Eager to bolster patriotism at a time of growing tensions with neighboring countries, China will celebrate a new holiday for the first time on Tuesday to memorialize people who died in battle against foreign powers.
Government officials insist the holiday, called Martyrs’ Day, is no different from holidays honoring the war dead in other countries, like Memorial Day in the United States or Remembrance Day in many countries of the Commonwealth.
“It’s a normal thing to commemorate those who sacrificed partfor their country,” said Li Zongyuan, vice curator of the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression or, as historians call it, the Second Sino-Japanese War. “The holiday should help people remember their history.”
But some analysts see the holiday as part of an effort by the Communist Party to enshrine itself as the nation’s guardian against invaders and as the arbiter of who is considered a martyr.
The holiday was added to the calendar on the heels of two other new war-related commemorations. Last February, Parliament ratified Dec. 13 as a memorial day for the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and Sept. 3 as the day China commemorates Japan’s surrender in World War II.
Martyrs’ Day falls on Sept. 30, the day before China’s National Day holiday. The date was selected because on that date in 1949, construction started on the iconic Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The 125-foot obelisk memorializes the sacrifices made to achieve the founding of the People’s Republic that year.
Some historians see the trio of holidays as related to China’s recent tensions with Japan over several disputed islands in the Pacific.
“It’s a very interesting time to announce one more thing to make a strong stand about China’s position,” said Prof. Hung Chang-tai, a historian of Chinese cultural history at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It is related to what’s happening this year.”
Professor Hung said, however, that linking the holiday to the memorial showed that the party’s goals were broader. The monument on Tiananmen Square dates China’s struggle against invaders to the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and aims to establish the Communist Party as the inheritors of this national effort.
“We should never underestimate that the Communists see themselves as the successors to all these people who have fought for China’s independence,” Professor Hung said. “The monument reconfirms this, as does the holiday.”
Mr. Li of the war museum acknowledged this claim was reflected in changes in how his institution presents the war.
“It doesn’t matter if you were in the Nationalist Party or the Communist Party,” he said. “If you sacrificed for China, we commemorate you.”
Indeed, a new temporary exhibition highlights the global fight against fascism, including a section on the Doolittle Raiders, United States airmen who bombed Tokyo in 1942 and landed in China, where many were rescued. The museum also has the names of some Nationalist soldiers who died in the war.
Much of the museum, however, is heavily slanted toward the Communist Party’s version of the war’s history. Its 70,000 square feet of exhibition space is dominated by deeds of the relatively small Communist armies, who, most historians agree, rarely engaged with Japanese troops, leaving most of the fighting to the Nationalist armies.
Likewise, a recently released official list of the 300 most famous martyrs who died fighting Japan is heavily skewed toward Communist exploits. Over 40 percent of those on the list were soldiers in the Communists’ Eighth Route and New Fourth Armies. The former participated in one major campaign against Japan and the latter only in limited guerrilla operations. The Nationalist troops, who suffered 90 percent of China’s causalities in the war, account for 29 percent of the 300 martyrs.
The holiday is also seen as part of an effort by the Communist Party to elevate those who died for the nation. Until this year, China commemorated fallen soldiers on the traditional Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping, holiday, which falls on either April 4 or 5 of each year.
“Qingming is generally for the dead, but the new holiday will be for martyrs,” said Zhang Xianwen, a professor of history at Nanjing University. “This will be a bigger, broader commemoration so people won’t forget those who sacrificed their lives for the Chinese people.”
Hu Ying, a professor of literature at the University of California, Irvine, said use of the word “martyr” had a long tradition in China. The Confucian classics, for example, speak of martyrs who died for virtue and ideals. In the early 20th century, as China was being carved up by foreign powers, the term was revived in reference to those who died for the modern nation state, such as the revolutionary Qiu Jin.
But Kirk Denton, a professor of East Asian literature at Ohio State University, said the choice of the word carried political undertones.
“To use that term ‘martyr’ is a politicized way of looking at death,” he said. “They want to control who is defined as one.”
The term is so emotive in China that it has also come to be used by some to describe those who died during the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen uprising, or even those who have killed corrupt officials.
Government censors routinely scrub the Internet of such terms, but Professor Hu said it showed the difficulty the party had in maintaining its version of history.
“The party wants to keep hold of this term ‘martyr,’ ” she said, “and not allow it to be used by other groups.”
By IAN JOHNSON September 29, 2014 in The New York Times