Nowhere to Kowtow in Barren Fields

ExSE Commentary: Below is a translated feature from the Thursday, June 13  Southern Weekend, a Chinese newspaper known for its excellence in reporting and pushing the envelope on key social and political issues in China. 

The article calls for the need to officially memorialize and add to the historical record the sacrifice of 100,000 fallen soldiers of the Chinese Expeditionary Force (CEF), one of two Chinese military excursions outside of sovereign Chinese territory sent to repel Japanese forces occupying Burma during World War II. But this is not a simple task for the PRC government who currently proclaims its military forces have never operated across borders; the fact that the CEF troops were later identified with the Nationalist army and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution only complicates the cause. The author cites the lack of Chinese government participation in recognizing its own history and respecting China’s war veterans through a comparison of Britain and Japan’s official treatment of soldiers killed in action and veterans still living.

 In addition, the article stokes nationalist sentiments, by reminding the reader of China’s history of crushing Japanese aggression abroad (although the victory at the Battle of Myitkyina was a result of Sino-US military cooperation, a factor the article fails to mention).  Lastly, this feature, which pits China as positive and contributory force in the creation of a modern Myanmar, is interestingly published at a tenuous time for China-Myanmar relations.   

Photos, maps, and details on the CEF can be found here



“Nowhere to Kowtow in Barren Fields: Chinese Citizens Erect Monuments to China’s WWII Expeditionary Forces in Burma. ” By Zeng Ming

During the 2013 Qingming Grave Sweeping Festival, 17 Chinese citizens arrived in the border town of Myitkyina, Burma. While walking under the war-torn clouds of the capital of the Kachin state, they stopped at a plot of barren farmland and laid chrysanthemums on the ground.

This movement called “Return to the Burmese Battlefield” is the first large scale non-government organized movement of its kind to memorialize the remains of the 100,000 fallen soldiers of the China Expeditionary Force (CEF). It was here that the CEF initiated the most intense battle of World War II outside of Chinese soil and achieved the first victory of Chinese expeditionary forces since the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895.

However, the historical record of this battle is dim and pallid.  Standing on this desolate ground, they pay respect to too many things unknown and gauche that have sunken into the ground. They do not know for whom they cry, and they do not know the faces or names of those buried here.

In more than half a century the skeletons of 10,000 soldiers of the China expeditionary force have been brushed over by history, destroyed by human forces, and sent into oblivion in the forests of northern Burma.  With the exception of the little that has sunken into the historical record, for their entire journey, the participants of this movement are shaken by a single fact: The British and Japanese have erected grand cemeteries to their fallen soldiers.  Each of these soldiers has received the highest degree of respect, and even the names of war horses are carved in stone.

Presently the Burmese know more about the distant victories of colonials and invaders than they do of the CEF even though the latter made a great sacrifice for the sake of peace.  This is a competition to reveal the true events of the last century that have since fallen silently off the historical record.  This group of volunteers believes China cannot again be left out of the history of this battle.  They have decided to do something – to erect a monument to the war of their fathers’ generation.

“The Victors”

Follow the Tengchong- Myitkyina road northwest for 100 kilometers out of Tengchong and enter Burma at Houqiao (Monkey bridge).  Then continue 100 kilometers west to reach Myitkyina.

Sixty-nine years ago this route was soundly known as the Stillwell Road and also known as China’s “Japanese Resistance Lifeline.”  Due to its location on this route, Myitkyina is also known for one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The soul stirring moments of history gradually disperse over time.  The Stillwell Road has not returned to its state of glory.  If it were not for the Japanese who constructed the popular Reclining Buddha Temple and the Zhengui Monument and if it were not for the fallen soldiers of the CEF whose remains often are dug up from the earth, Myitkyina with a population of 200,000 would appear to be a non-descript county seat in China.

Regardless if one is in China or Burma, this period of history is foggy and lacks distinction, and the field of CEF scholars and institutions is sparsely populated.

“Please forgive my ignorance!”opens the book Expedition 1945 by Sun Chunlong.  This is also the manner in which he often opens lectures on the CEF.

Sun Chunlong is the group leader of the volunteers seeking to memorialize the CEF’s fallen soldiers in Burma over Qingming Festival.  Once a reporter, he became a full-time volunteer after launching a “Bring the Veterans Home” public welfare activity.  In 2011 he established the Longyue Charity Fund in Shenzhen to aid veterans of the War of Resistance Against Japan.

