Soviet Veterans as an Entitlement Group, 1945–1955, Slavic Review, 65.1, 134.

3 Weiner, Making Sense of War, p. 57. Emphasis mine.

4 Personal communication with Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley.

5 For this story see Jacobs, A. (2009). China is Wordless on Traumas of Communists’ Rise, The New York Times (1 October).

6 Although these wars have different names and occurred years apart, there were soldiers who fought in two or even three of them on the Communist side. There were also soldiers who fought for the GMD, switched over to the Communists during the Civil War, and were then dispatched to fight in Korea. Unlike Western practices which label veterans by the wars they fought, the documents in Chinese archives are vague about time and place. For instance, the term fuyuan junren (复 员 军 人) is generally employed for soldiers in the wars against Japan (during World War II), the GMD, the US and Vietnam, while the term qiyi junren (起 义 军 人) is sometimes used for former GMD soldiers during the Civil War (who then became fuyuan junren after Korea).

7 Aguilar, P. (2000). ‘Agents of Memory: Spanish Civil War Veterans and Disabled Soldiers’ in Winter, J. and Sivan, . War and Remembrance in the 20th Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 84103.

8 See respectively, Shichor, Y. (1996). Demobilization: The Dialectics of PLA Troop Reduction, The China Quarterly, 146, 338; White, G. (1980). The Politics of Demobilized Soldiers from Liberation to the Cultural Revolution, The China Quarterly, 82, p. 191; Vogel, E. (1971). Canton under Communism, Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949–1968, Harper and Row, New York, p. 145; Dreyer, J. (1989). ‘The Demobilization of PLA Servicemen and their Integration into Civilian Life’, in Dreyer, J.Chinese Defense and Foreign Policy, Paragon House, New York, p. 300.

9 For an elaboration of this argument see Diamant, N. (2009). Embattled Glory: Veterans, Military Families and the Politics of Patriotism in China, 1949–2007, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham. Most of the empirical data in this article is drawn from the research in that volume. By ‘mass army’ and ‘total war’ I rely on Barry Posen and Miguel Centeno's definitions. Posen (1993) argues that ‘mass’ refers to both size and ‘its ability to maintain its size in the face of the rigors of war’, and its ability to retain its combat power. See his Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power, International Security, 18.2, 83. For instance, during the Sino-Japanese War, General Joseph Stilwell noted that only 56 per cent of all recruits reached their assigned units—the rest either died or ‘went over the hill’ on the way. F. F. Liu notes that in 1943 almost three-quarters of a million recruits ‘were lost in this way’. See Liu, (1956). A Military History of China: 1924–1949, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 137. Centeno (2002) in Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, suggests that total wars are characterized by (1) increased lethalness of the battlefield; (2) civilian targets; (3) a moral and ideological crusade that demonizes the enemy; (4) the involvement of significant parts of the population either in direct combat or support roles; and (5) militarization of society in which social institutions are increasingly oriented towards military success and judged on their contribution to a war effort.

10 On students’ focus on propaganda work see Merker, P. (2007). ‘The Guomindang Regions of Jiangxi’, in MacKinnon, S., Lary, D., and Vogel, E., China at War, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 296297; Wakeman, F. Jr. (2007). ‘Cleanup: The New Order in Shanghai’, in Brown, J. and Pickowicz, P., Dilemmas of Victory: The Early Years of the People's Republic of China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p. 36; Brown, J. (2007). ‘From Resisting Communists to Resisting America: Civil War and Korean War in Southwest China, 1950–51’, in Dilemmas of Victory, p. 110.

11 Centeno's category of limited war means that the wars were relatively short, the fighting is limited to relatively small geographic areas (such as those close to CCP base areas or Korea, and the border between India and China) and battles are fought primarily by draftees from the lower classes. The wars begin as border clashes, and involve states with a shared ideological or cultural profile. (Japan was not ideologically so different to China, nor was India, the USSR or Vietnam). See Blood and Debt, pp. 21–22.

12 As noted by Gregory Mann (2006) in his study of West African veterans, ‘Becoming a veteran—with or without benefits—could itself be a full-time occupation’. See his Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, Durham, p. 102.

13 At least officially, there were some exceptions: veterans who had a special technical skill and could find an employer willing to hire them might be able to attain urban residence.

14 Wuqiang xian zhi (1996). Fangzhi chubanshe, Beijing, p. 416.

15 In the US, which did not experience war on its home front, the concept ‘home’ had far more positive associations. See Shuetz, A. (1945). The Homecomer, The American Journal of Sociology 50.5, 370.

