Letter from Beijing

War veterans' stories threaten official history
October 16, 2013

For the past six decades, Long Yunsong, 92, has led a solitary life in the far-flung county of Xining in south-central China. He hobbles around his shack with a walking stick and, sitting next to his chicken coop, slurps soggy instant noodles for lunch. In August 2012, an unexpected visitor knocked on his door. Jiang Nengjie, 27, video camera in hand, introduced himself and invited Long to share a decade’s worth of memories that had been sealed away for more than 60 years.

Long is a veteran soldier who fought in the Chinese Nationalist army from 1940 to 1949, first against the invading Japanese near the China-Myanmar border, then against the Communist troops on the North China Plain. Like many of his comrades, his story was buried after 1949, with the defeat of the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek. Jiang, a documentary maker, is one of the growing number of Chinese becoming increasingly aware of the historical truths glossed over in the official Communist record, and dedicating themselves to making it public.

While a student in Chinese high school, I learned about the Anti-Japanese War (the name given to the Second World War in China) largely through the stances taken by the Communist and the Nationalist armies. We were taught that the Nationalists, “while passively counteracting Japan, actively combated the Communists.” The Communists, on the other hand, pinned down the Japanese forces through guerrilla operations, as they made painstaking efforts to solicit cooperation from the Nationalists. It was not until I went to study in the US that my understanding was challenged. Many western and independent Chinese researchers have shown that the Nationalists played a far more crucial role in resisting the Japanese than the Communist party has acknowledged. According to the most conservative estimate, the Nationalists sustained casualties that outnumbered the Communists by 6.4 to 1.

Jiang was also taught the official version of history in high school. Having always accepted the textbook’s account, he stumbled upon the truth only last year, while making a documentary on the “empty-nest elderly”—those abandoned in rural China as their children flock to urban areas for work.

“As I was shooting the film, I discovered that some of my older interviewees were in fact soldiers in the Sino-Japanese War,” he told me. He was shocked by the terrible conditions they were living in. Well into their nineties, many were by themselves, battling multiple diseases, and received no assistance from the government. “If they were Communist veterans,” Jiang reflected, “they would be generously supported by the state.”

Jiang decided to preserve the soldiers’ accounts of the war with his video camera. To find more veterans he sought help from other organisations dedicated to the same cause, which have sprung up in China in recent years: Xiaoxiang Morning News, a local newspaper, first reported the story of Long, and helped Jiang reach him; ilaobing.com, an internet forum where individuals post help requests on behalf of living Sino-Japanese War veterans, offered Jiang more contacts. On filming trips, local volunteers led him to the doorsteps of the veterans’ homes.

“At first, they were often reluctant to talk,” said Jiang. Most of the veterans were targets of ruthless political campaigns during the Cultural Revolution, because of their former allegiance with the Nationalist army. When they finally understood and believed Jiang’s intention, some burst into tears.

So far, Jiang has collected interviews from 15 veterans. He has organised film screenings on university campuses in southern China, which were well received by the students. “The students have a surprising degree of real understanding about the war,” Jiang said. “They were moved by what they saw.”

Jiang has no concrete plan for the future of the project as yet. He believes it’s more important to preserve the soldiers’ stories now, so some day he might be able to use them to illuminate a larger historic truth. Meanwhile, at least one person has already become the beneficiary of Jiang’s initiative.

Last year, after subsisting on money from his son for decades, Long received 2,400 RMB (£240) from the county government, and 6,000 RMB in donations from all over the country.