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China can take a leaf out of Manchu issue

Publication Date : 17-02-2014


Clad in a dragon robe, a young actor playing a Qing emperor prays for peace and prosperity at Beijing's Temple of Heaven, accompanied by more than 200 performers dressed as officials of the Qing court.

The re-enactment of the ancient ritual, held daily during the Chinese New Year holidays from Jan 31 to Feb 4, drew to the temple tens of thousands of visitors, who jostled excitedly for a view of the parades.

The viewers' enjoyment suggests that they do not harbour any grudge against the Manchus, who invaded and swallowed up China in the 1600s, ruling it under the Qing Dynasty for more than 250 years. This lack of rancour is despite some studies which estimate that the Manchus killed tens of millions of Chinese during the invasion, in a cold- blooded manner on a par with Japan's colonisation of parts of the country during World War II.

Yet, Japan is less fortunate. Its historical legacy continues to haunt its relationships with its neighbours China and South Korea, making North-east Asia a volatile tinderbox.

In China, not only the government, but also the Chinese people, go up in arms whenever Japan does something deemed to be evocative of its militaristic past, such as its premier's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours the country's war dead, including Class A war criminals from World War II.

Much of the difference in attitudes of the Chinese towards the Manchus and Japanese has to do with how the histories of their invasions of China are taught at school.
While the Manchus' pillage of Chinese towns during their invasion are well recorded in historical documents, the Chinese government's official history, taught at school, gives scant details of this.

This treatment of history has kept at bay the possibility of discord between Han Chinese and descendants of the Manchus.

In contrast, Beijing did nothing to keep the lid on Japan's war crimes, among which the Nanjing Massacre, which saw up to 300,000 Chinese killed, is indelibly imprinted on many Chinese minds.

And no wonder, as a history textbook for high school students cited in the section on the massacre a witness who described "a mountain of charred bodies" after "an inhuman holocaust".

Yet, the same book, published by the official People's Education Press, treated differently a 10-day massacre in the city of Yangzhou perpetrated by the invading Manchus.

The Manchus had allowed the killing of about 800,000 people, including unarmed women and children, after crushing the defence of the city by Chinese commander Shi Kefa in 1645, according to a survivor's account published in the book, An Account Of Ten Days At Yangzhou (some historians have given a figure smaller than 800,000). But the school textbook had only one line on the incident: "Before long, Yangzhou fell, and Shi Kefa died a martyr."

China swept much of the painful past of the Manchu invasion and subsequent rule - during which Chinese men, for instance, were made to shave their foreheads against the Confucian teaching that keeping their hair was a sign of filial piety - under the carpet on grounds of racial harmony, after the demise of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

Hence, the government, known for draconian censorship, gives free rein to television shows and novels on the Qing period that romanticise the Manchu rulers.

Meanwhile, the Japanese are commonly depicted as villains on screen.

Beijing's efforts in channelling public opinion have paid off, with many Chinese critical of Japan, but not knowing the havoc wreaked by the Manchus.

They went ballistic after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, but feel no shame in going to the Fuling Tomb, the final resting place of Nurhaci, mastermind of the Manchu invasion of China.

Yet, China could change all this by taking a leaf from its own book: Cut itself loose from the historical feuds with Japan as it did from those with the Manchus.

By doing so, it could blaze a new trail for the Sino-Japanese relationship - now weighed down by a continual war of words - setting it on a new course towards harmony and cooperation.

But the odds of the government doing this are not high.

First, the painting of Japan as a perennial threat is useful to the government to rally the people around it whenever the need arises. This is particularly so for a government that derives part of its legitimacy from its role as protector of Chinese sovereignty, going back to its historical role of repelling the Japanese imperialists during World War II.

Amid an economic slowdown that is set to continue this year, it will want to continue to take advantage of the people's animosity towards Japan to shore up its legitimacy.

Second, Japan's actions make such a move difficult. Not only did Abe visit the Yasukuni Shrine last December, but Tokyo also announced last month that it will refer to disputed islands in the East China Sea as "integral territories" of Japan in its history textbooks.

Yet, letting things be can be risky.

Nationalism, if not handled delicately, could spin out of control. And there is a likelihood that this could happen, given that Mr Abe is on course to revise Japan's pacifist Constitution. This will be seen by the Chinese as extreme provocation, as it will allow the Japanese to turn their self-defence forces into a full-fledged military.

Should nationalism boil over, Beijing could be held hostage to a nationwide outburst of rage, and just a war of words between the two governments may not appease the Chinese.


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