Why isn’t China commemorating the anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War?

It has been hard to get away from the Sino-Japanese War. To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the start of the war on August 1, 1894, Southern Weekend devoted a special section to the topic. Newspaper stands across were filled to the brim with anniversary issues. Even The Wall Street Journal published an interview about the war’s legacy with Ma Young, an historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom pointed out earlier this year, in China, the 120th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese War is much more significant than the 100th anniversary World War I.

Thinking about the origins, course, as well as short and long-term consequences of this war is quite logical but also diverts attention from other anniversaries: The Russo-Japanese War began 110 years ago in 1904. Admittedly, the number 110, reckoning according to the Western or Chinese calendar, does not exactly set the historical imagination on fire, but, for some, it was “the first great war of the 20th century.” Though fought between Russia and Japan, in many ways the conflict was about China, particularly influence in Manchuria.

As commemorations of the Sino-Japanese War peaked in early August, Professor Cheng Yinhong (程映虹) of Delaware State University published two articles that went against the grain of this year’s historical discourse. Professor Cheng is not concerned about the Sino-Japanese War but the Russo-Japanese War. He first asks: “Why doesn’t China commemorate the Ruso-Japanese War?” and in last week’s edition of Southern Weekend he ponders “Why did Zhou Enlai not forget the Russo-Japanese War.”

In answering the first question, he seizes on the current political atmosphere in China. As he points out, previous anniversaries of the Sino-Japanese War did not receive as much attention or produce as much reflections as the one this year. With the perceived rise of the Japanese right leading to worries about the rebirth of Japanese militarism, the Sino-Japanese War takes on much more significance. Conversely, with Sino-Soviet relations not nearly so fraught, the Russo-Japanese War gets played down.

Professor Cheng, however, thinks this is a problem: the anniversary of the Russo-Japanese War in China should actually be played up. China’s greater shame came not in the Sino-Japanese War, which the Qing actively contested and lost, but in the Russo-Japanese War when the Qing let two other countries fight on and over its territory, without doing anything at all and accepted the final result. Making the same point in a metaphor, the Sino-Japanese War, Cheng argues, was fought on the Qing’s doorstep, while the Russo-Japanese War was fought inside the Qing’s house but without the Qing actively opposing it. Isn’t that the greater shame (chiru 耻辱)?

Certain figures at the time thought so. Cheng first recounts the story of why Lu Xun switched from medicine to literature. While studying abroad in Japan, Lu Xun, saw photos from the war in which a Japanese soldier prepared to execute a Chinese man accused of spying for the Russians while a number of Chinese observers made no acts of protest. As he wrote in the preface to his first collection of short stories, this set him on the course of being a “literary physician,” to diagnose, treat, and hopefully cure what he saw as much more serious problems than physical disease. Cheng also shares the story of a young Zhou Enlai visiting the battleground of the Russo-Japanese War with the father of a primary school classmate. This visit, Cheng insists, stayed with him. When negotiating the exit of Soviet forces from China in 1955, the Russian side wanted to construct a memorial to its soldiers that died in the Russo-Japanese War but Zhou staunchly refused.

Cheng thinks that the excessive focus on 1894 instead of 1904 becomes a distorting mirror (haha jing 哈哈镜). Next year, he mentions, is also an important one in Chinese historical memory, the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan and the end of the World War II. Cheng, though, thinks it likely that next year’s discourse will focus more on China’s victory rather than yet another unequal treaty: the concessions granted to the Soviet Union in Manchuria, privileges granted in a treaty that Russia had lost in war 40 year before.

These articles serve as an interesting and unexpected addition to the growing discourse on the significance of 2014. It is always good be jolted out of conventional patterns of thought. However, while acknowledging the usefulness of the articles it is also important not to lose track of their broader point. They accept the narrative of national shame but insist that it is artificially directed toward the wrong events and years. Put plainly, the argument runs as follows: the Sino-Japanese War was bad for China but the Russo-Japanese War was worse. Instead of questioning the and moving beyond narratives of national shame, advocated by historians Orville Schell and John Delury, these articles embrace it. In this way, they are not too different from much of the commentary on the Sino-Japanese War.

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