Memories of the Siege of Changchun: A “Forgotten” Travesty in Chinese History
"The evening sun in Changchun was beautiful. A flaming, almost transparent red.
“When it suddenly settled on the horizon like a huge red bead of glass, the sun turned everything to gold—the trees on Xing-an Boulevard, the windows, and even me myself. Its golden red light flowed into the glass factory behind the house, fusing with the red-hot glass in the large crucible there. The glass would meld with the golden red sun, transform itself into a huge bead, and float up into the sky, shaking my soul to the roots. If I stretched out my hand, I felt I could grasp it. If I had golden wings, I felt I could fly up and pass through the red bead hanging in the sky. My world was within that golden-haloed glass bead; beyond it was the vast incalculable future.
“Time and space stretched out to infinity. Looking through this glass bead, I tried to fathom what the nebulous future held."
It’s hard to believe that the radiant, halcyon industrial city so lyrically described in this opening passage from Homare Endo’s memoir, Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun, could be anything less than a land of milk and honey—could, in fact, be on the very precipice of the macabre and merciless depths of inhumanity. And yet, almost as if contained within the luminous tranquility that Endo describes, there are traces of some enigmatic portent lingering on the horizon like the shadows cast by that “golden-haloed glass bead.”
Given the historical context of what “the nebulous future held” for the denizens of Changchun, there is something haunting, perhaps even obscene about the dissonance between Changchun in the days leading up to that spring afternoon in 1948 and the tragically grotesque occurrences that took place over the following five months.
The Siege of Changchun was one of the last and most brutal conflicts of the long, sporadic Chinese Civil War between the Chiang Kai-shek-led Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communist Party of China led by the Mao Zedong—the ruthless revolutionary, ruler, visionary, and modernizer. Lasting almost a quarter of a century, the war marked the end of the constitutional Republic of China and the rise of the People’s Republic of China shortly after the Communists overpowered the Nationalist defenders in Changchun.
Quite ironically, ideas concerning the best way to set up and run a great society led to the mass suffering and endless death toll of the innocent people living in that society. Caught between the ideological gap that split China in two, the civilians living in Changchun during the siege were subject to the horrors of mechanized warfare driven by faceless, implacable political theories.
Communist troops encircled the city, cut off supply lines, and starved out not only the Nationalist forces occupying the city but the innocent civilians who found themselves at the capricious mercy of fate and chance. Without firing a single shot, the Communists killed an estimated 150,000 to 330,000 people during the siege. Those who managed to survive the politically induced famine did so by resorting to extreme measures, consuming anything with a modicum of substance: bugs, leather items, bark, grass, and in some cases the bodies of those who succumbed to starvation. With desperation foisted violently upon them, they were forced to choose between base degradation or death.
To add insult to injury, the Chinese government has not acknowledged the Siege of Changchun as an atrocious offense against humanity nor made any efforts to make amends with the survivors or the families of the victims. Swept under the rug of time, the siege remains a “forgotten” scandal in Chinese history. Although most other mass atrocities of the modern era—the Nanking Massacre, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Dresden, etc.—have either received informal, lukewarm repentance or been acknowledged as ethically justified, they are at least well-known incidents that are part of the global historical and ethical discourse. Not so with the Siege of Changchun.
While this remains a depressing fact, a few historical accounts (notably White Snow, Red Blood by Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Zhenglu) and memoirs like Homare Endo’s Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun attempt to bring this grossly unjust crime against humanity into the light. If the former may stun us with facts and statistics, the latter aims for a more visceral, poignant eyewitness account as seen through the eyes of the most innocent of victims: a young child.
Indeed, Endo poetically captures the aura of a city bathed in nature’s beauty, at the mercy of the machinations of time and fate, and ultimately tinged with the tragedy of human affairs. By immersing ourselves in Endo’s traumatic childhood experiences, a better understanding of our collective faults, historical travesties, and ethical blunders can be gleaned and learned from, lest we repeat ourselves ad infinitum.
And with this in mind, I leave you with this sobering passage from the Afterword of Endo’s memoir, written in 2012:
“The survivors of Qiazi [i.e., the no man’s land separating the Nationalist Army that was occupying Changchun and the Communist Army that had encircled the city in a double ring of barbed wire] are passing from this world one after another, their stories untold. A memorial must be erected to their lives. That is precisely why I survived.
"Sometimes I think that to go on living is not necessarily a good thing. To continue living means to assume the unbearable burden of pain of one’s loved ones. We didn’t choose to live, and we don’t choose when to die. Still we go on living. And as long as we are alive, we want to live without regret, doing our best. For me this means bringing to the light of day one hidden incident in Chinese history. After that, my job will be done.”
Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun, written by Homare Endo and translated into English by Michael Brase, was published in 2016 by Stone Bridge Press. For more info or to order a copy, visit our website at www.stonebridge.com.
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Written by Nikolas Bunton