My Hike into Qingdao’s Colonial Past

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Canon stretches out towards the Ocean in QIngdao

A cannon stretches out towards the bay reminding passers by that once upon a time there had been a bloody conflict in this now peaceful park. It is but one indicator of how one can still find the remains of an occupation now nearly a century old in the hills of Qingdao, a city in Northeast China. Ironically the blood that was spilled on these hills on that occasion did not belong to the Chinese, but instead belonged to the soldiers of Germany and Japan. The year was 1914 and the Japanese, realizing that WWI was nearing an end declared war on Germany in hopes of taking control of their Chinese colony. This German cannon and a number of other military perephanalia scattered throughout the park are the remains of Germany’s failed attempt to keep those Japanese forces out.

I had passed by that cannon on a cool summer morning and pressed forward eventually reaching a wall which surrounded what was once a German Bunker. Here we stopped, for on the gates were two signs, each consisting of four Chinese characters. Although I do know a little bit of Chinese myself, I was fortunate enough to have with me retired History Professor John Israel who was able to help translate them as well as explain their significance.

The first sign, positioned on the left, read, “勿忘国耻” or in English, “Don’t forget our national shame.” These words are significant because they sum up how the people of mainland China view much of the 19th and some of the early 20th century. The opium trade, the military defeats and the unequal treaties that followed all tore apart the country that had once stood so mighty. For many Chinese citizens these years represented what Professor Dittmer described in our interview as “100 years of humiliation.” It was a time when the Chinese people’s sense of superiority was called completely into question (Mungello 4). The canon and bunker here may have only played a small role in that past, but they serve as a reminder of this much broader colonial history. These words then are an echo from a day not so distant and its significance was not lost on the Professor, nor on me.

A sign from Qingdao urging the Chinese People not to forget their National Shame

The other sign, standing on the right read , “振兴中华” or in English, “Rejuvenate China.” It has become a common patriotic phrase in China. Professor Israel spoke of how these words explain China’s aspirations for the future better than anything else he has seen in China. These words have been the inspiration for China’s economic rise, and were part of the reason for their early economic struggles (Wei 205). They also describe what is at the heart of China’s emerging nationalism. But while this sign has great patriotic meaning for the Chinese people, for outsiders this phrase hints at danger on the horizon. A danger that a mighty new Chinese nation will look to establish their own goals and objectives that will conflict with the policies of the west which have dictated the world’s fate for so long.

Another fear that involves Chinese nationalism is tied to China’s political future. As Baogang He explains in his work on nationalism in China, “(the) Chinese nationalist solution to the national identity problem is logically and inherently opposed to the contemporary trend towards democracy (xii).”  This view is not uncommon, but I disagree as does Joseph Fewsmith who argues that in China”(nationalism) demands that the political system open up to accommodate the true representatives of the people (Dittmer 344).” For this reason I feel nationalism is not being used to counter a move towards democracy in China. Rather, it is being used to squelch anti-government sentiment and increase national pride, and generally to maintain the status quo.

A sign from Qingdao urging the Chinese People to restore National Glory

The other major concern that bears mentioning is the topic of ethnic nationalism. The dangers of strong ethnic nationalism in other nations has been made apparent in historical events such as the Holocaust. Baogang He dismissing any concerns of this and argues that although China is dominated by its Han majority, “Chinese nationalism does not link its nation to the notion of race (5).” This is not something that is completely agreed upon as Mungello argues in his book that ethnic nationalism is a traditional expression of Chinese nationalism (4).

I would argue that the signs on display in front of the German bunker do offer a hint of something close to ethnic nationalism. This is because visitors are reminded of colonial hardships brought upon by foreigners and then asked to internalize these feelings. It is, as YingJie Guo mentions in his work, a kind of “official propaganda” that “devalues alien ideas and practices in favor of native traditions (110).” It is however hard to gauge the power of this propaganda although the anti-Japanese demonstration discussed on the first two blogs of this site offer some frightening possibilities.

The landscape of Qingdao

In the end though, all of these feelings of nationalism may lead to something far less aggressive. Going back to that interview with Professor Dittmer, he mentioned that the Chinese people were “not going to be pushed around anymore,” but there s a gap between not being pushed and doing the pushing.

Yet it is important to understand that both of the signs are not meant to reflect where China is now. Despite China’s rapid economic rise over the last few decades China still considers themselves very much in the middle of a dark past and a bright future. The years of humiliation may indeed be over, but the days of Chinese revival have not yet come. However many Chinese are sure that the day will come and come soon, and they have shown the grit and determination that will be necessary to make it happen

But nationalism has been embedded into the fabric of Chinese society long before colonial rulers. Since the Song Dynasty nationalism seems to have played a role, however small, within Chinese society (Haeger 206), and the events of the 19th century and 20th have simply brought these feelings to the surface once again.

A German bunker from WWI in Qingdao

The role of colonialism role in China’s move towards modernization goes beyond these nationalistic words. Indeed there are other signs of German’s occupation throughout the city. Qingdao’s economy is dominated by an industry developed during German colonial rule and by the tourism it has helped promote (Steinmetz 475). Tsingtao beer is the second highest selling beer in the world, and it continues to influence the city. From kegs on the sides of streets to the prominence of its icon- a famous island pavilion that has become a major tourist attraction. One Chinese representative of the company even boasts of the German heritage saying, “The prudence and meticulousness of the German founders are in our company’s blood” (Li 16). It is in perhaps ironic but nonetheless significant that Germany has come to have such a respectable position within the city’s history.

The influence of colonialism is real not only in the city of Qingdao but throughout China, both in the minds of the people and in the world that surrounds them. Yet often the Chinese people themselves are torn by how to view the colonial past, and their own definition is rife with contradictions. All of this is apparent in Qingdao where a beer factory claims with pride that it was built by Germans, but words outside an abandoned bunker still urge visitors to not forget the shame of colonial defeat.

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