The mission of this trip to Burma is to return to the battlefields of yore to appreciate our forefather’s history and pay respects to the lonely souls left abroad.  But upon arrival, the group was immediately enveloped in grief. Seventy years ago during a series of battles fought between Yanggon and Mandalay, the Japanese and Chinese suffered heavy yet comparable numbers of casualties.  But now, the only monuments observable along this route are ones constructed by the Japanese.

Many of the group’s members began to ask, “Where are the tombs of the CEF?” Their inquiry would not find an answer until the group reached Myitkyina in northern Burma.   Here they discovered that the casualties at the Battle for Myitkyina were so high that they could not be further excluded from the historical record.

Sun Chunlong and his partners brought hundreds of chrysanthemums, liquor from their home towns, and scented candles.  One overseas Chinese sponsored 17 of the group’s participants.  Here was the final resting place of fifty officers and soldiers of Chinese troops once stationed in India.  After the group arrived the group could not believe their eyes – there were no tombstones and no graves, only barren fields and a few patches of tilled land.

Later the group learned that during a period of anti-Chinese sentiment in the 1960s, the tombstones were plowed over by local Burmese.  Even to this day, many locals when building their homes have dug up the skeletal remains of dead Chinese soldiers, some still with bayonet blades in their grasp.  The locals said the remains would disintegrate on contact.

The chrysanthemums were laid and funeral paper burned.  “At that instant, I was hesitant.  Should I get down and bow?” says Sun Chunlong.  “In the end, I abandoned this thought because I wasn’t sure if the local Burmese standing around would understand why a group of young foreigners would kowtow on a barren plot of land.”

In order to regain respect for the Chinese army, decommissioned soldiers of the CEF who remained in Burma after the war jointly appealed to the local government to restore the monuments previously destroyed, but they all died before receiving an answer.

Veteran Yang Zichen, who took his disgust to the grave, said before he died, “In Burma, China was a victor of World War II, but after the war it was Japan who was victorious.”

Even the War Horses Have Names

For the entire trip, the entire group was cloaked in a deep sense of loss, and their grief peaked when they passed the cemeteries of British and Japanese soldiers.

There are three cemeteries to British forces in Burma.  The Sattwadaw Cemetery in Yanggon is the largest with 6347 graves.  “That verdant lawn is filled with the orderly files of black gravestones as if the soldiers were lined up on the field of battle.”  Sun Chunlong has written in previous essays, “It is as if they never died.”

In Yanggon, there is also a cemetery to the Japanese army, and like the British cemetery, it has a full time maintenance staff.  The cemetery overflows with trees, flowers, and lily-ponds.  Waters pass under small bridges of these splendid gardens.

It is worth mentioning that Chinese are buried in both of these cemeteries. There are graves of more than thirty Chinese soldiers and five porters in the Satthwadaw Cemetery.  “We have no way of finding their families and no method to know their names.  We can only peacefully bury them here to pay them the proper respect of a soldier.”

The Japanese cemetery has a monument to Taiwanese soldiers.  During the war period, the Japanese recruited large numbers of Koreans, Filipinos, and Taiwanese into the Japanese army, and after falling in battle, they met their final resting place in Japanese cemeteries.

At the sacred Buddhist fields of Pagan, memorials are packed in densely with Buddhist stupas.  The names of 763 British war horses are carved into a hill-top monument. In Myitkyina, the Reclining Buddha Temple is home to a monument to Japanese soldiers called the “Calling all souls monument.”  On it is written “Although the war is lost, we will eternally remember the Japanese soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for their country.”

Although the Chinese soldiers who were buried in Burma were part of the anti-fascist resistance movement, due to the fog of historical recognition and long-term disregard, their story has been pushed to the periphery.

“After the war, the Chinese and Japanese visited Burma the most.  The Japanese came to pay their respects to the fallen, and the Chinese came to do business in the timber and oil industries,” said Oscar, the manager of the British Cemetery to the group of Chinese volunteers.

As a representative of the CEF’s history, Sun Chunlong long ago recognized this gap in historical recollection.  In 2011 after three months of survey and research in Burma, he planned to build a monument to the CEF in Myitkyina.

And it was like this that after nearly seventy years of silence in 2011 came a sudden turning point – three different designs for the monument came forward from community based organizations.

In the flood of history

Xie Ting, a second year high-school student from Guangdong is the only member of the Qing Ming group to have blood ties to the fallen of the CEF.  Seventy years ago her great grandfather went to Burma to fight in the war.  He later became a deserter, but never came home again.

