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  • Life Histories and National Narratives:Remembering Occupied Manchuria in Postwar China
  • Marjorie Dryburgh (bio)

Chen Bingkan and Wei Zhanhao attended middle school in Shenyang – they were older than me, but only thirteen. After the invasion, the school closed, so they had to come home. They were walking to the station to catch a train. The Japanese had lifted martial law, but when they saw them, they killed Chen Bingkan with their swords without the slightest provocation.1

Heye'er Lili, born Shenyang, 1921

All our lecturers were well known in Japan, dedicated to scholarship and exemplary teachers – they were not like the militarists. Our mining technology instructor was chair of the Japanese Geological Society. He represented Japan at international conferences and came back with news of Li Siguang and his achievements in that field… we were happy and proud to hear that China had such scientists.2

Yang Jihong, born Dalian, 1921

These snapshots of young Chinese people's experience in Japaneseoccupied north-east China – 'Manchuria' or 'Manzhouguo' (1931–45) – highlight the challenges of reconciling personal histories of the Sino-Japanese war with official commemoration practices that tend towards the monumental, in museums and in massive compilations of archival records of atrocity. Combined with anniversary events and official denunciations of Japanese wartime behaviour, these underpin a public history of the war with Japan as a period of grave and unrelieved suffering, in which personal histories – of forced industrial and sexual labour, or of massacres witnessed or survived – became emblematic of national victimhood.3 Recent studies of memory work in China have emphasized war memory's contribution to a 'public transcript' of Party-state legitimacy, to borrow James [End Page 229] Scott's formulation: a complex of explanations and observations designed by elites to position the war in a 'century of national humiliation' and to affirm the Party-state as defender of nation and people.

However, Scott's model assumes also a parallel complex of 'hidden transcripts' that the creation of the public transcript drives into 'off-stage' social spaces but does not erase.4 We have seen much less evidence of such nonofficial, dissonant memories, and few would expect to find ambivalent memories of the sufferings that the official narrative emphasizes. However, as Alessandro Portelli reveals in his work on Italy's war as myth and history, competing postwar memories may rewrite relations among occupied peoples without negating judgements on the occupation itself.5 It is striking, therefore, that the personal histories of education explored below suggest other understandings of occupation experience, other communities of memory, and a more fragmented social history of occupation than the orthodox narratives admit. These personal histories originated in a massive Chinese statefunded research project based in Liaoning province, north-east China, led by Qi Hongshen, a history researcher for the Liaoning provincial education gazetteer, an official local history. Inspired by Qi's observation that most earlier research on occupation schooling drew on sources produced by Japanese former officials, teachers and students, the project solicited personal stories from former Chinese students through personal connections, employers, alumni associations, and the press.6 Between 2000 and 2003, Qi and his team of over fifty researchers conducted 1200 interviews across the north-east, and published 400 stories – some of several pages, others only a few paragraphs in length – in two collections in 2005.7 Nearly ninety percent of subjects were men, with over eighty percent from the majority Han ethnic group. The oldest, born in 1904, were already working as teachers in 1931; most were born in the 1920s and educated to middle-school level in schools run specifically for Chinese pupils (and are therefore a relatively privileged sub-group); a minority reached university or attended schools for Japanese children; the youngest, born in 1937, saw only primary education.

The academic literature in this area maps an uncertain landscape of wartime experience and postwar memory. Although the literature on occupied Manzhouguo – particularly in newer work that explores its social histories – and on education under occupation and colonialism across Asia points to complex and ambiguous experiences, studies of postwar China highlight the determination of the Party-state to iron out ambiguities in public memory. The oral histories in some...


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