Monday, September 26, 2005

Lessons from History

The following was written from Huainan, Anhui Province, during a research project on October 19, 2003.


I walked into the compound expecting to be impressed, for my guide had already shared with me much of this city's history. As I had researched throughout the city the previous two days, evidence of this area's natural resources was omnipresent -- from the heavy-laden trucks bound for the processing plants to the thin glaze of coal dust covering virtually everything not protected.

Huainan, China is a city rich in resources, but poor in wealth.

But that didn't stop the Japanese from taking notice of this city in the early stages of their imperial expansions in 1937. Following their infamous attack and conquering of China's capital in December 1937 (, the Japanese army moved 200 kilometers west to Huainan. They came for the coal, seeking to control the vast reserves to fuel their military machine.

As a typical westerner, I have always been indoctrinated to view China and its people with suspicion. As recently as the last term of President Bill Clinton's presidency, when technological "secrets" were allegedly sold to China through American corporations, I have been told that China was a sleeping tiger preparing to expand it borders and conquer its neighbors. But my experiences inside China have shown me the view from the opposite side of the fence.

In January 2000 I visited Beijing, and traveled to the Summer Palace, a housing complex constructed by Empress Dowager in the late nineteenth century to escape the stifling heat of the Chinese summers. As I stood gazing at a large Buddhist temple, I noticed it large walls literally covered from top to bottom by thousands of four-inch high Buddha figures. Upon closer inspection I noticed that the figures below seven feet from the ground had been destroyed. How did this happen, I asked my guide. The French did this, he replied, when they took over this part of China.

He referred, no doubt, to the so-called "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900, when Empress Dowager, in an effort to finally rid her country of foreign powers and influence, silently supported the insurrection of rural gangs, called "Boxers" by the West. For nearly a century China had been slowly but surely broken up and conquered by Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and Russia. Even the United States, following the capture of the Philippians, sought to gain entry into China.

When the Boxers took control of Beijing, these foreign powers sent in the troops, crushed the rebellion, and in the process destroyed many of China's national treasures. Evidence of this destruction is still plainly visible today.

When one looks at China's history, one is impressed by the number of times China has been the oppressed, not the oppressor. History, however, has successfully dispensed in the Chinese a strong fear and apprehension for the West. Today, I gained another experience that helps me understand China's xenophobia.

It was quiet as my guide led me to the complex's museum. Through the dirty glass I could see the miniaturized version of the complex in which I was standing. Towers were scattered across the reproduction, towers that I had seen earlier in the day as I had researched. From these towers the Japanese killed many Chinese, my guide told me. The next room held life-sized statues depicting Chinese coal miners in various positions of enslavement -- working in cramped confines, being beaten by guards, collapsing from exhaustion and hunger. The faces were haunting, filled with anguish and fear.

As we descended the short flight of stairs at the last building, I was overcome with a feeling of darkness and depression. "This is where they all died," my guide told me, "This is where so many lives were destroyed." As I peered into the windows of the three long and narrow subterranean buildings, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting. But slowly the images revealed themselves. A rib cage here, a skull there. In the shallow trench of these three building lay the remains of several thousand men, men who died extracting coal for Japans war machine. The dead gave this place its name -- "Wang Ren Keng" -- "Ten Thousand Peoples Camp". It was here that nearly 70,000 Chinese laborers, mostly men, were imprisoned to die.

I sat there for a while, taking in the scene and contemplating its significance. I began to understand the view from China's side of the fence. I saw how history had taught China a brutal lesson in foreign occupation and warfare. For a moment I understood China's fears of the West, its desires to be viewed as a strong and might nation so that such history will never again occur upon its soil, to its people.

As we walked away from this Japanese death camp, I saw the role coal played in this city's history. On the one hand the "meikuang" brought industry to this people, but it also played a significant and deadly role in its history.

It was the "treasure up the mountain".

Why don't the Chinese bury those who died here? I asked as we returned to our car. "Because we don't ever want to forget what happened here," was the reply.

I think that is sage advice.

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