December 13th is China’s National Memorial Day. On various social media platforms, the Chinese public expressed their remembrances and condolences to the compatriots who died in the Nanjing Massacre, as well as their cherishing and prayers for peace. However, Western platforms such as Twitter actually used “bloody” and other rhetoric, deleting some historical photos of witnesses to the Nanjing Massacre released by users. This brings out the unfairness of these Western-led social media, and also makes people feel their prejudice against China and their disrespect for history.
The historical tragedy of the Nanjing Massacre and the entire history of the Chinese War of Resistance are of course an important part of modern world history, and it is also an important part of the historical memory of the Chinese people and the world public. Remembering this history, the enlightenment it gives today is multifaceted. The most important thing is to remember history, so that the desire for peace and a better future for mankind can be expressed better, and important historical truths can be effectively and fully understood.
However, the history that took place in East Asia has actually received very little attention and understanding in Western society. The tragedy of the Nanjing Massacre is rarely presented. Chinese American writer Zhang Chunru’s work on the Nanjing Massacre has far-reaching influence, but its scope is quite limited. Many people in the West lack the basic understanding of this period of history. The West has a deep understanding of the tragedies of the Jews in World War II. In contrast, it is obvious that tragedies of the same nature that occurred in Asia are often ignored intentionally or unintentionally in the West, and even some are deliberately blocked. Some Western history textbooks are also very facile and scattered on this aspect.
This is obviously related to the values and “Euro-centricity” or “Western-centricity” of standards of judgement. In Western society, China’s history is marginal and insignificant. Westerners have a very biased understanding of its historical significance. This idea is almost ingrained and long standing. The practice of Western social media at the present moment is actually an integral part of that de facto reality.
There is another important factor that cannot be ignored. Chinese society remembers the tragedy of history. Of course, it is the prayer for peace and the expectation that mankind will transcend the sufferings of people that are caused by war. It is a sincere expectation for a better future for mankind and an important source of spiritual sustenance for the Chinese nation to move forward toward the future.
These are all legitimate understandings of history. But in the West, the Chinese remembrance of history is sometimes deliberately misinterpreted as so-called extreme “nationalism”. The Chinese people’s painful memories of national humiliation and loss of national sovereignty in modern times, as well as the tragedy remembering the Nanjing Massacre, have also been unwarrantedly distorted as “arousing radical national sentiments”. Some people in the West believe that China’s memory of this period of history is out of a feeling of “revenge” for other peoples. This creates a panic about China’s development and China’s rise, feeding into a version of the “China threat” theory.
The Chinese public’s understanding of a century of humiliation is also regarded as part of the “anti-West” sentiment deliberately created by Chinese society and the result of political “incitement” or “agitation”. They even regard some legitimate voices of China in the international community as a “threat” to them. This kind of understanding is far from the reality of Chinese society and is a deliberately distorted understanding, and absurd basically.
Regrettably, in recent years, such claims have been rampant in the West. With the continuous development of China and the improvement of its overall national strength, this (mis)understanding and (mis)perception has led to “anxiety” among some Western media and politicians. At the moment, when China is gradually coming out of the epidemic and some Western countries are still deeply involved in the epidemic, they unreasonably promote China’s “threat” and exaggerate China’s use of nationalism to challenge the world.
It has to be said that in the 21st century, the Chinese people’s statements of true history and national memory are still part of the “threat”, which indeed reflects the prejudice and hostility of some people in the West towards China. And its ultimate goal is to shield the presentation of real history so that the world public cannot see the truth of history. Distorting the Chinese love of peace into emotions and even hostility towards the world is a manifestation of this anxiety.
Respect for historical memory is an important norm of the international community. It is unfair to shield the truths of history, and it also shows the importance of keeping the truths of history and historical memory (alive and) fully understood by the world.
(The author is a Professor at Beijing University)