The more we commemorate, the less we understand. Top leaders attended a ceremony in Beijing yesterday to commemorate the 69th anniversary of China's victory in the anti-Japanese war. It is the nation's first commemoration - in which Hong Kong also took part - since September 3 was designated Victory Day this year. Later, there will be the 83rd anniversary of the Mukden Incident that triggered Japan's 1931 invasion of China on September 18 and the newly established Martyrs' Day on September 30. Meanwhile, there is a new official textbook for fifth-graders on the Nanking massacre.
Remembering Japan's imperialism and atrocities is necessary, especially when Japanese right-wing groups have been busy rewriting their country's wartime past. But when history becomes a weapon, or a propaganda tool, it's difficult to remain a human science or a scholarly art on the mainland.
The second Sino-Japanese war, which ended in 1945, is difficult to understand even without it being exploited by governments and political parties. It is also terribly neglected by contemporary scholars. For one thing, the war lacked simplicity, involving Chinese fighting Chinese; communists against Nationalists; warlords who were patriotic and others who were traitors.
But despite all this, as Oxford historian Rana Mitter points out in China's War with Japan, 1937-1945, China did not collapse like the Americans did under Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines and the European forces in Burma, Malaya and the East Indies.
For most Westerners, including academics, the real war against Japan was in the Pacific, leading to the oversimplification that the US won the war. But the war on the Chinese mainland tied down millions of Japanese troops, which helped explain why Japan became exhausted in the Pacific theatre after 1942.
Writing in the 1950s, the great French philosopher Raymond Aron lamented how Western triumphalism and Soviet repression had denied the Russian people full knowledge of their contributions and terrible sacrifices in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. I dearly hope the Chinese will have the history they deserve through the contributions and sacrifices they made in the Allied victory over imperial Japan.