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From Regional to National: Northeastern Scholars and the National Discourse on the War of Resistance against Japan

2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover
2021-22 Wilson China Fellowship Publication Cover


In January of 2017, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s Ministry of Education made an unprecedented announcement to alter the timeline of the War of Resistance against Japan (China’s experience of World War II) from eight to fourteen years. This was the culmination of a decades-long “date de-bate,” spearheaded since the 1980s by scholars from Northeastern China who vehemently argued that the war timeline should start with the invasion of their homeland on September 18, 1931 (as opposed to the previously accepted start date of July 7, 1937). Thus, Chinese historians from a region that is often seen as “far-flung” due to its geographic location and “backward” due to its reputation as China’s rust belt provided the impetus to a significant policy shift in the upper echelons of the Beijing government. Changing the starting date of the war was not only advantageous in promoting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s resistance effort domestically, but also in further emphasizing China’s role on the global stage in World War II, despite the fact that an eight-year war timeline is more historically accurate. We must simultaneously recognize the CCP’s attempts to rewrite the history of the war while also taking seriously China’s role in World War II, albeit under the Nationalists and not the Communists. 

Implications and Key Takeaways

  • U.S. policymakers must not consider the PRC to be an authoritarian monolith—there are a variety of regional interests that can have strong bearings on the formation of top-level policies, such as the Northeast’s role in the “date debate” that led to the 2017 Ministry of Education announcement to change the war timeline. Thus, U.S. policymakers should focus on building relationships with those in positions of regional authority in China in addition to the central Beijing leadership.
  • U.S. policymakers must take seriously the relevance of the legacy of Mao Zedong and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought to Party historiography, particularly under Xi Jinping. Building on Mao’s legacy is an important part of CCP legitimacy today and how the Party portrays itself to domestic and international audiences.
  • U.S. policymakers must recognize the CCP’s attempts to rewrite history for nationalistic purposes and work with historians to promote the objective study of Chinese history. This should include convening international symposiums and actively countering the Chinese government’s recent coercion against certain academic journals.
  • U.S. policymakers should see China’s emphasis on its role in World War II, in which it claims it fought the fascists for far longer than any other belligerent, as part of intentionally building an international image of a moral, responsible actor. This has direct geopolitical implications, as China seeks to reframe its aggressive actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere.


About the Author

Emily Matson

Emily Matson

Wilson China Fellow;
Adjunct Professor, College of William and Mary
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