One of the most interesting sessions at the recent China: Birth and Belonging symposium was a talk by Rana Mitter, Professor for the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, on wartime identity in modern China.
As for many countries, World War 2 was instrumental in shaping China’s modern day identity – both internationally and domestically. The Japanese invasion of China made around 80 million people homeless. That number of refugees moving en masse across the country was bound to have a massive impact on national identity, said Mitter.
But unlike the UK, China has been loath to discuss elements of the war in the open. In fact, many citizens of the then capital Chongqing were, until recently, expressly forbidden from discussing their experiences. Part of the reason for that was political: the Communist government didn’t want people discussing the Nationalist–led fightback against the Japanese in the region. But, as Mitter told us, that’s like Londoners being told not to talk about the Blitz.
Given how important the Blitz is to British identity, the contrast in attitudes is incredible. The Blitz, a bonding experience through shared hardship, did much to cement the national sense of self and still crops up in popular media today, as any number of British TV shows will show. It helped shape the way people would live their lives during the war and beyond – the constant threat of air raids created a need for living and working spaces in the same place, a system that in China’s case is only now being dismantled.
There are other reasons for keeping things quiet. Many of the refugees who came to Chongqing were from the ‘sophisticated’ cities of the East, such as Shanghai. According to Mitter, many were already haughty about being forced into a perceived ‘backwards’ town like Chongqing. So rather than cementing national identity, as the Blitz did in the UK, the circumstances created by the war worked against Chinese national unity. There is also a difference in attitudes between China and other countries. One theory about why China is only now gathering momentum as a world super power is its lack of self-confidence and tendency towards self-flagellation, something that is only now changing as the country begins to view itself at last as a dominant power in Asia, and the rest of the world.
Today, the local people of Chongqing are trying to remind people of the sacrifices made by the city and its people during the war. This was symbolised by a DVD cover displayed during the talk, featuring great monuments from Washington, London, Moscow… and Chongqing. According to Mitter, this is an attempt to see China as one of the four great powers that fought back during World War 2, an identity that may make it easier to gain recognition on the world stage.
Mun-Keat Looi is a Science Writer at the Wellcome Trust.