"History, the souls of the 300,000 dead victims, 1.3 billion Chinese people and all people loving peace and justice in the world will not allow the massacre to be forgotten," Chinese President Xi Jinping said on December 13, the 77th anniversary of the occupation and pillage of Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, by Japanese troops. China chose the 77th anniversary of the tragedy to begin a day of remembrance for a national wound that continues to bleed.
Memories of Japanese-led attacks remain unforgettable, for non-Chinese as well, as literature shows. Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's memoir, The Singapore Story, vividly recalls his first encounter with a Japanese solider: "As I passed this group of soldiers, I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible. But they were not to be denied attention. One soldier barked 'Kore, kore!' and beckoned...When I reached him, he thrust the bayonet on his rifle through the brim of my hat, knocking it off, slapped me roundly and motioned me to kneel. He then shoved his right boot against my chest and sent me sprawling on the road. As I got up, he signaled that I was to go back the way I had come. I had got off lightly. Many others who did not know the new rules of etiquette and did not bow to Japanese sentries at crossroads or bridges were made to kneel for hours in the sun, holding a heavy boulder over their heads until their arms gave way."
The Japanese occupation and its aftermath were the subject of three award-winning novels for three consecutive years, including 2014. This year's Booker Prize--one of the world's most important literary distinctions--was awarded to Australian Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is a tribute to his father who survived a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp where the inmates endured inhumane working conditions forced to build the Burma Railway, a supply road for the Japanese Army.
Flanagan's story, which weaves together the ferocity of Japanese oppression, prisoners' suffering and a doomed love, includes a little vignette that shows cruelty sans borders. A high-ranking Japanese official reminisces about his visit to "Manchukuo"--the Japanese-controlled puppet state in northeast China. "We had to undertake special field training exercises to prepare for our trial of courage," says Colonel Kota. "One day, we were taken to a prison for our trial of courage. The Chinese prisoners hadn't been fed for days. They were so scrawny. They were bound and blindfolded and made to kneel in front of a large pit. The lieutenant in charge unsheathed his sword. He scooped some water with his hand from a bucket and poured it over both sides of the blade. I have always remembered the water dripping off his sword. 'Watch,' he said. 'This is how you cut off heads.'"
Last year, Malaysia's Tan Twan Eng won the "Asian Booker"--the Man Asian Literary Prize--for The Garden of Evening Mist, the story of Yun Ling Teoh who survives a Japanese POW camp with two of her fingers cut off. During her internment, Yun witnesses her sister being forced to become a comfort woman. While she escapes the camp, her sister is murdered along with the other inmates as the captors try to eradicate all traces of the camp. Tan's debut book, The Gift of Rain, also deals with Japanese occupation, collaboration and treachery.
The year before Tan won his award, Chinese author Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in Literature. At least two of Mo's novels depict the Japanese in China, The Red Sorghum and Big Breasts and Wide Hips, with graphic depictions of the horrors perpetrated by Japanese soldiers.
But Xi has indicated China's readiness to forgive, saying "the responsibility for the war lay with a few militarists, not the people." However, till there is full reconciliation, the literary depictions will continue to remind us of what happened and what could happen again if people lose sight of peace and peaceful coexistence.
The author is a consultant with the ChinAfrica magazine