»Memorial drama« at the Chinese periphery: Difficult heritage as a consequence of entangled mobilities between Japan and China

»Memorial drama« at the Chinese periphery: Difficult heritage as a consequence of entangled mobilities between Japan and China

One of the important contributions of critical heritage studies is the realisation that heritage is always contested – for every event, for every ‘past’, no matter how distant, there is no single story or interpretation, but rather new and alternative explanations. As a result, for every group claiming an ‘inheritance’, there is ‘disinheritance’ by another (Ashworth, Hartmann 2005). This is perhaps most evident at sites and memories associated with violence, be they symbolic or physical. Such “difficult heritage” pertains to two aspects; firstly, it is inherently hard to devise effective management strategies that would anticipate and, if possible »diffuse the dissonance« (Tunbridge, Ashworth 1996: 268), and secondly, as understood by Sharon Macdonald (2015: 6), it signals a move towards addressing the detrimental moments in one’s history as part of wider intentional and reflective attempts to come to terms with the past, despite difficulties in reconciling this with positive (national) identity.

In the case of memorials and monuments associated with the Japanese colonization and imperialism in the wider east and southeast Asia, this “difficult heritage” is dealt with by different approaches reflecting not just the past, but especially the present. As discussed by Morris at al. (2013), in South Korea this legacy was too traumatic or too embarrassing to be publicly recognized as part of modern post-war Korea. The Taiwanese, on the other hand, embraced it as part of multicultural identity, differentiating themselves from the Chinese (Morris at al 2013). In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the official attitude towards Japanese colonial past in China is most notably exemplified by the Nanjing Massacre Memorial[1], which employs symbolic devices embodying pain and suffering in order to depict the extensive victimization of the Chinese during Japanese aggression (Qian 2009). According to Fenqi Qian (2009), this victimization serves multiple goals, the construction of Chinese nationalism, among others, in which national humiliation has played a prominent role until recently (Callahan 2004). What is more, monuments and memorials marking Japanese aggression in China are not only used to enhance Chinese national identity through patriotic campaigns, but also to legitimise leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Zhao and Timothy 2015).

To understand such dissonance in heritagization, it is worthwhile focussing on so-called »heritage controversies« as a useful window into the power dynamics that lies beneath all heritage-making, and, which can also shed light on the multiple actors in this process who contribute to negotiations over interpretations of the meaning and message behind a particular heritage site (Macdonald 2009). It also emphasises the importance of paying attention to the spatial and temporal aspects of heritage-making by contextualising a particular heritage site within the entanglements of local and global past and present.

Troubling Past

This particular heritage controversy is located at the north-eastern tip of China in close proximity to the China-Russia border. Its beginnings can be traced to the establishment of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in China’s Northeast, in 1932. Manchukuo became an area for intense colonization by Japan – a massive state-led movement that aimed to settle more than one million, mostly poor, Japanese farmers in the region. Besides the settlers, the Japanese population in the area also consisted of military personnel as well as bureaucrats, shopkeepers, teachers etc., the total number estimated at 1,550,000 (Itoh 2010). The Japanese state heavily promoted that colonization as a panacea to the ‘social ills’ of the period as well as the means of territorial expansion (Asano Tamanoi, 2009) and thus marketed the area as vast and empty. The land that Japanese farmers received upon colonization however was not empty; it had been previously confiscated from local Chinese inhabitants by Japanese companies. Since the Japanese settlers often did not know how to cultivate such large parcels of land, they hired local Chinese and Korean workers, many of them the previous owners of the land, and treated them as ‘coolies’ (Itoh 2010).

Province of Heilongjiang in People’s Republic of China. Avtor: Joowwww on platform Wikimedia Commons, 200

On the 9th of August 1945 Soviet troops invaded Manchukuo. Male family members were called up for Japanese military service and sent to the battle lines. Chaos ensued after the Russian invasion; some of the Japanese settlers took part in collective suicides, some ran into the woods to save their lives, some were robbed and assaulted by Chinese bandit militia on the way to evacuation centres, some were taken by Soviet troops (Wu in Chan 2011). Receiving little sympathy from the local Chinese, the rest died of malnutrition, severe cold and epidemics. Most of the children and young women who managed to survive were eventually integrated into Chinese families either through marriage, adoption or even forced labour. As translated from Chinese, these later became called the ‘Japanese left behind in China’ and consisted of two large groups: ‘left-behind orphans’ in the case of orphans adopted by Chinese families; and ‘left-behind women’ in the case of women, married to Chinese. While these two groups were given opportunity to repatriate to Japan in the 1950s and 1970s, repatriation was not a smooth process – due to very narrow interpretation of immigration law and Japanese citizenship, many adopted children and women married to Chinese were denied the right to repatriation by the Japanese state (Chan 2011). It was not until major reform of the Japanese Immigration Control Act in 1989 substantially broadened the category of persons of Japanese descent, including relatives of former Japanese settlers and offspring abandoned in China (Morita, Sassen 1994), that greater migration from China’s Northeast to Japan began. In the following years this prompted diverse movements between the two countries: repatriation and strong chain migration of Japanese orphans’ and wives’ (Chinese) relatives to Japan on the one hand and frequent visits to the county by Japanese civil society representatives, relatives of war orphans, Japanese army veterans, and returned emigrants on the other. The physical movements were accompanied by varied material and financial flows: remittances, development assistance, household goods and supplies and transfer of knowledge.

