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UPDATED: June 11, 2015
National Memories: Sino-U.S. Cooperation During WWII
A Chinese museum seeks to remind Americans of a forgotten part of their history
By Ryan M Allen

Despite ending roughly 70 years ago, the scars of World War II (WWII) remain prevalent upon the psyches of nations that were affected by the war. For the United States, the war is a strong reminder of perhaps the last predominantly accepted military engagement from the nation that went on to become the world's most powerful.

This war has stayed close to the minds of Americans through popular culture, such as movies like Saving Private Ryan, TV series like as The Pacific or Band of Brothers, or even video games such as Medal of Honor. However, despite its relevance, Americans seemingly forget about China's connection to WWII.

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater, sometimes called the "Forgotten Theater," brought together the Americans and the Chinese in a fight against the Japanese Empire, which had invaded the entire East Asian and Pacific regions. Some of the first engagements against the Japanese during the war even happened in this theater, from an American squadron called the Flying Tigers, who were a group of American volunteers in the Chinese Air Force. Despite the important and lasting legacy, the theater no longer resonates like other aspects of the war for the general American public.

For China, though, the fight against the Japanese Empire has left everlasting scars that remain sensitive even today. Thus, it might be surprising from the Chinese perspective that the Americans could forget about the important events that took place in the theater. 

The Yuezhong Museum of Historical Images (MoHI) in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, is hoping to remind Americans of this forgotten part of their history through a new exhibit, entitled National Memories: Images That Narrate China-U.S. Collaboration During WWII.

The MoHI's new exhibit is set to bridge the two nations, bringing together allies that at one time fought side-by-side. The exhibit features rare archival photographs of Sino-U.S. cooperation during this period, compiled from collections across the world.

Sealed in the U.S. National Archive until 2010, a large portion of the exhibits photographs and materials comes from the U.S. Army Signal Corps' 164th Signal Photo Company, which documented the CBI Theater. A group of Chinese and American scholars helped to publicize these invaluable records and the most relevant were organized into the National Memories exhibit.

The museum featured its collection at the BookExpo America (BEA), which was held in New York City, from May 27 to May 29, at the Javits Center. China was the guest of honor during this important publishing expo, with the largest foreign delegation to ever attend the event, Chinese-related exhibits featured prominently on the show floor, and a noticeable focus on China from a diverse group of publishers and authors. The MoHI's National Memories was included in all of the coverage, featured right after the high profile U.S. release of the current Chinese president's new book, Xi Jinping: The Governance of China.

The exhibit at the expo featured rare photographs from WWII, depicting the cooperation between the two powers. The mentioned Flyer Tigers were prominently featured, as their legacy was perhaps the most lasting from this era. Another photo showed a large crowed in Tianjin cheering for the arrival of the U.S. Navy after the defeat of the Japanese. All of these photos are also featured at the permanent exhibit at the museum in Shenzhen.

China, during this period, was at a complex stage in its development, as the country was torn by civil war while also fighting the invading Japanese. The United States was officially allied with the Kuomintang government headed by Chiang Kai-shek, despite numerous reports of widespread corruption. The MoHI exhibit does not shy away from this reality, featuring photos with both American and Chinese forces, including Chiang.

Some of the most relevant photos, though, come from the works featuring cooperation between the Communist, who were still very much a revolutionary force at the time, and the Americans. One such photo features the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893-1976) walking with the U.S. Army Observation Group in Yan'an, where the Communist Party of China (CPC) was then based. Another photo shows legendary Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) speaking with David Barrett (1892-1977), a U.S. Army Colonel in charge of the mission.

The cooperation depicted in the exhibit was known as the Dixie Mission, a secretive outreach by the Americans to the CPC and the People's Liberation Army. However, the mission is not widely remembered in the United States, especially after McCarthyism and paranoia gripped the nation at the height of the Cold War. Through the exhibition, though, the memories of cooperation can be extended to a new generation of Chinese and Americans alike.  

Although not displayed at the BEA, the National Memories exhibit also contains many films from this period as well. Some of these films are archival propaganda shorts produced by the U.S. military to solicit support for the war effort in China. Other such films include interviews with war veterans that have been collected by the museum. With hundreds of hours of interviews of Chinese veterans, the MoHI has one of the world's finest collections of oral histories for this particular theater of war.

The MoHI's mission is to "collect Chinese historical images scattered overseas and vernacular historical materials of the local community, so as to reveal the national and personal memories that are silenced in the authorized historical narratives." The museum also has a keen reverence for academics, with a managing committee that is made up of documentary filmmakers, photographers, journalist, writers, curators, and other scholars. One of their honorary directors is John Easterbrook, former U.S. Army Colonel and grandson of General Joseph Stilwell, who valiantly led the CBI Theater for the Americans during much of the war. 

The photographic display can serve as a strong reminder of the past cooperation between the United States and China. While Americans tend to forget the context surrounding this theater, the impact on the Chinese population is seemingly unforgettable. Perhaps, through the mutual acknowledgment of this display, each side can learn from the other in regards to memories of this turbulent period in world history. The forgotten cooperation during WWII depicted in National Memories can help move forward much needed cross-cultural understanding between the two nations.

The author is Doctoral Fellow with Teachers College, Columbia University

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