Sino-Japanese Sehnsucht

This post is my own small commemoration of July 7 in the Chinese context; it is a bit of a centaur in that the first half is rather traditional scholar-style analysis of what we might call “the politics of memory” in the PRC, while the second half is a somewhat quirky story of frustrated Sino-Japanese love on the train tracks of Frankfurt, Germany.  The latter story is about one Chinese man’s personal quest for “Wiedergutmachung,” or repairing wrongs from the past. In any event, I hope that one of these halves, if not both, are of interest to readers.   

Meta-Narratives of the Sino-Japanese War (War of Resistance) in Beijing 

Although it may seem an obvious statement to make, there is a qualitative difference that exists between a state-controlled media and a free press.  In China, the existence of the state (interpreted quite naturally now as the endurance of the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and its imperatives) at the helm of print, online, and broadcast media lends a certain uniform quality to the discussion of Japan.

This is particularly true in the early days of any given July.   After the weathering what is always a nervous spring, culminating with the discomfort of 4 June, early July is high season for Party commemorations.

The CCP invariably follows its own July 1 birthday with the commemoration of the “July 7 Incident,” otherwise known as the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” of 1937 which triggered all-out war between China and Japan and led, a little over six months later, to the slaughter at Nanking.

In 1937, the CCP leadership was holed up in remote and dry northern Shanxi province and Mao was carving out essay after essay about such things as guerrilla warfare and protracted war.

Today, the PRC foreign-affairs media apparatus is anything but holed up: it is vast and well-funded, and, if it lacks Mao’s flair for literary originality, it remains more productive than ever, and, although such occasions are rare, can even display flashes of tactical brilliance.

Such brilliance, however, must be uniform and in keeping with the dominant themes laid out for emphasis from “the center.”

And thus the story of China’s immense and detailed relationship with Japan is leveled down into an essential binary emphasizing a highly certain interpretation of the past.  (Cracks exist of course, like when a small publishing house gets a scholarly monograph into the bookstores about a prominent intellectual wartime collaborator; exceptions also exist when Chinese state media is asked to promote a warming trend with Japan, even though such trends are invariably temporary.)

Generally speaking, Chinese individuals are useful to this binary narrative only insofar as they highlight the needs of patriotic education.

As depicted in state media, the ideal Chinese citizen should be ever mindful of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China before 1945, expectant of an apology from both the Japanese state and individual Japanese, and grateful for the armed resistance of the CCP (and, now, secondarily, because policy with Taiwan allows it) the Guomindang armies.

There are various difficulties with the above situation which other scholars like Takeshi Yoshida, Peter Hayes Gries, Joshua Fogel, and Rana Mitter have already pointed out, but I would like to add one to the list:

State media hampers the emergence of individual voices whose stories are discordant with the “main melody” of Party commemoration, and in so doing, homogenizes the discourse of Sino-Japanese relations to an inordinate degree.

In other words, by controlling the past and orienting us continually toward it in full-on aggrieved patriotic mode in the hopes of strengthening its own legitimacy, the CCP cuts off the possibility of more subtle shifts in the discourse about Japan.

Certainly one could argue that individual voices in China can be heard today, that there are millions of blogs (let a hundred schools of thought contend!), and that individuals with positive things to say about Japan – or with attitudes toward Japanese individuals which are not defined by the political relations and historical strains between the two states – are allowed to emerge.

This is, however, quite a different thing than the views of such an individual gaining entrée into one of the country’s largest and most influential newspapers, such as we find in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 4 July, 2011. I found the following essay to be pleasantly unusual in the cacophonous chorus of voices about Japan which arises continually out of our favorite harmonious society.   In any event, I think you will see what I mean.

C. Wang and Christine Holch, “Crazy, But Right: His Judgment of an Intensive Search for a Young Woman Whom He Met on the Train,” chrismon (supplementary magazine to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4 July 2011) July 2011, p. 54.  [Translated from the German by Adam Cathcart.]

