by Nicole Elizabeth Barnes, author of Intimate Communities: Wartime Healthcare and the Birth of Modern China, 1937-1945
Rosie the Riveter is a global icon who signals U.S. women’s entrance into manufacturing industries while the men were away fighting in the second world war. The story of dramatic changes in women’s work opportunities and their visibility in the war effort is so well known that it can be communicated in a single image, albeit in a condensed and simplified form. China’s experience of this war began two years earlier than in Europe, an enemy army occupied nearly one-third of the country for much of that period, and so many civilians and soldiers died that only the Soviet Union’s massive death toll tops its neighbor’s. Yet we still know so little about how those eight traumatic years of the War of Resistance against Japan affected Chinese society and culture. When I began this project what little we did know had virtually nothing to say about gender or medicine. My book is among some recent and forthcoming work that seeks to rectify this.
My book speaks to another issue of paramount concern: nationalism. China’s current nationalist rhetoric is intensely xenophobic and distinctly anti-Japanese. At universities in China, funding for research projects on the War of Resistance has to go through Communist party gatekeepers who ensure a suitably biased portrayal of Japan. In Alibaba’s new Sesame Credit system, purchasing books from Japan can decrease one’s social credit score (which is taken to be a measure of reliability and good citizenship). While I was living in Chongqing and doing research for this book, so many people gave me their unsolicited opinion about Japanese people – they’re all scumbags – that I started bluntly asking if they actually knew any Japanese people. The answer was almost always no. One young woman overheard me talking to someone about my research and told me she had lived in Japan for a while and discovered that she liked it. Before she dared open her mouth, however, she looked all around to make sure no one else was listening, then she spoke in a whisper. In China today, the discovery that Japanese people are real people is a dirty secret. It is politically correct to hate Japan and the possibility of thinking outside this box is systematically foreclosed. This hatred is continually fueled by a victim-centered nationalism that locates the rise of modern China in its devastating abuses at the hands of Western and Japanese imperialists. In light of this, I am very glad to have been able to relate a story about the war and the making of the nation that focuses less on Chinese people’s victimization and suffering than on their strengths and perseverance. I have a distant hope that the astonishing truth of what female medical workers accomplished during the war might be part of inspiring a nationalism that celebrates China’s many indomitable heroes. It’s time to stop squeezing tears from the victims and let them rest peacefully in their graves.