Cherry Blossom Time in Wuhan
From Richard Lloyd Parry in The Times (via The Australian)
It's a symbol of beauty's fragility and the transience of life. But now the sakura, or cherry blossom, has been sucked into the bitter national rivalry between Japan and China. All over East Asia, cherry trees are putting forth their froth of distinctive white-and-pink flowers this week. In China, however, anti-Japanese activists are calling for the trees to be uprooted because they symbolise Japan's brutal 1930s invasion of China.
Almost a year after violent anti-Japanese demonstrations swept the country, some Chinese internet users are denouncing the cherries as "sinful trees" and "flowers of shame". On one of China's leading websites, NetEase, contributors are divided between defending the trees and calling for their extermination. The controversy centres on 60 cherry trees in Wuhan University in central China. As Japan extended its military control across China and Korea in the build-up to the war in the Pacific, the invading forces tried to make the conquered territories look and feel like Japan.
... In late March, the more than 1,000 cherry blossom trees at Wuhan University bloomed on time and the annual cherry blossom festival began. But because these cherry blossom trees were planted by the Japanese during the Occupation [blogger's note: this is factually incorrect, since the trees only have a lifespan of twenty to thirty years; thus, the original trees are long dead and we are looking at new trees several generations later), there is a recent debate of "It's a shame, not a flower" versus "It's a flower, not a shame." Some people even believed that the trees should be destroyed to erase the national shame.
Why is our collective memory so forgetful about the millions of dead souls, but so sensitive about a few Japanese trees and flowers?
Hating Japan and hence the cherry blossom trees -- the hatred of a nation is transferred into a hatred of a plant. Hatred is about hating everything related to the object of hatred. This is akin to the witchcraft mentality in folklore. By destroying the cherry blossom trees, you can release anti-Japanese emotions. In my view, how different is this from the Hong Kong lower-class women "hitting the little guys" (打小人)?
Recently, I have been reading famous Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke's "Travels to China" and he wrote about how he saw cherry blossom trees in China. In 1921, Ryunosuke visited China and was invited to dine at a Japanese's home in Shanghai. In front of the house was a cherry blossom tree. The other Japanese who came with him said, "Look, the cherry blossom tree is blooming." The host and guest were both delighted. "Actually, it was a skinny little cherry tree and there was just a few flowers. Why were these two men so happy?" Ryunosuke stayed in Shanghai for more than a month afterwards, and then he realized that all the Japanese there were like that. "I don't know what kind of people the Japanese are ... when they see the cherry blossom outside their country, they immediately felt happiness, no matter whether it was eight leaves or a single leaf flower. Such are the Japanese people."
For the Japanese, planting the Japan's cherry blossom trees on Chinese soil was obviously for curing homesickness. The invaders were clearly detestable, but the patriotism and homesickness of the Japanese may not be so detestable. "When they see the cherry blossom outside their country, they immediately felt happiness." This kind of sentiment is understandable. Ultimately, everybody has the right to love their country. The difference between us and the Japanese is the difference between the invaded and the invader, but everybody has the same feelings of patriotism and homesickness. Didn't we hate the invaders because of our patriotism? How can we use the name of our patriotism to annhilate the sentiments of others for patriotism and homesickness as represented by the flowers? How can we turn the passion for China into hatred against the innocent flowers?
During the later stages of WWII, the Americans began to bomb the Japanese homeland. The architectural historian Liang Sicheng -- his brother-in-law was a pilot who died in the air war against Japan -- recommended the Americans to spare the ancient Japanese city of Nara: "... architecture is the epitome of society and the symbol of the people. But it does not belong to one people, for it is the crystallization of the entire human race. Nara's Toshodaiji Temple is the world's earliest wood-structure building. Once destroyed, it is irrecoverable."
During an era of international hatred when bombs were flying everywhere, Liang Sicheng could still plea to preserve Nara and Kyoto, two famous cities of world cultural history. In this peaceful and flourishing era, in our harmonious society, we couldn't tolerate a few innocent cherry trees?
P.S. Here is the economic impact on Wuhan University. On the last weekend of March each year, Wuhan University has to charge admission fees (10 RMB per head) to its campus grounds, more for crowd control than monetary gains. On March 25, 2006, more than 50,000 people came to look at the cherry blossoms.