John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times – 2008-12-11 22:12:42
DANDONG, China (December 11, 2008) — Here at the Museum of the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea, it’s as if the clock stopped 55 years ago.
“I feel like I am right there on the front lines,” said Wang Binyan, a 23-year-old teacher. “I can feel what the Chinese soldiers felt. In this place, Americans are the enemy.”
The museum in this provincial city on the North Korean border tells a personal version of the Korean War, one that casts US foreign policy and military tactics in a decidedly negative light. Hundreds of historical photographs and exhibits present a pro-Beijing side of a conflict that saw Chinese forces rush to the aid of North Korea.
There are photos of glum-looking American prisoners of war, accusations of US germ warfare, and maps and pictures that purportedly show evidence of widespread civilian damage from American bombs.
The commentaries with each exhibit are often heated, using phrases such as “American imperialists,” “wanton US bombing” and “despise and hate” to describe China’s view of the United States.
Reminders of War
Even now, in an era of more cordial Sino-US relations, many in this city of 2.4 million cannot forget the conflict on the Korean peninsula that ended in 1953: Reminders are all around.
A hillside cemetery contains rows of white markers memorializing local soldiers who died in the conflict. Each carries the red star of Communist China, with name, rank and hometown.
A solemn stone monument declares, “Long, long lives to those soldiers who died in the war to resist US aggression.”
Not far away, along the Yalu River, which separates Dandong from North Korea, sits what locals call the Broken Bridge, a span that abruptly ends in the middle of the waterway. The original bridge was nearly destroyed during US bombing raids. The Chinese rebuilt their side of the structure and turned it into a living history museum.
At the end of the span, visitors run their hands along the iron girders that were left gnarled and twisted by the US attack in November 1950. Nearby are full-size replicas of the bombs that wreaked the damage. Even the smallest bullet holes and shrapnel dents are marked with red circles, lest they be overlooked.
As he snapped photographs, one Chinese tourist paused to address a Westerner. “See this damaged bridge?” he said. “Americans did this.”
But the hilltop museum, built in 1958 at the site of a high-command bunker, is where the Americans take their biggest beating. Here, the war was won by countless brave Chinese volunteers.
“After fighting a bloody war for two years and nine months,” one sign in Chinese and English reads, “the Korean and Chinese people’s army defeated the aggressors with modern technical equipment (led) by the US with inferior equipment. The US was unable to achieve its goal of rapid occupation of the whole Korea.”
Dandong riverboat pilot Zhou Naiying, 47, was too young to fight in the war. But he has been among the thousands who visit the museum each year. And he is angered by he has seen there.
“All humans with flesh and bones would feel angry that such a thing happened to their own countrymen,” he said. “You can’t forget the past. History is forever.”
The war started when Northern soldiers in a divided Korea entered the South on June 25, 1950. Under the aegis of the United Nations, the United States and its allies intervened on behalf of South Korea.
After South Korea made rapid advances in a counterattack, Chinese forces intervened on behalf of communist ally North Korea, shifting the balance of the war and leading to an armistice July 27, 1953, that approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel.
Many Chinese academics now adopt a softer stance toward the US agenda during the bloody skirmish.
“Most scholars don’t refer to the museum by its formal name,” said Shen Zhihua, a professor at the Center for Cold War Studies at East China Normal University. “We now know North Korea stirred up the whole thing. We know who fired the first gun. The Americans entered the war authorized by the U.N. It was a legal war.”
Museum officials say the tone of the displays is set by the central government, which prefers the harder-line rhetoric. Director Zhao Yejun said the museum in 2004 tried to soften the commentaries. The phrase “American imperialism,” for example, is not used unless in a direct quote.
“We no longer use the phrases ‘our side’ and ‘the enemy,’ ” he said. “Now, we just say the US Army.” The museum once featured a marble placard that included the phrase “Defeat wolf-hearted America!” Zhao said that no longer existed.
Still, the museum’s name won’t be changed, he said, because it is a direct quote from Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international politics at Beijing’s Renmin University, said there were reasons the government hadn’t tempered the museum’s rhetoric more.
“For one, Dandong is far from Beijing and so few Chinese or foreign guests visit there,” he said. “If this museum was in a big city, there’s a greater possibility officials would modernize the language.”
There are less practical reasons as well.
“Some authorities think we should keep this past perception of the war,” Shi said. “If they changed it too much, people would criticize them, because some still believe America was wrong.”
Some Western analysts say all museums carry their own bias.
“Our version of history is also one-sided,” said Leon Sigal, author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.”
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.