I had seen off a friend at the Frankfurt Airport who was on their way back to Peking, and then, going down an escalator to the S-Bahn, I saw her standing in front of me: a young Asian woman with the difficult task of trying to lift two rolling suitcases and a carry-on bag without clipping the floor.  Perhaps, I thought, she is in Germany for the first time – as I was once, when I came here from China in order to study in Marburg.

Because the S-Bahn was about to go, I quickly decided to give her some help, and grabbed the biggest suitcase.  It weighed about 30 kilo.  Yes, she had come straight out of Tokio, and her mom had packed lots of Japanese food for her, she told me as we stood across from one another in the S-Bahn.  We talked, and there was a wonderful connection between the two of us.  As if we had already known one another for a long time.

She lived in Frankfurt, she said, and even told me the name of the city quarter – but the S-Bahn was so loud that I could not understand.  Out of hope, I didn’t ask her again about it.  So that she didn’t feel pressured, I put the biggest suitcase between us.  Besides that, the political relations between China and Japan are bad, and she wanted to meet a Chinese person more positively.

As we got to the main train station I lugged her suitcase out the door of the car and asked her if I could help her further.  “No, thanks, it will work fine,” she said.  Perhaps she said that because she was thinking “He has to go on to Marburg; I don’t want to slow him down.”  And I thought: “She shouldn’t feel obligated.”  We in Asia are always thinking for the other person.  [Wir in Asien denken ja immer fuer den anderen.]

So I jumped back into my S-Bahn car, and the doors closed.  But the train didn’t go any further.  So that the situation didn’t become painful, I looked at the floor.  I thought, “Why doesn’t she go away?” I raised my head: she was standing there in front of the door, looking at me and winking.   The S-Bahn took off, and she winked and winked.  And then it became clear to me: I fell in love with her.  If she hadn’t have winked so much, she would have remained a normal person for me.

At the next station I got out and went back in the other direction.  She had gone on.  I didn’t know who she was, where she lived, or what she was doing in Frankfurt.  Also, I hadn’t told her my name, because in East Asia, when you help someone, it is considered appropriate not to tell them your name unless they ask.  I didn’t know if she loved me in return.  But I know that she found me sympathetic.  And hopeful.  I would simply be very happy to see her again.

So I set before myself the task of seeking her.  [Also fing ich an, sie zu suchen.]  Before my exams I went to Frankfurt and hung up small posters in which I asked if anyone knew a young Japanese woman who had arrived in Frankfurt on the twelfth of November from Tokio and who arrived at the main train station on the S8 at 3:30 p.m.  Because Germany is capitalist, I took out a small loan to help find her.  I hung up a good 1300 notices on signposts, in the universities, in Japanese instutions; I threw notices into mailboxes with Japanese names.  And I started a homepage:

Maybe this made her nervous.  But she could write to me from a fake e-mail address!  Best of all, with a photo of her big suitcase, so that I could be sure it was her.  She could tell me that I had put a notice into the mailbox of her boyfriend.  She could also write that she doesn’t want to know me any more.  That would be hard, but I would accept it; I don’t want to disturb her in her life.  Then I could give up this search.  Now I think all the time: she doesn’t know that I am looking for her.

I have regretted not asking her name in the S-Bahn.  But what I did after that, I did the right thing: crazy, but right.  In spite of that, now I am giving up my search.  Also because I am in the middle of my final exams.  I have sent up a signal, and now I have to wait, whether she finds it or whether I get no answer at all.

When I love again, I don’t plan to seek my love, certainly not in this way.  This is something that a person does only once in his life.



    1. Glad to hear it was of interest! It is also a nice departure from the typical politics….

      1. Thanks for the comment and the links, Mr. Wang! I was very glad to read your story in the Frankfurt magazine, wish you well with the search. Of course the tendency is out there to put (geo)politics first, but that’s precisely the point, in a way, of falling in love with someone, presumably, whose state or political affiliations are NOT like our own. How did your exams go at Marburg?

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