China celebrates on Tuesday its first ´martyrs´day´ on September 30, a expression of new-found patriotism to remember those who died in fights with foreign powers. Journalist Ian Johnson at the New York Times digs into the reasons for this new celebration.
A new temporary exhibition highlights the global fight against fascism, including a section on the Doolittle Raiders, United States airmen who bombed Tokyo in 1942 and landed in China, where many were rescued. The museum also has the names of some Nationalist soldiers who died in the war.
Much of the museum, however, is heavily slanted toward the Communist Party’s version of the war’s history. Its 70,000 square feet of exhibition space is dominated by deeds of the relatively small Communist armies, who, most historians agree, rarely engaged with Japanese troops, leaving most of the fighting to the Nationalist armies.
Likewise, a recently released official list of the 300 most famous martyrs who died fighting Japan is heavily skewed toward Communist exploits. Over 40 percent of those on the list were soldiers in the Communists’ Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies. The former participated in one major campaign against Japan and the latter only in limited guerrilla operations. The Nationalist troops, who suffered 90 percent of China’s causalities in the war, account for 29 percent of the 300 martyrs.
The holiday is also seen as part of an effort by the Communist Party to elevate those who died for the nation. Until this year, China commemorated fallen soldiers on the traditional Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping, holiday, which falls on either April 4 or 5 of each year.
“Qingming is generally for the dead, but the new holiday will be for martyrs,” said Zhang Xianwen, a professor of history at Nanjing University. “This will be a bigger, broader commemoration so people won’t forget those who sacrificed their lives for the Chinese people.”
Hu Ying, a professor of literature at the University of California, Irvine, said use of the word “martyr” had a long tradition in China. The Confucian classics, for example, speak of martyrs who died for virtue and ideals. In the early 20th century, as China was being carved up by foreign powers, the term was revived in reference to those who died for the modern nation state, such as the revolutionary Qiu Jin.
But Kirk Denton, a professor of East Asian literature at Ohio State University, said the choice of the word carried political undertones.
“To use that term ‘martyr’ is a politicized way of looking at death,” he said. “They want to control who is defined as one.”
The term is so emotive in China that it has also come to be used by some to describe those who died during the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen uprising, or even those who have killed corrupt officials.
Government censors routinely scrub the Internet of such terms, but Professor Hu said it showed the difficulty the party had in maintaining its version of history.
“The party wants to keep hold of this term ‘martyr,’ ” she said, “and not allow it to be used by other groups.”
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