Hungarian-American academic and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz was famous for his criticism of psychiatry, and his belief that mental illness was non-existent. In one of his famous quotes, Thomas stated that, “the stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”
The wisdom of this quote came alive on September 30 as President Xi Jinping led thousands of Chinese citizens to commemorate China’s fallen national heroes at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tian’anmen Square, Beijing. The solemn, albeit joyous occasion which marked China’s 10th Martyrs’ Day took place as the country started weeklong festivities marking the “National Golden Week” that starts in earnest on independence day around October 1.
China has enhanced legal protections honoring heroes and martyrs. In 2014, the National People’s Congress declared September 30 as Martyrs’ Day to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of national independence and prosperity.
Victory does not come easy. Moreover, the magnitude of the prize determines both the length of the struggle and cost of victory. This is a philosophy that any country that fought for independence at one time in its history understands perfectly. Sadly, there are many patriots who fight for a brighter day, but never live to see a new dawn. However, there is no gain without pain.
Anyway, martyrdom is a product of patriotism. The people who are either recruited, volunteer or are conscripted to fight in the frontlines during wars understand that they have also put their entire lives on the line for the sake of progeny. They know chances are high that they may never return home alive or, if they die, their bodies might be lost in the battlefield forever. Such is the love for one’s motherland.
Martyrdom is particularly “sweet” when people are remembered for fighting and finally overcoming the injustices of a powerful enemy. This is the case in China’s fight against aggression and occupation by some European countries, the United States and Japan. The so called Century of Humiliation is a historical experience that, although China has forgiven its tormentors, it can never forget. More so because some of these antagonists still appear determined to undermine the country’s socioeconomic and political progress through sheer propaganda, economic sabotage and political intimidation.
According to historical accounts, the hundred years of humiliation refers to the period of intervention and subjugation of the Qing dynasty and, subsequently, the Republic of China by Western powers and Japan from 1839 to the 1940s. About 14 million Chinese were either killed or injured during the Japanese occupation. It is also estimated that China lost 14 million citizens during World War II.
China has an estimated 20 million martyrs who include not only soldiers, revolutionaries and early communist leaders, but also many ordinary Chinese who sacrificed their lives for the common good. The Chinese government defines martyrs as “people who sacrificed their lives for national independence and prosperity, as well as the welfare of people in modern times, or after the First Opium War.”
China’s history of martyrdom is symbolized by the eight carvings that depict the major episodes of the country’s chequered history since the First Opium War (1840-1842) that adorn the monument’s pedestal at Tiananmen Square. The celebrations involved Chinese citizens from all walks of life, both in-country and the diaspora, ensuring that everyone is reminded where the country came from to achieve its unprecedented success. Victory did not come on a silver platter.
It is a message that practically reverberates across China and in the diaspora. Data from the Ministry of Veterans Affairs shows that China has 160,000 facilities and sites memorializing heroes and martyrs, with 1,600 institutes specializing in their maintenance. In addition, there are 300 Chinese national memorial facilities in 50 countries and regions across the world, where 110,000 heroes and martyrs were buried.
Remembering martyrs is not about a pity party. It is recognizing the fact that the current socioeconomic and political success was won at a heavy price, and so it should be jealously protected. In the back of their minds, every modern Chinese citizen is aware that he or she is riding on the sweat, blood and tears of those who are long gone. This is actually a motivating factor for the people to work even harder and sacrifice as much as possible to bequeath future generations with a worthwhile future. Remembering martyrs is also a way of appeasing their spirits to safeguard the moral lessons of what has been achieved since their departure.
Religions like Christianity have survived for more than 2,000 years due to the seeds planted by martyrs. The latter believed that their evangelization was ordained even on the face of death. Indeed, all great powers from the social and economic to the political and religious were built on the sacrifice of their pioneers with their diehard spirit. Ultimately, eternal vigilance is the price to pay for sustaining any hard won freedom. As the Portuguese are wont to say, “A luta Continua, Victoria Ascerta” – The struggle continues, Victory is certain.