War Without End

Second Sino-Japanese War
Dad in the Chinese Army.. Photo credit: unknown

War in China. These soldiers are headed for the Japanese front. It’s 1944 in Luzhou, a river port in Sichuan province. In the back row from right to left are my father, my Uncle Charles and my Aunt Viola’s youngest brother.

My father waited to enlist until he had graduated from university. By then, the war was nearing its end though of course no one knew that at the time. Sent to Luzhou for training, he never saw any action because he couldn’t get to the front. No one could. The airstrip in Luzhou was a rice paddy, too muddy for any warplane to take off or land. When the war ended in September 1945, the airstrip was still unusable.

a lucky guy

That was a lucky break, my father would say. Let me tell you a story to top that one.

Fall 1941. It’s time for Dad to return to his university studies in Chengdu but he’s still recovering from a bout of typhus. So my grandfather buys Dad a first-class ticket to travel by boat. There’s an opera troup on board and a fellow about Dad’s age who likes to play chess. The two of them play every day until the boat docks at Hangzhou. There, a Japanese gunboat pulls up alongside and Dad’s chess partner emerges from his cabin in full military regalia.

His rank was just under an admiral. All the men saluted him. As the gunboat prepared to cast off, the chess player happened to look up and saw me standing on deck. He waved to me. That was the first Japanese I ever met.


Structural Japanese presence in China dates back to the First Sino-Japanese War. The war lasted less than a year, from August 1894 to April 1895, ending in defeat for China. The Treaty of Shimonoseki gave Taiwan to Japan and opened China to more Japanese concessions.

Venice of the East
Garden of the Master of the Nets, Suzhou
Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

One of those new treaty ports was in Suzhou. Known as the Venice of the East, Suzhou is a lovely place with whitewashed houses on canals. The city is famous for its classical gardens and silk weaving.

It’s also the birthplace of Song Anyi, the main character of my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle. The novel is set in Shanghai in the months leading up to the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in August 1937. Anyi’s father is a silk weaver and virulently anti-Japanese. This is how Anyi describes him:

There was a time when the great and the good would come and beg Baba to weave something special, just for them. So many rolls of silk left, the mould creeping from thread to thread, all because Baba wouldn’t sell to the Japanese.

Anyi, too, is xenophobic. She calls them barbarians and when her brother Kang rebukes her for using the term, she says:

It’s what Father called them, all of them, those foreigners who live on our soil as if it were their own.

Why such hysteria?

Japanese expansionism dating back to the end of WWI. A rise of anti-foreigner sentiment within China. Economic crises in both China and Japan. Chinese warlords serving their own interests and bellicose Japanese military officers eager to fight. All these factors contributed to the increasing tensions between Japan and China.

1st battle of shanghai

The Mukden incident in September 1931 led to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria that year. The Chinese people protested. They boycotted Japanese goods and anti-Japanese feeling escalated. Then came the First Battle of Shanghai. Here is one eyewitness account published in the Manchester Guardian on 9 March 1932.

Although the battle was over several days ago the Japanese have made no attempt to bury the Chinese dead. No Japanese dead are to be seen anywhere. While foreigners are kept away from the battlefield very many Japanese civilians are now to be seen, some of the[m] accompanied by their wives and children. They are allowed to visit these scenes of horror and desolation. Japanese fathers show their sons the dead soldiers lying in the trenches. Some of the visitors seem to be inspired by the Samurai spirit, for they wander amongst the desolation with rusty swords in their hands collecting souvenirs.

war plane
Alvin Langdon Coburn “Wings!”

My father recalls little of that battle. He was 9 years old, though an alert child could have seen a lot. Turns out: he wasn’t that kind of kid. All he remembered was a day playing in the garden of his home in the French Concession. An airplane hovered overhead, so low that my father could see the face of the Japanese pilot. My father waved and the pilot waved back.

a charmed life

World War II memoir
My copy of Empire of the Sun

This was life in Shanghai’s foreign concessions. J.G. Ballard describes that insular world eloquently in Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized account of his youth in Shanghai.

In this excerpt, 11 year old Jim and his parents are on their way to a costume party just outside the city limits. It’s the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese occupation of Shanghai still stopped at the border of the French Concession.

The queue of cars moved through the checkpoint, carrying groups of Americans and Europeans already late for their Christmas parties. Yang edged the Packard to the barrier, whistling with fear. In front of them was a Mercedes tourer emblazoned with swastika pennants, filled with impatient young Germans. But the Japanese searched the interior with the same thoroughness.

rewriting history

For many Chinese, including my fictional Song family, the fighting never ended. From 1931 onwards, conflict continued to erupt. To the people who lived through that period, it didn’t matter whether you called it a war or an incident. Maybe no surprise, then, that Chinese president Xi Jinping wants the history books rewritten. From now on, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War starts in 1931, not 1937. Known in China as the War of Resistance against Japanese AggressionThe Guardian regarded this revisionist act as:

a move likely to inflame relations with Japan.

war memorial
Nanjing Massacre Museum
Photo credit: Karen Kao

But the temperature is already high. There is the dispute of the sovereinty over two uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. And about the number of civilians victimized during the Rape of Nanjing. Or, as some Japanese right-wingers contend, whether any civilians were massacred at all.

war crimes

Three years ago, my husband and I visited Japan. He insisted on visiting the Yasukani Shrine in Tokyo as a unique view into Japanese history. Built in 1869, the shrine honors those who fell in the service of Japan. In a secret ceremony in 1978, 14 Class A war criminals were added to the shrine. Now, Yasukani Shrine is a flashpoint of controversy. I could not bring myself to step foot into a place that honored men who had massacred my people.

War scars in Nagasaki
VOC coat of arms in Dejima, Japan Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

Then, in the extraordinary Edo Tokyo Museum, I learned what my people had done during the war. In this case, I mean the Americans who firebombed the civilian population of Tokyo during World War II.

We saw the scars of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki that still sear the walls of Dejima. We stood below the hypocenter of where the bomb had exploded. Firebombs and atom bombs: war crimes if the U.S. had lost.

facts of war

When the term war crime becomes a label tattooed onto the forehead of the loser, it becomes devoid of all meaning. No one wins if a war crime can simply be denied out of existence. Truth gets slippery and we enter the post-fact era. Then no one is allowed to say that the emperor wears no clothes. And everything on Facebook is true.

History is written by the victors. Who won the Second Sino-Japanese War? The Chinese army didn’t bring Japan to its knees. Two atom bombs did. Does that mean that China is wrong about when the war started? Or Japan is wrong in wanting to honor its fallen dead?

Maybe they’re both right. It could be that war between Japan and China did start in 1931. And maybe it isn’t over yet.