Before her trip to Burma, Xie Ting had no way to discuss her great grandfather with her classmates because the story of the CEF is hardly mentioned in her high school’s history books.  Xie Ting is not alone in her situation.  Local historian Ge Shuya served as a soldier of the CEF in Tengchong for six years and later he studied for four years in Yunnan Normal University’s history department.  Yet after graduating in 1983, he still knew nothing of the CEF’s history.

Xie Ting quickly realized that the facts defining this period of history were in the process of disappearing.  After paying respects to the dead in Myitkyina, she and the other group members showed their appreciation to the 30 surviving members of the CEF.

Actually, there originally were many more monuments to the CEF in Burma.  “Some were in Myitkyina, Bhamo, Namhkam, Lashio – there were more than ten,” Ya Geshu told Southern Weekend.

These gravestones and monuments disappeared during the 1950s and 1960s.  That was a time when the Burmese government was consistently defeated by troops of decommissioned Chinese Nationalist soldiers, and to settle the score with the Chinese the Burmese government would attack the CEF’s cemeteries and monuments with forklifts.

“Bones were thrown everywhere.” In 1963, ethnic Chinese Deng Gongzhi watched the National Burmese Army destroy the cemeteries of the CEF’s 14th and 50th regiments.  He was only ten years old.  Ethnic Chinese living around Myitkyina would work through the night to remove the soldier’s remains to a more secure area, only to be quickly discovered and destroyed.  When the Burmese government nationalized industry in the 1960s, this patch of land was turned into a residential area and a schoolhouse.

Deng Gongzhi’s father, Deng Jintao who was a captain in the 6th automobile regiment, deserted during the war and settled in Myitkyina.  “There were many people like my father.  We knew 50 or 60, and now they are all dead.”

After the droll memorial ceremony, Sun Chunlong decided that to erect a monument as soon as feasibly possible.  Early in 2013, after some negotiation between Deng Gongzhi and another ethnic Chinese, Zhang Zhiguo, they decided to erect a monument to the CEF in Myikyina and got in contact with Sun Chunlong.

And at the end of 2011, the volunteer group CEF Network led by Dai Chengdong found Liu Weimin, the son of Liu Fangyu, the captain of the CEF’s 113th regiment, 38th division.  Together they began to hit success in their cause after partnering with the Museum of Anti-Japanese Resistance in Nanjing.

On January 1, 2013 and January 26, 2013 monuments were successfully erected in Laulikaing and Mongyu Village.  These were the first two monuments built in Burma with by funds from China.  Yet the majority of remains of the CEF are buried in Myitkyina, but building a monument there has hit a snag.

In December, 2012, textile businessman and ethnic Chinese Zhang Zhiguo began to construct a 20 meter wide, 300 meter long road in Myitkyina.  In Burma, it is common for wealthy people to pay for road construction.

This road passes through a five way intersection constructed on the site of a major CEF victory.  “Automobile accidents often happen here.  The locals say it’s haunted by the ghosts of Chinese soldiers,” Zhang Zhiguo told Southern Weekend reporters.

On January 12, 2013, Zhang Zhiguo passed on the local’s sentiments about the intersection to officials in the Kachin state government and suggested building a monument to China’s fallen soldiers.  He said that at the time, the Kachin governor expressed oral confirmation of the project as long as the Chinese could take care of its expenditures.  Deng Gongzhi quickly got in touch with Sun Chunlong’s charity fund. Zhang Zhiguo constructed a budget for the construction of a monument at the intersection and offered to make an initial down payment of more than 50 million Myanmar kyat (320000 RMB) with the condition that he could recover funds later when others could make a contribution.

“They were sacrificed here.  The PRC says they were counter-revolutionaries, and Taiwan calls them deserters.  No one has made offerings toward them, so we will make offerings to them.”    Unlike Deng Gongzhi, Zhang Zhiguo’s father was not a soldier, but he expressed, “It’s because the CEF decimated the Japanese here that we now live in Burma.”

On numerous occasions Zhang Guozhi dug up steel helmets, hand grenades, and bullets when building the road.  “This is a place the history happened.”  After the road was completed, the approval for the monument hit an unexpected roadbump.  “It got held up at the county level.  They said that this period of history should not be brought up again.”

The monuments at Laulikaing and Mongyu village also faced similar obstacles.  Unlike the construction of the British and Japanese monuments which were negotiated by respective governments, presently the initiative to erect new Chinese monuments in Burma has solely been negotiated and operated by the power of non-government related individuals.  Its success relies solely on the talents and efforts of a team of individuals.

