The French have a term for it, L’esprit de l’escalier, or “staircase wit.” It means bright and witty sayings thought of too late as one is exiting a party. But history has its own “staircase” element as well, namely events that receive historical attention much later than they should if, as we are supposed to believe, they were so important to begin with.
A perfect example of this is the “Nanking Massacre” of 1937, now a much-contested historical event in the Sino-Japanese War (1937—45). The Chinese claim that the Japanese went on a brutal rampage resulting in 300,000 deaths. The Japanese claim they were responding to irregular troops in civilian clothing using guerrilla tactics, with a much lower death toll.
Even though this is now presented as a pivotal historical event and something that we are all supposed to know, the surprising thing is that, like the Jewish Holocaust from the same era (which began to be used to advance Jewish ethnic interests after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and really only gained traction in the 1970s [here, p. 42ff]), it got off to a rather late start, becoming suddenly very, very important decades after it actually happened.
Not only had Clio the Muse of History descended the staircase before anything of importance had been written about this supposedly groundbreaking event, but she had climbed into her carriage, arrived home, and kicked off her shoes as well. If Nanking was so important surely it should have been broached at the first practical opportunity, say in the immediate post-war period. Of course it wasn’t, not by the Chinese nor by anyone else. As it was, the event had to wait until the publication of Iris Chang’s best seller The Rape of Nanking in 1997 to really get its historical marching boots on — a full 60 years after the event! Some staircase!
James Dao, writing in the New York Times in 1998, called attention to the sudden spurt of interest:
As recently as five years ago, the 1937 Rape of Nanking, in which up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks by Japanese troops, was barely a footnote in American popular culture. Since then the event has inspired two novels, a documentary film, a book of photographs, several Internet Web sites and a dozen academic conferences. Another documentary on the Rape of Nanking for the History Channel and one on the Sino-Japanese War for public television are also in production.
As remarkable as this sudden interest was, it was perhaps even more remarkable that Chang’s book became the vehicle for this, as it had serious flaws as a work of history, the main ones being its lack of credible causation for what was supposed to be a particularly violent incident by Japanese troops. Essentially Chang ascribed it to the inherently violent nature of the Japanese, something I have yet to notice in decades spent living here. More importantly for a book that was presented as a serious academic work, she did zero research in Japan, laying her work open to the charge of being extremely one-sided.
Despite this, the book was lionized, with the author getting the full “instant celebrity” treatment of newspaper profiles, talk show appearances, honorary degrees, and invitations to the Clinton White House. No doubt, the racy title in conjunction with a young Chinese female author — she was 29 at the time — played some part in stimulating interest.
This saga reveals once again that history is never just about what happened in such-and-such a place at such-and-such at time. It’s much more about what certain groups choose to focus on and why. Personally, I’m not overly interested in the minutiae of the Nanking Massacre. Trainspotterly hairsplitting about numbers of victims or whether the victims were blameworthy can get boring extremely fast. People died, how many, how, and why, take your pick. What is more interesting is why “Nanking 1937” suddenly jumped to life as “history” in the late 1990s.
To answer this, you first need to understand why it wasn’t considered historically important much nearer to the time in which it happened, in the same way that, say, Dunkirk, Stalingrad, or Hiroshima were.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Nanking 1937 wasn’t particularly unique or special. Secondly, it was an event that had no effect on the actual outcome of events at the time. Ironically, the only unique thing about it was how particularly ineffectual it was on outcomes. This is because the whole point of the Japanese advance on the city of Nanking was to force Chang Kai-Chek’s Nationalist government to come to terms, something that the fall of the city signally failed to do.
Beaten at Nanking, the Nationalists just moved their capital to Hankow, and when that city also fell, they moved it again. Like Napoleon in 1812, the Japanese seemed to naively think that they just had to show up at the opposition’s capital to win, possibly because that is exactly what would have forced them to surrender if the boot had been on the other foot.
Also, terrible as it was, the Nanking Massacre was just one of many incidents of a similar nature. I believe this makes it what is sometimes called, a “mere detail” of history. The Sino-Japanese War lasted 8 years and covered most of the heavily populated parts of China. It was so vast and violent, with millions dying, that there are many other examples of horrific butchery/ tragic violence besides Nanking to develop historical narratives with.
