The Danger of China’s ‘Chosen Trauma’

When we see young Chinese people at a state event collectively chant, “Do not forget national humiliation and realize the Chinese dream!” we may be tempted to dismiss it as yet another piece of CCP propaganda. But we may also find ourselves pondering what “national humiliation” has to do with “the Chinese dream.”

This was precisely how the 77th anniversary of the Marco Polo bridge incident—the battle that in China symbolically marks the beginning of what is known as the War of Resistance Against Japan—concluded outside of Beijing in July. It was reportedly the largest state commemorations of the incident. President Xi Jinping gave a speech castigating Japan for its “historical revisionism” on the matter of its actions in China during World War II. “Chinese people who have sacrificed … will unswervingly protect, with blood and life, the history and the facts,” he declared. Earlier this month, on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declined to mark the day with a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and instead opted to send a ritual offering, a conciliatory gesture. But it backfired; Xinhua complained that Japan had “once again embarked on a precarious path and blatantly challenged the postwar international order of peace.”

In 2008, the Marco Polo Bridge incident was not commemorated so as to accommodate Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan the next year to sign an agreement on gas field development around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. But state evocations of China’s “Century of Humiliation”—the central message of the CCP’s patriotic education—appear to be back on full volume under Xi’s regime, and louder than ever. Japan’s purchase of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands, textbook controversies, Yaskuni Shrine visits, the re-examination of the 1993 Kono Statement which acknowledged the Japanese Imperial Army’s involvement in coercively recruiting “comfort women” during World War II, and on-going attempts to reinterpret the constitution are all galling provocations from China’s perspective—and understandably so. But China’s reactions go beyond condemnation or calls for international arbitration. Its leaders are actively stirring up nationalist fervor for political gain.

This year has already seen a few additions to the humiliation litany: in January, the opening in Harbin of a memorial hall for the Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun, who assassinated Japan’s first Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito in 1909; in February, two new national holidays of the “War Against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” and the “Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day.” The latest is a $6 million full-size replica, currently under construction in Dandong, of an 80-meter warship that sunk during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), as a symbolic reminder of China’s naval defeat to Japan. While such appropriation of history is neither new nor unique to China, it is nevertheless cause for concern.

In 2012, when Japan announced the decision to purchase the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, anti-Japanese sentiment ignited instantaneously across the nation. The Japanese Embassy in Beijing was not the only Japanese-owned building on the mainland to come under siege. Japanese expats came under the projectile trajectory of saliva, bottles, and ramen. In Shanghai, a man named Tong reportedly said losing the islands would be a national humiliation. “China has the power to say ‘no’ to Japan and the government should play the hard line,” he said, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “overthrow the Japs, defend Diaoyu.” In 2004, when Japan defeated China at the Asian Cup final, protest outside the stadium ensued, flags were burnt, and a Japanese ambassadorial vehicle was battered down.

Responses to the purchase of the islands probably ranged from such xenophobic violence to contained private disapproval. But, our attention is drawn to the former, aided by the mass media, and rightly so, not because it is widely representative of Chinese nationalism but because it is a highly problematic symptom. It may well continue to be so, given the current state of affairs. Two days after Xi’s Marco Polo Bridge speech, the Chongqing Youth Daily printed a full-page map of Japan with nuclear mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the PRC, appropriating history has been the cornerstone of the state-led Patriotic Education Campaign that was launched in the early 1990s. It has seen the most systematic reconfiguration of history education to fill the void of legitimacy left by the hemorrhage of Marxist ideology in the reform era. Captured well by the staple phrase “Never Forget National Humiliation,” the entire nation’s history curriculum revolves around the national struggles against Western and Japanese imperialism to ensure students become loyal to their country and the CCP leadership. As the Cold War drew to a close, a new world order peeped over the horizon. Japan appeared to become ever more integrated into a Washington-instigated containment, whilst the CCP leadership appeared to have lost the faith of the Chinese people, as had been demonstrated by the Tiananmen massacre. Under such circumstances, a measure of anti-Japanese sentiment would be harmless.

Another significant change, as the author of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, Zheng Wang, argues, has been a renewed emphasis on victimhood, especially in 19th and 20th century history, instead of being occupied with Mao-era narratives of triumph. Simultaneously, the darker moments of the CCP’s own records (eg. the Great Leap Forward) are virtually whitewashed. Thus, China’s victimization at the behest of Japanese invaders, especially during the war, comes under the spotlight, with traumatic events like the Nanjing Massacre coming to define China’s encounter with Japan in all state discourses. Such events are what Vamik Volkan, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, calls “chosen trauma,” collectively remembered for the “losses, shame, and humiliation” that are intended to inform what it means to be Chinese.

