Out of the Well: A Frogs-Eye-View of China and the World

Random Jottings on China, History, Culture, and Life as seen by an American student in Beijing.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Chinese Soap Operas, Japanese Comic Books, History, the Truth, and the Bastards who will Always Try to Hide it from You.

If you have been watching the last few episodes of the hit Soap Opera on CCTV-1, (the name escapes me, I will add it in later), you will have no trouble understanding why the Chinese still hate the Japanese. The soap opera, which had its 44th and final episode tonight, is ending with the occupation of Beijing (actually they called it Beiping in the republican period) by the Japanese army. At nine o’clock on Saturday night millions of Chinese families gathered around the TV to watch a pretty young Chinese woman slit her own throat with a hatchet to avoid being rapped by Japanese soldiers. If this was your night time programming you might want to take the streets in protest, as the Chinese did this summer, when you learn that Japan no longer needs to tell there kids about these horrible things in school.

I usually look at these sort of portrayals of the Japanese with mixed feelings. On onee hand they are unproductive, even hatemongering images that do not need to be broadcast on primetime. At the same time these things did actually happen. In fact many, many Chinese women met much worse fates than the pretty actress on the show, when they were forced into sexual slavery as comfort women for the Japanese. Does historical accuracy mean that it not intentionally provocative to show this sort of thing on state run TV?

I had thought that Japan, due to its open society, was immune from this sort of xenophobia. Well it would seem that, at least according to a recent New York Times article, I was wrong. Beyond mentions of Japanese atrocities being eliminated from text books (more on this in a second), Japanese comic books have now become a site of anti-Chinese and even anti-Korean sentiment.

It seems that there are currently two very popular comics in Japan one each dedicated to portraying the faults of the Koreans and Chinese respectively. To quote the article by Norimitsu Onishi, “… ‘Introduction to China,’ which portrays the Chinese as a depraved people obsessed with cannibalism, a woman of Japanese origin says: ‘Take the China of today, its principles, thought, literature, art, science, institutions. There's nothing attractive.’ ” These comic books, and their soon to be released follow-ups, make the claims that South Korean prosperity is due to Japanese colonialism, 10 percent of the Chinese GDP was based on prostitution, and that the “Rape of Nanjing [Nan-King to the Wade-Giles inclined] was fabricated by the Chinese government. Considering the popularity of Comics in Japan (the anti-Korean and Chinese books sold 360,000 and 180,000 respectively) this would be tantamount to a television program in Germany that denied the holocaust. (I don’t make the comparison lightly, the holocaust was indeed on a much greater scale, but 100,000-300,000 Chinese died in Nanjing, and horrible medical experiments were preformed on Chinese prisoners in Manchuria.)

This is why I am a historian, or historian in training if you will. The bastards, even in a free state, will always lie about history if it is their own interest. These books, in contrast to the Chinese soap opera, are not produced by the state, but they are in line with the policies of the government in regards to the teaching of history. To one again quote the NYT article, “As nationalists and revisionists have come to dominate the public debate in Japan, figures advocating an honest view of history are being silenced, said Yutaka Yoshida, a historian at Hitotsubashi University here. Mr. Yoshida said the growing movement to deny history, like the Rape of Nanjing, was a sort of "religion" for an increasingly insecure nation.”

I am not saying the Chinese are above selective teaching in their schools, they most certainly are not, but at least they teach that Mao was thirty percent wrong. Nor do the bastards only reside in Asia. In every country in the world people push their own versions of history to promote their own version of what is right in the present. In the States (the united ones that is) I have heard Thomas Jefferson invoked by liberals as a “non-orthodox” Christian who denied the divinity of Christ and advocated a strict separation of Church and state. I have also heard him described as a “devout” Christian who mandated the teaching of the bible when he was in charge of D.C. schools. The likelyhood is that both sides are lying, or more specifically untruthfully simplifying history to their own ends. To hell with truth in the name of what they think is right.

