GoKunming Articles

Nowhere to kowtow in barren fields

By in Features on

Editor's note: The following article was translated by Brian Eyler and originally published on the website East By Southeast (ExSE). It is reprinted here in its entirety.

ExSE Commentary: Below is a translated feature from the Thursday, June 13 Southern Weekend, a Chinese newspaper known for its excellence in reporting and for 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 a positive and contributory force in the creation of a modern Myanmar, is interestingly published at a tenuous time for China-Myanmar relations.

"Nowhere to Kowtow in Barren Fields: Chinese Citizens Erect Monuments to China's WWII Expeditionary Forces in Burma" by Zeng Ming

During the 2013 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 Force 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 CEF 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 Stilwell 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 Stilwell 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 nondescript 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 forefathers' 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 Yangon 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, they 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 Yangon is the largest with 6,347 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 Yangon, 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 30 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 hilltop 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 Qingming 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 Fourteenth and Fiftieth 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 Sixth 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 to erect a monument as soon as feasibly possible. Early in 2013, after some negotiation between Deng Gongzhi and another ethnic Chinese, Zhang Zhiguo, it was decided to build 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 One Hundred and Thirteenth Regiment, Thirty-Eighth Division. Together they began to find 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 funds from China. Although the majority of remains of the CEF are buried in Myitkyina and 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 (320,000 yuan) 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 the place the history happened." After the road was completed, the approval for the monument hit an unexpected road bump. "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 ceasefire 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 the three to four government departments, they would have to put together one million kyat (65,000 yuan) 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 percent of those who died.

At the British Satthwadaw Cemetery, the names of 27,000 dead fill the surfaces of several stone walls. Only 86 graves at the cemetery are unnamed – "Known unto God" is written on the gravestones. 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 23,306 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 percent. The Japanese found 12 percent 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. He chose more than 100 of his photographs to show at a photography exhibition in Changsha called "Never to be Forgotten" in 2012. 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 1,583 soldiers from thirteen different provinces. But using data considering the natural death rate of soldiers who fought in the War of Japanese Resistance, he calculates that only 26,000 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 the 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. 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 21 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 sixty-fifth 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 a 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.

Hubei veteran Wu Yuanzhuo also would have liked 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." 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."

Translator's 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 'Miandian' (缅甸), 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 Miandian which holds true in Chinese. I translate these as Burmese to keep consistent with previous language, but in actuality locals of Myitkynia are of the 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.

Stilwell Road image: Wikipedia
All other images: The Third Media

© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Share this article


On translation 'Burmese': the clearest way to distinguish ethnicity in the country once called Burma is to use the word 'Burmese' to refer to all citizens of Burma; the majority ethnic group in Burma are best called Burmans. Other ethnic groups are Karen, Kachin, Shan, etc.

Introduction to the article: the CEF troops were not PRC government military forces operating outside the PRC's borders because the PRC did not then exist. Neither was the CEF a Communist Party unit, though there may have been a few individual communist troops within it.

Burma is the name of the country in English. Talk to anyone from there, they'll tell you they're Burmese. Myanmar is the illegitimate name that the military junta chose, it's not the preferred term (unless you're the sort of obedient tool who includes Taiwan and the nine-dash line on your maps of China). Countries have English names, otherwise China would be Zhongguo and Japan would be Nihon. Italy would be Italia and Germany would be Deutschland. But they're not because we use the country's English name, not its name in native language.

The name by which the country should be called should be left to the people of the country. The opposition to the name Myanmar within Burma and outside of it has come mostly from politicized people who oppose the governments of the past few decades, who renamed it Myanmar. I'm not sure how much this is an issue for those people today, but I'll be happy with whatever the people decide.
Foreign names for countries, including English names them, often have odd origins and this is rarely a real issue for anyone concerned, but in the Myanmar/Burma situation they have taken on political significance. I usually call the place Burma, because I really think that, in the last 52 years at least, the government has been little short of horrible. If you say that 'Burma' is the preferred term for the country among its inhabitants today you may well be right, but I really don't know.

What I'm saying is, that in the current situation the political significance of the name is more important than whatever the British decided to call it. And accepted English politic-geographic names do change (e.g., Bombay is now Mumbai in English, Persia became Iran (the name that Iranis themselves use)). It's all okay with me, but you are right to consider the political significance of names.

P.S. Taiwan was long called Formosa by English speakers - from the Portuguese language.

Login to comment