The heritagization of Japanese colonization in China

The heritagization of these troubling past events follows the ebbs and flows of Japan-China relations. To mark this painful history, a Sino–Japanese Friendship Garden was built in the province of Heilongjiang in 1986 by provincial government decree that also provided funds to construct a 60 square metre reception room in the small county of Fangzheng close to Harbin, the provincial capital. Initially, it consisted of a cemetery for the Japanese dead but, later, obelisks dedicated to the memory of the Chinese foster parents who adopted Japanese orphans, as well as several other monuments promoting peace and cooperation donated by Japanese visitors were added. The whole project was officially approved by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the request of the provincial government (Guo and Cao 2009). Permission to build this cemetery purportedly came from the then prime minister Zhou Enlai himself, which gave this place a special seal of approval that even the harshest critics could not disregard.[2]The park was thus not only approved by the highest levels of political power but also a communal effort through participation of local inhabitants, including the descendants of former Japanese settlers living in China. In addition, during the 1980s, the wishes of relatives in Japan to commemorate their dead also became increasingly acknowledged and a lively exchange of visits between the county and selected townships in Japan began. These visits started in the 1980s but really took off in the 1990s: according to local sources (Guo in Cao 2009) at least one Japanese group per month visited the country and the memorial garden. Visits were also made in the opposite direction and local government was received by assorted dignitaries in Japan. This resulted in various monetary and other flows into the small county, especially Japanese development assistance and remittances. Following these, the local government started to pursue a development strategy heavily dependent on the ties with Japan. The urban transformations focused on the local Chinese migration to Japan and the many visitors from Japan, including adding Japanese scripts to Chinese shop signs or studying Japanese in language schools.

Slowly, the usual depiction of the Japanese colonial involvement in China with a greater degree of inclusive heritagization began to take shape with the memorial garden being hailed as an example of good relations between the PRC and Japan. The messaging emphasized the humanitarianism and the benevolence of the Chinese and did not deviate from the official stance on the Japanese occupation and Chinese liberation, but it did create a space where the Japanese could be seen not only as the villains but also victims and human beings. The authorities even allowed other actors (e.g., Japanese delegations and relatives) to engage in the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden by adding new monuments.

»Memorial drama«

In 2011, the local government upgraded the memorial garden with two memorial walls; the first dedicated to ‘The Perished Japanese colonial settlers’ inscribed with the names of 229 Japanese who died there, the other to ‘The departed Chinese foster parents’. They emphasised that the coexistence of these two walls as unique in the country as “they were built to show more truth, to present history in a more convincing way, to warn and educate future generations, to highlight the evils of fascism, and to engage more deeply with the Chinese nation’s humanitarianism” (Jiang 2011).

With more state representative visits the exposure of this memorial site grew on social media. At the same time, Chinese-Japanese relations worsened due to new incidents involving Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands in the South China Sea. Reports about the memorial garden and the new installations quickly went viral on micro-blogging sites prompting many netizens to accuse the county of ‘erecting a monument to Japanese invaders. Within hours, (digital) dissonant voices were roaring and demanding explanations regarding the »Memorial drama« as was dubbed by the Chinese media: users of the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo questioned the use of the term ‘Japanese settlers’ on the memorial wall, the sheer existence of the monument dedicated to ‘Japanese invaders’, and above all the money spent on erecting it – the amount most often mentioned on Weibo and media news was 700,000 RMB, the equivalent of 105,000 USD.

Memorial dedicated to the Chinese foster parents. Photo: Martina Bofulin (2014)

One of the fundamental aspects of heritage controversy is that it forces people and groups to take sides. It also assigns positions in a way that shows some actors in a particularly bad light and almost no room to manoeuvre. As indicated at the beginning of this article, the local government found itself in the midst of violent attacks, first only virtual and verbal, but later also physical. People started to flock to the county to express their dissatisfaction with the memorial wall. Among them were five men, calling themselves members of the Alliance for Defending the Diaoyu Islands. Upon their arrival, they headed to the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden and tried to smash the memorial wall with the inscription of the Japanese dead. As the material used for the wall was too hard, they only managed to chip off parts of it. Sometime later they decided to smear red paint over it. The police arrived, took the men into custody but let them go the same day (Jiang 2011). To calm the situation down, the local government issued a statement stating that the garden would no longer be an open tourist attraction, but rather intended only for Japanese visitors (Qin 2011). This enraged the netizens even more, prompting local government officials to end their communication on Weibo as well as other media outlets in general, and, several days later, to demolish the contentious memorial wall entirely, hoping to silence the vociferous dissonance and erase any memory of even shy attempts at expanding on ‘difficult heritage’ beyond the usual official narrative of great Chinese victimization and liberation under the leadership of CCP.