16 Anhui sheng zhi: minzheng zhi (1993). Anhui renmin chubanshe, Hefei, p. 140.

17 Nanling xian zhi (1994). Huangshan chubanshe, Hefei, p. 499.

18 Huaiyuan xian zhi (1990). Shanghai kexue yuan chubanshe, Shanghai, p. 394.

19 Songjiang xian zhi (1991). Renmin chubanshe, Shanghai, p. 284

20 Wei xian zhi (1995). Zhongguo sanxia chubanshe, Shijiazhuang, p. 497.

21 Jinzhai xian zhi (1992). Shanghai renmin chubanshe, Shanghai, p. 527.

22 Dongping xian zhi (1989). Shandong renmin chubanshe, Jinan, p. 373.

23 Thaxton, Ralph (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 8283.

24 Qingpu Archives (QA hereafter) 48–2-31, p. 30.

25 QA 48–2-109, p. 37.

26 Brown, ‘From Resisting Communists’, pp. 111, 114.

27 Shandong Provincial Archives (SA hereafter) A20-1-109, p. 5.

28 SA A20-1-41 (1952), p. 69.

29 For a typical report see Dongcheng District Archives, Beijing, 11-7-96, p. 5.

30 People's Daily, 18 April, 1956.

31 QA 48-2-141 (1957), p. 13; QA 48-2-46 (1953), p. 76.

32 QA 48-2-105 (1957), pp. 135, 139–140.

33 Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA hereafter) B1-2-1958 (1957), p. 21.

34 SMA B168-1-628 (1957), p. 74.

35 SA A20-1-109, p. 4.

36 Shandong xingzheng gongbao, 24 March 1955, p. 12.

37 Matthews, J. (1981). Clock Towers for the Colonized: Demobilization of the Nigerian Military and the Readjustment of its Veterans to Civilian Life, 1918–1925, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 14.2, 264265, and 268289.

38 Israel, A. (1992). Ex-Servicemen at the Crossroads: Protest and Politics in Post-War Ghana, Journal of Modern African Studies 25.2, 361362.

39 Jessup, M. (1944). The Public Reaction to the Returned Serviceman after World War I, U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Washington, DC, pp. 10, 1618, 21, 32.

40 See Shuetz, ‘The Homecomer’, p. 375.

41 SMA A22-2-25, pp. 54–55.

42 SMA C1-2-361, p, 33; SMA A22-2-25, p. 55; SMA C1-2-121, p. 40; SMA A22-2-45, p. 147.

43 SMA C1-2-121, p. 40.

44 SMA C1-2-121 (1950), p. 22.

46 SMA B168-1-628, pp. 97–98.

47 Weiner, Making Sense of War, pp. 9, 70, 73; Hagen, M. (2003). ‘The levee en masse from Russian Empire to Soviet Union’, in Moran, D. and Waldron, A., The People in Arms, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 187. Regular army troops were given credit for victory after the battle of Stalingrad ‘at the expense of partisan and home guard units’.

48 Stouffer, S. et al. , (1949). The American Soldier: Combat and its Aftermath, vol. 2, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 309.

49 Huebner, A. (2008). The Warrior Image: Soldiers in American Culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam Era, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, p. 22.

50 Shandong xingzheng gongbao (December, 1954), p. 13.

51 People's Daily (6 August, 1956).

52 Cited in White, ‘The Politics of Demobilised Soldiers’, pp. 205–206.

53 This account is based on a transcript of Zhou's meeting with veteran representatives in SMA B168-3-131, pp. 3–6. All following quotes in the text are from these pages.

54 See, for example, the case of the ‘Veteran Army’ (rongfujun) in Heilongjiang, as reported in People's Daily (26 January and 15 February, 1967), and the journal Hongqi (3 February, 1967), p. 17 and (3 March, 1967), p. 38.

55 According to Gordon White's analysis of veterans’ activities during the Cultural Revolution, 77 per cent of veterans joined the conservative faction. See ‘The Politics of Demobilized Soldiers’, pp. 207, 211.

56 Unger, J. (1991). Whither China? Yang Xiguang, Red Capitalists, and the Social Turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Modern China 17.1, 23.

57 White, ‘Politics of Demobilized Soldiers’, 208; Vogel, Canton under Communism, p. 342; Lee, H. Y. (1978). The Politics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, p. 233.

