The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, set up during the First World War by Sir Fabian Ware, is best known for the white gravestones of the war cemeteries of northern France.
A commander of a British ambulance unit during the war, Ware realised that the bodies of many soldiers would never be recovered.
So he began working on finding, identifying and burying the dead. By 1918 587,000 graves had been identified for the dead, with a further 559,000 casualties registered as having no known resting place. Today the commission commemorates over a million casualties of both the world wars in 2,500 cemeteries in 150 countries. It is still exhuming, identifying and reburying the dead.
China has also suffered thousands of overseas war casualties of its own. Reliable figures are not available, but unofficial estimates suggest at least 300,000 soldiers, military engineers and even Red Guards are buried in the two Koreas, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and India.
For decades, the final resting places were left untouched, complicated by political tensions or the sometimes clandestine nature of the original campaigns. When Mao Zedong sent 320,000 Chinese personnel to Vietnam to fight the United States, many were dressed in the uniforms of the North Vietnamese Army, Southern Weekly reports. Other units fought in other countries, semi-officially, with many Chinese not even knowing much about the wars in which men died. Very few relatives have been able to visit their loved one’s graves – even if they exist.
As China’s overseas influence grows, so too has interest in the issue. And in August, for the first time, the government issued a document setting out procedures for the maintenance of overseas war graves, notes Southern Weekly.
The “Martyr’s Praise Regulations”, issued by the Civil Affairs Ministry, aim to unify management of “hero” graves nationwide before October 2014, and “quietly start the work of protecting overseas war graves installations”, according to Phoenix Weekly magazine.
Coordinated by the State Council, Chinese embassies abroad have been instructed to liaise with their host governments to carry out “maintenance work”, the magazine reported.
Until now, it was all extremely haphazard. In March 2009, a construction crew from Yunnan province working in the Laotian jungle stumbled across a graveyard for 81 Chinese soldiers, members of a brigade that had entered the country in 1968 to support the local communists as part of the wider theatre of the Vietnam War.
“I was shocked. It was very hard to take,” said Chen Qi, an engineer with Yunnan’s Yangguang Daoqiao Construction Company, who found the graves. Chen had no idea the Chinese military had even been in Laos. The team refurbished damaged headstones before leaving the site.
The single largest number of Chinese war graves are in North Korea, where more than 183,000 Chinese died fighting alongside Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean Communists. Since 2007, South Korea has discovered a further 180 bodies on its territory and memorialised them as “North Korean and Chinese war dead”, Southern Weekly reports.
Tens of thousands of Chinese are also buried in Burma and in eastern India, as Second World War allies to the British and Americans, Yunnan historian Ge Shuya estimates.
The solemn tone of the renewed interest in the overseas war dead contrasts with some of the recent coverage of China’s claim to islands in the South China Sea, which is disputed by several nations.
Last week, in a shrill article in the Global Times titled “Time to teach those around South China Sea a lesson,” Long Tao, a strategic analyst at the China Energy Fund Committee, called for China to wage “small wars” to protect its claims.
China could turn the ocean into a “sea of fire”, Long warned, a reference to attacks on oil rigs operated by different countries and companies in the region.
Should that ever happen, the issue of how best to commemorate those killed in action could once again enter the present, rather than the past, tense.
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