The CEF Network reached success in building the Laulikaing monument by utilizing connections in the Burmese National Army.  Its proposal was passed in seven months.  Dai Chengdong however had to file a request through the Jiangsu Provincial Foreign Affairs Office to contact the Myanmar Embassy in Beijing to gain permission to enter Burma’s cease fire zones and find the place where his father, Dai Anlan was killed in action at Mankye.  Afterward, Dai Chengdong decided to bypass government procedures to erect a monument by directly contacting the local Mongyu Monastery and constructing a stupa inside the monastery to commemorate the CEF.  “If you go the official route the process is too bureaucratic.”

With no word on the approval of the Myitkyina monument, Deng Gongzhi and Zhang Zhiguo began to doubt if this was a signal that they would have to bribe the local Kachin government.  Zhang Zhiguo estimated that between three to four government departments, they would have to put together 1 million kyat (65000 RMB) worth of gifts and bribes.  But nothing was guaranteed after offering the gifts.  “Let’s wait for now,” said Zhang Zhiguo.

After permission for the monument’s construction was granted, what would it look like?  After Xie Ting visited the Tonggu monument, she felt this structure was far from suitable for her great grandfather.  “A piece of stone is not enough.  The monument should be just like the British and Japanese cemeteries with individual graves and their names carved in stone.”

Dai Chengdong and the CEF Network also attempted to carve the names of the fallen soldiers on the monuments at Laulikaing and Mongyu, but they lacked sufficient information and only could find the names of fifty-two of the dead.  That is only .052% of those who died.

At the British Satthwadaw cemetery the names of 27000 dead fill the surfaces of several stone walls.  Only 86 graves at the cemetery are unnamed – “Known unto God” is written on the gravestone.

By comparing numbers, it is clear to see that China’s place in the history of this period has fallen far from the record.

After the war, the Japanese organized two groups to collect the remains of fallen soldiers in 1975 and 1976.  In total they collected the remains of 23306 men.

The Chinese public has also considered promoting groups to collect remains in a similar fashion.  In 2011, the Yunnan Whampoa Academy alumni group and the Yunnan Overseas Chinese Association found the remains of 19 soldiers and on September 14 of that year brought them back to China to be buried in the Tengchong military cemetery.

Ge Shuya made a comparison: “China lost 100,000 soldiers in Burma, and we’ve only found the remains of 19.  That’s less than .019%.  The Japanese found 12% of the remains of their fallen which is 600 times more than what we’ve found.”

Comparatively what sticks out more is the degree of priority that governments place on this issue.  China relies by and large on the efforts of community groups whereas the British cemetery is managed by its Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a national level administrative institution whose official website proclaims “Every soldier who died should be remembered by having his or her name carved on a gravestone or memorial.”

From a monument to memory to a monument to consciousness

In 2009 filmmaker Jin Mahui began to interview and collect information on veterans of the War of Japanese Resistance living in Hunan province.  To date he has interviewed 241 veterans.  In 2012 he chose more than 100 of his photographs to show at a photography exhibition in Changsha called “Never to be forgotten.”  In actuality “Forgotten” is a more appropriate name for the veteran’s situation.

Sun Chunlong’s public service program “A Map of Veterans” collected materials of 1583 soldiers from thirteen different provinces. But using data considers the natural death rate of soldiers who fought in the War of Japanese Resistance, he calculates that only 26000 veterans are still living and most of these veterans have fallen out of society’s eyesight.  Moreover, the soldiers of the CEF face a more uncertain fate due to their Nationalist label.

“They used their blood to write the history books, but history erased them with black ink. They returned from battle protecting their country but died without feeling glory,” says Sun Chunlong. He continues saying that most of the surviving soldiers of the CEF who returned to China were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and their names fell into disrepute.  At the time that Chinese cemeteries in Burma were being destroyed by local soldiers, the shrines in hearts of CEF soldiers in China were also collapsing.

This is why he wants to construct a monument to the CEF – not just to erect a physical monument but also to erect a monument in people’s consciousness.  “We can overcome history by starting with a humane approach and reach respect for individual life.”

Sun Chunlong has seen the fear of being forgotten in local veteran’s eyes.  Zhang Fulin is a CEF veteran living in Burma.  He has shown his own gravestone carved with Chinese language to Sun Chunlong.  He told Sun Chunlong that he has five sons in Burma all of whom have attended university, but none of them know Chinese.  He’s afraid that after he dies, his sons will not be able to read his name.