Indeed, just a few months before Nanking, the Chinese themselves committed an act demonstrably much worse than the Nanking Massacre — even if we accept the highest estimate of 300,000 deaths — when they deliberately destroyed the Huayuankou Dyke on the south bank of the Yangtze River in a ruthless attempt to halt the Japanese advance. This act of demolition unleashed flood waters across a wide area of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces. In order to avoid Japanese counter-measures, the civilian population was not warned, so the flooding resulted in a massive death toll from drowning, estimated at 800,000, with many millions more displaced and made homeless.
In the context of the wider war, we can say that Nanking 1937 was not unique and not decisive, and furthermore that it was dwarfed by the Chinese government’s atrocities against its own people. From this, you can see there was no immediate reason for Nanking to become a significant part of history. Why then was it subsequently presented as such?
The most obvious answer to this is that it proved useful to the Chinese government and to a lesser extent Western elites. Internally Nanking serves as a useful unifying device for the Chinese state, giving the Chinese people an external hate figure — Japan — while also reminding them that they need a strong centralized government to avoid similar outrages. Externally the Chinese use it as a stick to beat Japan with, and keep them on the defensive regarding their historical pride and identity. This serves to weaken their Asian rival, although, overusing the tactic can backfire. It could be argued that this is one factor that has pushed Japan in a more assertively nationalist direction in recent years.
But why did the Chinese wait so long before resorting to this tactic? Iris Chang’s book put it down to the economic weakness and isolation of Communist China, which sought economic benefits from trading with Japan. By the 1960s “Red China” was opposed not just by the West but also by the Soviet Union, with which it had fallen out. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the success of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms that the country felt strong enough to use this stick to beat Japan. Interestingly, by that time, those same economic reforms were creating big inequalities within China that challenged social cohesion. China’s version of Japan bashing arrived at an opportune moment.
But what about Western elites? The benefit of the Nanking Massacre for these people is less obvious, especially as it is occasionally used to undermine Japan, a key Western ally. But maybe this is exactly what is wanted, namely a Japan that is regarded as somehow historically flawed and morally tainted, because this is a Japan that can operate less on its own terms and has an obvious need for a geopolitical intermediary. As Dutch journalist Ian Buruma, writing in the Guardian in 2010 said:
Most Japanese were happy to be pacifists and concentrate on making money. Japanese governments could devote their energy to building up the country’s industrial wealth, while the US took care of security, and by extension much of Japan’s foreign policy. It was an arrangement that suited everyone: the Japanese became rich, the Americans had a compliant anti-communist vassal state, and other Asians, even Communist China, preferred Pax Americana to a revival of Japanese military clout.
But, there could well be less obvious reasons, connected to the strangely moralizing purpose to which history is put these days. Victim narratives are an important part of the “power eco-system” in Western societies, where they are typically used to “de-privilege” the core populations of Western states through White guilt. This is done for a variety of reasons: (1) to facilitate the importation of cheap labor, (2) to create “diversity” as an end in itself, and (3) to justifying the “affirmative action” necessary to maintain social cohesion in societies characterized by very substantial racial differences and divisions. In the case of the Holocaust, Jewish activists have used it as a rationalization for Israel and its policies, to silence critics of immigration and multiculturalism, to portray the relatively wealthy and successful Jewish community as victims, and pad the coffers of Jewish organizations (here, p. lvi ff).
Western elites get benefits from victim narratives that feature Jews, Blacks, and other non-Whites as “victims” of Whites. But, what about a narrative presenting the Chinese as victims of the Japanese? Aside from the geopolitical benefits outlined above, there are two possible additional benefits. The first one emphasizes the Japanese side of the equation and the other the Chinese side.
The first possible benefit is that narratives of Japanese guilt play into the wider narrative of White guilt. Japan has often been viewed as “honorary White” nation in the past, and was described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the only nation in Asia that understands the principles and methods of Western civilization.”
The second possible benefit is that persuading the Chinese to participate in a victim narrative helps to strengthen the institution of victimology itself. In the decades leading up to Chang’s book, victim narratives in general had already been overextended and overused to the extent that they were in danger of losing their value. The obvious analogy here is with currency notes or government bonds, which quickly depreciate if too many are issued.
By 1997, when Chang’s book came out, the global guilt industry had enjoyed its first big spurt and needed a fresh infusion of energy. Getting China to buy into its own victim narrative, not only served specific Chinese and Western elite goals, but it also helped to keep the global guilt market afloat. As with America’s overproduction of fiat currency in the Chimerica years, here too China picked up the slack.