While all heritage controversies result in a degree of  change, sometimes only miniscule, some turn out to be too contentious and there are attempts to return to a previous state of affairs, even with drastic measures if necessary (Macdonald 1995). But the dissonance in this case lingered on and even physically demolishing the memorial wall did nothing to diminish it. On the contrary, the heritage controversy surrounding the Sino-Japanese Friendship Garden spilled over into the larger issue of loyalty and patriotism revealing that a return to those earlier times, at least for the local community, was no longer possible. Due to the widespread use of social media this controversy could no longer be confined to the county borders but has rather grown into a nationwide smearing campaign of the locals. For example, in addition to other name-calling, the netizens also pronounced the county as a place of ‘traitors of the Chinese race’. Since demolition of the memorial, the garden is no longer open to the public and visitors require special permission from the local government to enter. In the town, Japanese signs have been taken down and the ties to Japan, although still existent, are downplayed.


While dissonance is intrinsic to all heritage-making, the account of this “Memorial drama” reveals how dissonance can be downplayed within certain contexts and periods, but can be intensely expressed at other times. This is why it is important to closely examine a particular heritage controversy in order to understand how local and global entanglements condition the course and the outcome of the specific heritage-making project. In the case of China, the Chinese state continues to invest in the presentation of war memorials as places that extol victimization, patriotism and self-sacrifice and through that the centrality of CCP in modern Chinese history. Heritage-making is therefore closely controlled to stay in line with the officially sanctioned interpretations and messages. But the case described here attests to the presence of other voices and their attempts to forge alternative, more inclusive, interpretations of Japanese colonial legacy. These alternative voices have not contradicted or challenged the meta-narrative, but only slightly expand the previously black and white portrayal of Japanese colonial legacy. While still following the meta-narrative of the humanism and humanitarianism of the Chinese people, an (unintentional) message of sacrifice, suffering and care that was common to both groups, both local Chinese and the surviving Japanese, emerged. In this, the ‘perished’ Japanese were no longer the arch enemy, but rather human beings whose suffering is recognized beyond the official Chinese stance of Japanese people being victims of Japan’s militarist regime at the time.[3] While one cannot claim that these alternative interpretations are an intentional step towards acknowledging wrongs that have been committed, that is, enacting the ‘difficult heritage’ as understood by Sharon Macdonald (2015), I have attempted to show that these often miniscule rearrangements of discourse can be seen to signal a move towards more reflective and inclusive heritage making, staying within the realm of officially sanctioned interpretations, but also adding a new dimension to these messages or even new actors. This might form a basis for future accounts of the past that would be more aligned with ‘difficult heritage’ approaches. The »Memorial drama« doesn’t provide much hope though, only stark warnings on the extreme difficulty of such endeavours in today’s China.

The expanded version of this article has been published in the journal Anthropological Notebooks (Building memorials for a friend or a foe? Mobility and heritage dissonance amid China-Japan conflict. Anthropological notebooks, 2016,  vol. 23, no. 3, p. 45-61. http://www.drustvo-antropologov.si/AN/PDF/2017_3/Anthropological_Notebooks_XIII_3_Bofulin.pdf

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  1. Nanjing Massacre pertains to the events connected to the fall of Nanjing and subsequent siege of the city by the Imperial Japanese Army during Second Sino-Japanese war (1937–1945). During the two months (December 1937 and January 1938) Japanese army commited multiple atrocities on resident Chinese population and killed from 40.000 to 300.000 people. The event continues to be a controversial issue in Japanese-Chinese relations.[]
  2. As mentioned in one of the Chinese media articles, main local historian Guo Xiangsheng who traced the origin of the Japanese cemetary in Fangzheng could not find the document containing Zhou Enlai’s approval in the archives of the official documents issued by PRC’s prime minister.[]
  3. This view was, among others, expressed in the 2004 Wen Jiabao’s speech in Japanese Diet, where he emphasized the victimhood of ‘ordinary Japanese’: ‘The older generation of Chinese leaders stated on many occasions that it was a handful of militarists who were responsible for that war of aggression. The Japanese people were also victims of the war, and the Chinese people should live in friendship with them’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC 2007).[