This is why we have to teach our children history. I have never subscribed to the “those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it” branch of thinking. It seems to me we are probably doomed to repeat it anyway. They need to know how to approach the past so as to know how to deal with the present. When we teach our children history it needs go beyond names and dates [although as a history dork I find names and dates sort of sexy]. We need to teach them how to spot a story that is just to good, or too simple to be true. So that when they are fully fledged citizens, and the bastards try to tell them why they should be angry, or self-righteous, or swallow some particular party line, they know when to cry bullshit.

The Truth is the only thing that matters when talking about history, even when it does not fit a noble policy of the present. If history does not fit their argument, our leaders should find better reasons for us to agree with them.


At November 20, 2005 3:47 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

How does one uncover historical Truth? When can history be simplified? Do you believe in the objective historian?
-friend of Ariel's and wannabe, but daunted, historian

At November 20, 2005 8:58 PM, Blogger Eben said...

Truth is hard. I have come to believe that truth can only be reached by striving for further and further complexity. Perhaps it can only be reached by historians who don't want to use that particular period for any larger argument. There are patches of historoy we all will fail to be objective about. And there will be times we just plain old get it it wrong. But we got to try.

At November 21, 2005 11:08 AM, Anonymous nonametouse said...

You could blame Chinese for they broadcast horrifing scenes in a WW2 story. (Putting aside whether it's proper to blame for this.) But you yelled in your post that the Japanese comic writer is a bastard. Well, in this case, you're right among the Chinese protestors. Chinese, just like you, hate some Japanese not for what they did in the war, but for what they're doing right now.

At November 21, 2005 3:13 PM, Blogger Eben said...

I think you make a couple of very good points. Both the japanese and the chinese are using history to justify theri anger about current economic phenominea. Rightly or wrongly my point was not about wheather I like this, tactic, in fact I find it unproductive, as I said. My point was that if you are going to employ it you have a moral duty to at least be honest about the basic facts of hstory.

I don't hate the japanese. I have met and enjoyed spending time with lots of japanese nationals as well as japanese americans. I certainly don't have warm feelings for anyone, Japanese, Chinese, american, or whoever, who plays fast and loose with the truth.

At November 21, 2005 6:26 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Here are some of mine.
"Truth is hard. I have come to believe that truth can only be reached by striving for further and further complexity."
I do not think, however, that Truth is inherently complex. Surely there can be simple Truth. Though much of the time Truth will be discovered through many angles. Striving for complexity is by no means striving for Truth.
"Perhaps it can only be reached by historians who don't want to use that particular period for any larger argument."
I have never read a history that does not have a larger argument (or at least a worldview that informs the historian's approach). Certainly the job of a historian is not to simply uncover documents and artifacts from the same period and lay them side by side, without interpretation or "larger argument". It seems then that the good historian would let the evidence lead them to the larger argument, rather than allowing their larger argument to find appropriate evidence, while ignoring the inappropriate rest.
"There are patches of historoy we all will fail to be objective about. And there will be times we just plain old get it it wrong. But we got to try."

At November 21, 2005 7:32 PM, Blogger Eben said...

This is fun. Lets see...

It seems we need to define our terms, because I think we basically see eye to eye.

Truth and Complexity

When I speak of historical truth I do not mean any larger moral, ethical, spiritual truth, I mean the facts of the situation. While moral truth is simple no human situation is. The actors are too various, and the events too nuanced. Therefore when we, by way of new evidence, "complicate" a simple historical story, we try to make it complete.

In my own research I deal with early Qing Manchu history. Historians in the first three quarters of the twentieth century told a very simple story about the Manchus. That they came to China, conquered it, and then became Chinese with no discernable "Manchuness" remaining. In the 80's and 90's scholars used new evidence from Manchu language texts that showed that, while it was "true" that the Manchus became acculturated, their were many aspects in which they remained "Manchu". By this way complexity lead to a more complete, and I would say, more true story.


In this respect I may have been unclear, thank you for the opportunity to explain. Of course historians have arguments. The process of writing history is, was, and will always be the process of presenting new arguments that we believe are true.

The type of ""larger argument" I referred to was one outside of the bounds of historical study. I have doubts that people whose current political opinions rest on pre-conceived notions of the past can objectively seek "truth" (I will henceforth use the quotation marks) in that past.

Thank you for your comments Jessica. Nothing oils the mind like having your arguments challenged.


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