The campaign extends outside the classroom through such tools as popular history books, films, posters, and songs, as well as ceremonies and monuments. By enlisting such a comprehensive set of propaganda to hammer home a certain perspective on history, ruling elites are in a strong position to shape Chinese national identity. Indeed, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall in Nanjing and the War of Resistance museum in Wanping were all commissioned in the 1980s just as the CCP was turning towards nationalism. As William Callahan, author of China: The Pessoptimist Nation, has pointed out, ruling elites have worked “to turn a scattered collection of specific memories of the Nanjing massacre into lasting national institutions.” These are just a few of the ubiquitous “patriotic education bases” in the PRC that invite visitors to relive the horrors of the past.

In this atmosphere, popular reproductions of certain memories thrive. In 2012, China’s broadcast regulators approved no less than 69 anti-Japanese-themed television series and about 100 films. Zhu Dake, a culture critic and professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, told Reuters, “Only anti-Japanese themes aren’t limited… The people who make TV think that only through anti-Japanese themes will they be applauded by the narrow-minded patriots who like it.” He estimated war stories make up about 70% of drama on Chinese television.

Back in 1972, in an effort to woo Japan for diplomatic recognition, Mao’s China shelved territorial and historical issues. Premier Zhou even told the Japanese PM Tanaka Kakuei that a few militarists were to blame for Japan’s imperial ambitions, and that both nations were traumatized. During that period, virtually no demonstrations were held and academic inquiry into diplomatically inconvenient facts of Japanese wartime atrocities was barred—what James Reilly calls, “China’s benevolent amnesia towards Japan.” In a telling account, Mei Xiao’ao recalls how in the 1960s his father, a Chinese Judge at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, tried to have historians look into the Nanjing Massacre but faced charges of “stirring up national hatred and revenge” against the Japanese people, “and some even considered that his writing about Chinese defeat and misery in Nanjing amounted to hidden praise for the strength of Japanese troops.” 1

Of course, there are multiple streams of influences that shape and color Chinese popular nationalism in regards to Japan, making it no longer the property of the ruling elites. At the base of it are real, lived experiences and memories of war. China’s rise and the perception of a U.S.-Japanese containment have also lurked in the background. The intellectual “China Can Say No” ferment and the comfort women redress movement in the 1990s sharpened grievances. More recently, online chat rooms and the semi-liberated Chinese mass media have also been channels of popular nationalism. It is a matrix in which various streams reinforce each other in complex ways. However, with all its technologies of propaganda, the CCP’s humiliation discourse effectively arouses select powerful memories, rendering the Party-state perhaps the most powerful node of influence in this matrix. By spotlighting and reactivating memories of Japanese wartime atrocity on a grand scale, the campaign inflates a sense of victimhood at the hands of Japan, and in turn legitimates, even encourages, the extreme expressions of such bloated feelings of victimhood. It makes conditions ripe for wanton radicalization.

Thus we can expect to see popular nationalism continue to lend foreign policy a more aggressive edge. For instance, as Shunji Cui points out, in 2002 “new thinking” diplomacy that aimed to overcome historical grievances and normalize relations with Japan was endorsed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, as well as a number of intellectuals, only to collapse under the pressure of nationalist reaction to Japanese textbook controversy and Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits. In 2005, as Japan hoped to capture a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the Chinese government, which had theretofore never taken a definite position on Japan’s bid, only came out to oppose it after an online petition against Japan’s accession went viral with more than 22 million signatures. Yes, nationalism is a double-edged sword, and anti-Japanese sentiments are such that the CCP can’t afford to look weak in the face of Japanese provocations. In some ways, Chinese warplanes coming within cringing distance of Japanese counterparts in May perhaps was as much of a message to Japan as it was to the Chinese public. But, it is important to note that while such anti-Japanese nationalist reactions can question the elites’ nationalist legitimacy, they do not contradict the humiliation discourses propagated by the state; rather, they are radical extensions of it.

The Chinese dream can do away with past humiliations. But, as long as CCP ruling elites continue to proactively appropriate traumatic memories of Japanese atrocities, they are contributing to the encroachment on their own legitimacy and endangering regional stability. The primary intention may have been to unify the nation and fortify the legitimacy of the ruling elites, but the result has been a flammable, lopsided national identity diminished both by its superiority complex and its victim complex. The Patriotic Education Campaign has powerfully contributed to a societal atmosphere where xenophobic sentiments can flourish under the name of patriotism, while more moderate voices are marginalized for lack of patriotism. In 2006, in an article called “Modernization and History Textbooks,” Zhongzhan University historian Yuan Weishi warned against distorting history for fear that it would turn “rational citizens into violent indignant youth,” and argued that China would become stronger if history education were to emphasize “rationality and tolerance.” The Central Propaganda Department shut down the China Youth Daily magazine that had published Yuan’s article and criticized him for distorting history and having “attempted to vindicate the criminal acts of the imperial powers’ invasion of China.” Yuan retired from his post at Zhongshan University. But his ideas, we hope, have not.

  1. “Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing,” Daqing Yang, The American Historical Review, Vol. 104, No. 3 (Jun., 1999), pp. 842-865