58 See CIA, ‘Staff Notes: Chinese Affairs’ (18 February, 1975), p. 5. Accessed electronically in the National Archives, College Park, Maryland.

59 Gongjun futui zhuanye zhenxiang [GFZZ hereafter] (1984). Ministry of Defence, Taipei, Ministry of Justice-Bureau of Investigation Archives (Xindian), 172 (based on Xianggang shibao, 11 May, 1981).

60 Cited in Dreyer, ‘Demobilisation of PLA Servicemen’, p. 308.

61 GFZZ, pp. 172–173.

62 GFZZ, p. 173 (based on Gangkou kuaixun, May, 1981).

63 GFZZ, pp. 173–174 (based on a report by Yang Junshi in Xianggang shibao, 2 June, 1981).

64 SMA B127-1-811 (1954), p. 6.

65 Reese, P. (1992). Homecoming Heroes: An Account of the Reassimilation of British Military Personnel into Civilian Life, L. Cooper, London, p. 110.

66 Kristianson, G. L. (1966). The Politics of Patriotism: The Pressure Group Activities of the Returned Servicemen's League, Australia National University Press, Canberra, pp. 189, 212.

67 Garton, S. (2000). ‘Longing for War: Nostalgia and Australian Returned Soldiers after the First World War’, in Ashplant, T. G., Dawson, G. and Roper, M., The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration, Routledge, London, pp. 224229; Keren, Michael (2004). ‘Commemoration and National Identity: A Comparison between the Making of the Anzac and Palmach Legends,’ Israel Studies Forum 19, 3, pp. 1819.

68 Kristianson, Politics of Patriotism, pp. 146, 188–89, 198.

69 Berezin, M. (1997). Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, pp. 7576, 83–84.

70 Aguilar, pp. 86–90, 96, 101.

71 Edele, Soviet Veterans’, p. 112.

72 Merridale, C. (2006). Ivan's War Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945, Picador, New York, p. 357.

73 Edele, M. (2004). ‘A Generation of Victors?’ Soviet Second World War Veterans from Demobilisation to Organisation, 1941–1956’, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, pp. 500–505, 517–518.

74 Ignatius, D. (1991). Vietnamese Begin to Question if War was Worth Sacrifices, Washington Post (12 November).

75 Fan, Y. W. (1995). ‘Becoming a Civilian: Mainland Chinese Soldiers/Veterans and the State in Taiwan, 1949–2001,’ Ph.D. Dissertation, New School for Social Research, p. 49.

76 Garton, ‘Longing for War’, pp. 228–229. In the PRC, unlike Taiwan, there was no veteran newspaper from the 1950s to the 1970s, but one has been published in the reform period.

77 Leese, P. (1990). Problems Returning Home: The British Psychological Casualties of the Great War, The Historical Journal, 40.4, 1057.

78 Weiner, Making Sense of War, pp. 45, 49, 57.

79 Lockenour, J. (2001). Soldiers as Citizens: Former Wehrmacht Officers in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945–1955, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, p. 27.

80 Fan, ‘Becoming a Civilian’, p. 158.

81 Resch, J. (1999). Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment and Political Culture in the Early Republic, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Maryland, p. 85.

82 O'Leary, C. (1991). To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 41.

83 Jessup, The Public Reaction, pp. 8, 13, 36.

84 Bodnar, J. (1992). Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the 20th Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp. 84, 86. Emphasis mine.

85 According to Chang-tai Hong (2007), the ‘more-or-less standard pattern’ in parades after 1951 gave representation to an honour guard, Young Pioneers, workers, peasants, government employees, urbanities, representatives from industrial and commercial sectors, students, artists and performers, and athletes. See Mao's Parades: State Spectacles in China in the 1950s, The China Quarterly, 190, 417–418. See Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986, p. 11.

86 Weiner, Making Sense of War, pp. 8, 60, 68–69.

* The author is grateful to the Fulbright Scholar Program and Dickinson College's Research and Development Committee for research and travel support, as well as to Rana Mitter and Aaron William Moore for the opportunity to present this paper at Oxford. Conversations with David Strand, Patricia Thornton, Hans van de Ven and Elizabeth Perry, in addition to comments from Modern Asian Studies anonymous reviewers, all helped to clarify my thinking on war, revolution and memory. The conference where this paper was presented was organized by the China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust ( [accessed 22 December 2010]).

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