Perhaps the fastest-moving place in one of the world’s fastest-moving countries is Chongqing, in China’s south-west. The most populous city in China
(some 30 million inhabitants), it’s at the head of the Three Gorges Dam, one of the country’s most important infrastructure projects. The city is not beautiful, but it has a real energy and sense of place, sitting on cliffs above the confluence of two major rivers, the Yangtze and the Jialing. One of the most impressive, if hair-raising, rides in China is the five-minute cable car journey across the river, with only some slightly creaky-looking engineering preventing you from dropping into the fast-flowing waters below. The whole city is lit by an endless array of neon lights as its inhabitants continue to fuel the country’s economic boom.
But Chongqing was not always so prosperous. Just over 60 long years ago, during World War II, Chongqing, then known better as Chungking, was connected to India by the perilous air route across the Burma ‘hump’, an essential lifeline for the city in its defence against the Japanese occupation of eastern China. That history, now largely forgotten, has become part of a wider Chinese quest for national and global status today, and Chongqing is a key meeting point for questions that link China’s past, present and future.
For seven years, from 1938 to 1945, Chongqing was the temporary capital of China, whose Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, under Chiang Kai-shek, held out in resistance against the Japanese invasion. That history was quickly blanked out in Chairman Mao’s China, after the communist victory in 1949. Mao’s party did not wish its official histories to tell any story which might reflect credit on their old enemy, Chiang Kai-shek, who had now fled to Taiwan, and the Communist Party’s interpretation of the events of the war against Japan played down the importance of the Nationalist regime’s continued resistance, without which the Allies might never have won in Asia.
However, in recent years, there has been a radical shift in the Chinese attitude towards their own history. The 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China falls today, and China’s own people will take this opportunity to look at their own regime and the events that brought it to power six decades ago. That regime will stress the positive side of 60 years of Communist Party rule, including greatly raised literacy rates, lower infant mortality and of course, the fastest-growing economy in modern history. It will say rather less about human rights abuses, endemic corruption, and massive environmental pollution, all of which continue to blight contemporary China. But one aspect that will certainly be explored is China’s own recent modern history.
For one key element of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic is nationalism, and a crucial aspect of the new patriotism is a revived memory of the Sino-Japanese War including the contribution made by the communists’ old enemy, the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek is now regarded in mainland China as a figure who did make a patriotic contribution to resisting the Japanese. And Chongqing has taken full advantage of the opportunity to recall its past glory days as a beacon of resistance, defending China’s freedom during wartime. For its new status as a huge, entrepreneurial metropolis is welcome, but not sufficient.
Today’s economic growth brings prosperity and comfort, but it has failed to bring the Chinese people values that they can believe in. And the events that inspired a previous generation, such as Mao’s Cultural Revolution, have been exposed as disasters. That is why so many places and people in China have started to look into the past before the communist revolution for historical material to fuel the imagination of a younger generation. For instance, Shanghai, China’s most advanced metropolis, is now suffused with nostalgia for the roaring days of the 1920s when the city was Asia’s gateway to the world. And for many educated Chinese today, the place to look for values is China’s traditional philosophy: one of this year’s best-selling books was a primer on the thought of Confucius.
But Chongqing’s embrace of its wartime role is perhaps the most affecting example of how contemporary Chinese social change draws on the past. If you go to the centre of the city, you will see a wealth of gleaming skyscrapers, of the sort that have become iconic of the 21st century Chinese cityscape. But nearer ground level is a much shorter monument, just a few metres tall. That monument was erected during the war to symbolise the hoped-for victory in the struggle against Japan. It survived the years of Maoist revolution and is still there today, a clear reminder in the centre of one of China’s most dynamic modern cities that the past, however long forgotten, can eventually be rescued from obscurity and play a role in the present and future.
The writer is professor, history and politics of modern China, University of Oxford.