China-Japan Feud Reveals Unexpected Loyalties in Taiwan

China-Japan Feud Reveals Unexpected Loyalties in Taiwan

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When I think of nationalism, I have visions of Koran-burning, the Arizona immigration law, and the Iraq War. I belong to a generation of Americans that is wary of the mistakes of our forefathers. Taking up arms to spread democracy? No thank-you.

But apparently, nationalism is in my blood.

When I asked my grandfather in Taiwan—Yieyie, as I call him—if Japan should apologize to China over the Sept. 8 arrest of the Chinese fishing captain in the disputed waters of the Southeast China Sea, he did not hesitate to say: absolutely. If he could, at age 90, he would pick up arms and fight the Japanese all over again if it were necessary to defend China’s borders.

My grandfather grew up in Zhejiang Province, an eastern coastal region in China just south of Shanghai that is named after a crooked river that cuts through its capital. Yieyie joined the military at age 16 and fought in the Second Sino-Japanese War, galvanized by the brutality of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, when the Japanese raped and killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers when they seized Nanjing. He remembers the swords the Japanese used to kill the civilians. Their were neither quick nor easy. “There was no humanity,” he says after a pause.

Japan’s history of denying the existence of the massacre and refusing to offer a satisfying apology to China only further adds to my grandfather’s conviction that one is now due for the Sept. 8 incident. Though the fishing captain was eventually released, the extension of his detention past Sept. 18, a Chinese memorial day known as Jiu-ba or 9-18, adds further weight to his belief. The Chinese regard Jiu-ba of 1931 as the start of the war against Japan. They claim Japan staged an attack on one of its own railways in Manchuria but blamed China as a pretext to declare war. Japan has not changed its position.

My grandfather wants an apology from Japan, but he makes it clear that he wants this for China, the Chinese people, not the Communist Party.

In the winter of 1949, my grandfather was one of nearly 2 million Chinese who fled to Taiwan. He fought the Communist Party as a colonel under Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalist Party and first president of Taiwan. In those 61 years, he has only been back home once.

When my grandparents took a two-week trip in 2002 to visit the relatives and friends they had been forced to leave behind, they heard haunting stories of life under the Great Helmsman. As a wealthy landowner, my great-grandmother lost her property to the Red Guards who then shaved her head, beat her, and ultimately killed her.

My grandparents gave what money they could offer to their families and left. They will never return, even though both of them long to spend their old age with their families and to die in their birthplace. They will never return because they do not trust the Communist Party, whose officials “escorted” and “observed” them during their visit. They will never return until China is democratized and the Communist Party no longer rules the mainland.

And yet, my grandfather would fight alongside the soldiers of the Communist Party to defend China against Japan, if need be, as he did in the Second Sino-Japanese War. I recall my childhood, when Yieyie lived with us for a year and settled disputes between my siblings and me: Don’t waste your energy fighting blood. You will have no energy left to fight your enemies.

Despite his Taiwanese citizenship, my grandfather never calls himself Taiwanese. He is Chinese. Though he holds no loyalties to the Communist government, he believes the Chinese are a great people. Tokyo may be wrong, Beijing may not be right, but the Chinese people deserve never to see another Nanjing Massacre.

This is not a nationalism that I have grown up knowing. This nationalism springs from a love for countrymen rather than hatred for an enemy. This is the same sense of pride that helped my parents realize their American Dream: from a $300-per-month paycheck when they first came to the United States, to debt-free education for my sisters and me today.

When I speak to Yieyie over the phone, I know the hand that holds it once held a gun and pulled the trigger. But it is also the hand that held me at birth and led our family to safety during the civil war. And it is the hand that I know will linger on the phone for a few moments when he replaces it on the receiver after our conversation.

Rebecca Chao is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International Affairs studying international security policy.