Days off. Blue sky. Military Parade. Closed subway stations. National pride. Jets overhead. That’s what this weekend held in Beijing.
This year, the Chinese government declared September 3-5 as a holiday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Japanese Aggression and the Anti-Fascist War, better known in the U.S. as World War II. What became World War II actually started in China in 1937, when Japan invaded China. Japan committed great atrocities during the war and finally left China in 1945, with the end of World War II. In the meantime, the war in China got caught up into the great conflict. The U.S. military was involved in helping China fight Japan, and our assistance is still fondly remembered by members of that generation. I’ve had at least one elderly person speak fondly to me about those American soldiers.
Photo found here (I didn’t take any photos myself, since like most of the masses I watched the event on TV)
This celebration was a big deal in Beijing. Only half the cars were allowed on the road on any day for the last few weeks (we were also hosting the Track and Field World Championships). A week and a half ago, there was a rehearsal for the parade and lots of subway stations and bus routes were closed for the rehearsal, which meant that my church had to cancel morning services that Sunday because it is in the area where traffic was closed. The day before the actual parade, subways started to be shut down again and stayed shut down for the day of the parade. Some people got out of work already at noon the day before. At 10am Thursday, the only option on TV—all the channels—was the parade.
And the parade was meticulous. The program included the President, Xi Jinping making a speech and reviewing the troops, various groups of troops and military equipment, a formation of helicopters in the number 70, jets with colored smoke, and a dove release. A few minutes after some of the aircraft (jets or helicopters, I’m not sure) showed up on the TV, I heard a rumble outside and could see some of them flying in the sky near my house. I could also see lots of my neighbors standing at their neighbors looking for them too.
What might have been more impressive was the social media response. The day of the parade, pretty much everything my friends posted was related to this event. One of them seemed to be taking video of the parade on her phone and posting it. There were few complaints about the inconvenience of shutting down half the city. People thanked God for a beautiful day for the event. This was clearly a very proud moment for most Chinese people.
And for quite some time, the whole thing was somewhat mystifying to me. I just didn’t quite get why it was such a big deal.
But then I was browsing one of the many things my friends had posted on wechat that included some highlights of President Xi’s speech (translated into English). He said “The victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression is the first complete victory won by China in its resistance against foreign aggression in modern times.” This phrase clicked with something in my head. This isn’t just about Japan. In many ways, what people celebrated this weekend is China being a strong and independent country. Long before Japan invaded in 1937, other countries had been interfering with China. England fought China in the Opium Wars, starting in the 1850s. After each war, they forced China to cede territory as “treaty ports,” cities that were run and governed by foreign countries. That time in Chinese history (c. 1850-1949) is sometimes known as the “half colonized” period. Signs at the Old Summer Palace, that I visited last year, call it “the national humiliation.”
Along with the pressure from outside countries, there was lots of internal turmoil. These were the last years of the Qing dynasty (it fell in 1911), the warlord and Republican period, and it ended in civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. I’ve been reading essays in my class by famous Chinese writers of the 1911-1949 period and finding the different ways that they criticize traditional Chinese culture. It was a period not just of physical and economic turmoil, but cultural turmoil. The questions of the day centered around identity and what it meant to be Chinese and how did they relate to the outside world. It was a difficult and sad period in Chinese history, and in the history of relationships between China and western countries.
So I wonder (not totally sure—see my post from last week) if this parade was a big deal because it was an opportunity for China to say to the world (and to herself) that we aren’t the same country we were 75 or 100 years ago. We aren’t political and culturally weak. No one else can just barge in and force us to do things we don’t want to do. Just maybe…