“Once Zhang Fulin was seeing me out and mumbled, ‘We are not afraid of dying; we are afraid of being forgotten.”

Ge Shuya says the veterans are looking for recognition that respects their identity.  In 2012, Sun Chunlong bestowed a ceremonial ribbon with the words “Hero of the War of Japanese Resistance” to CEF veteran Zhu Mingfu.  “The old man was beside himself.  He didn’t see it fit to take it off and wore it out on the street.”

On May 21st of this year Southern Weekend interviewed CEF veteran Lin Xieshun in his residence.  He proudly sported two medals on his chest – one for being a member of the CEF veteran’s group and the other a medal commemorating the 65th anniversary of victory against the Japanese fashioned by the Veterans of the War of Japanese Resistance Care Network.  The old man wore his medals in earnest and suit pinned with seven badges reserved for wearing on formal occasions hung in his closet.

Lin Xieshun was demoted during the Cultural Revolution for his participation in the CEF.  His children, who were also persecuted, were not permitted to join the Communist Youth League, the Communist Party, or the armed forces and because of this, hardly speak to him.  Lin Xieshun spent the prime years of his life fighting on the battlefield in Burma and for this lived a life of dishonor.

“These things can help him find a sense of purpose. He really needs to prove the glory of life to himself,” says volunteer Li Zhi of Lin Xieshun.

Hubei veteran Wu Yuanzhuo also would like a memorial badge, but his wish was not fulfilled before he died.  In 2010, Sun Chunlong received a call from volunteer Liu Jun saying, “We can buy badges online on Taobao (China’s equivalent of Ebay).”Sun Chunlong quickly urged Liu Jun to buy several and to send one to Wu Yuanzhuo’s son who quickly granted his father his final wish.

The monument at Myitkyina is another final wish of CEF veterans.  In October, 2011 before passing away, veteran Yang Jianda appealed to his daughter to call Sun Chunlong.  “He said that year in Burma he lost tens of thousands of his brothers in arms, and their remains need to be brought home.  They also need a monument.”

Sun Chunlong asked for Yang Jianda’s daughter to place the phone by her father’s ear.  With a loud voice he told the old man that he would fulfill his final wish.  The unconscious man suddenly awakened and weakly whispered an affirming “Good.”

“We owe it to these veterans.  Every Chinese person owes them this debt,” says Sun Chunlong.  But now the momentum for the approval process for the MZN monument has come to a halt and its future is uncertain.  “We can do it, but we can only continue to wait.”

Translators note: I chose to use Burma instead of Myanmar in this article because during the much of the period in question, 1940-1960, the state was known by its colonial name, Burma.  It would be erroneous to have a sentence like the following “The Japanese invaded Myanmar in the late 1930s.” given Myanmar was not the state’s official name until the late 1980s.  Since imperial times, the Chinese have always called Burma  缅甸(Miandian which is a close but not direct translation of Myanmar.   But problems do exist with translating this proper noun in this article.  For example, the author refers to the locals of Myitkyina as people from 缅甸 which holds true in Chinese.  I translate these as Burmese to keep consistent with previous language, but in actuality locals of Myitkynia are of Kachin ethnic group and not ethnically Burmese.  However, if the country were still called Burma, officially then the Kachin would be Burmese nationals. 

Second, the author is inconsistent in writing the number of casualties of the Battle of Myitkyina and of the total CEF casualty count.  At times he refers to the number as more than 10,000 but most of the time he writes the number totals 100,000.  I’m not sure as it is not clear in the essay when the author refers to 100,000 fallen soldiers if he refers to the fact that most all of the 100,000 soldiers of the CEF have now died of natural causes, or if 100,000 soldiers were killed in battle.  The latter claim is certainly false by all other accounts of the CEF listed online. 

The original article can be found here.

1 Comment

Filed under China, Governance, Myanmar/Burma

One Response to Nowhere to Kowtow in Barren Fields

  1. Seamus Fogarty ( MD-Ambassador )

    I am deeply Saddened , by the Government of China, and the Powers that be, to see this very Important WW2 , phase has been swept under the rug. and ti’s high time that the 100000, Soldiers who perished there get the Monument that they deserve,, Please CHINA step up to the plate,, My own View as an Irish Citizen also..Very Sincerely. Fogarty,, ps my Father was in Burma in mid 1945 with the 6 th South Wales Borderers for 110 days.

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