This second time, under the watchful eye of the camera, we aren’t as reverent. We mostly wonder what we will look like, even though the camera woman has told us we will feature for just three seconds in her website documentary.
We had come earlier in the day, the gardener had unlocked the gate. We had climbed the stairs through the ranks of the fallen in the 1979 war with neighbouring Vietnam. Higher up on the hill, in the oldest part of the cemetery where those who died in the revolutionary war lay buried, mister Li had approached us. He pointed out the tombstones from 1950. Mao had declared this country the People’s Republic of China in1949, and the war had been won 99 per cent. But in these far-off parts the Kuomintang still resisted. He told us about the 18 year young girl from a nearby village. She was beaten, raped by 20 men and killed. Every war produces its own horror stories. He said he still couldn’t relate this without being moved. There was nothing trite about him.
The dead are commemorated once a year. Not on a day that marks the end of a war, not with pomp and circumstance. But on Qingming, the day in April when the Chinese traditionally commemorate their deceased family members, clean their graves, clear the weeds. Many still come. Mister Li administers a fund that refunds travel expenses to those who have trouble covering their own – some come from as far away as the Northeast, 5.000 kilometres from Jinping.
It is called, somewhat belligerent and heroic, Jinping’s Cemetery of the Martyrs. But it is a peaceful place, shaded by trees, the gardener sweeps leaves.
Just back in the hotel they contact us. The management invites us for dinner. And they would like to shoot some video of us. That will become those three seconds that introduce as ‘visitors from far and wide’.*
They have put a long table in an empty space of the cemetery. Dishes are being served. There is beer. Mister Li soon is inebriated and more cheerful than in the afternoon.
We get the official numbers and stories. 768 men lay buried here. In 1979 the Chinese entered Vietnam no more than 70 kilometres. Once the Vietnamese pulled back one of their armies from Cambodia, China withdrew from Vietnam. The Chinese had attacked Vietnam in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia that toppled the Khmer Rouge regime.**
But then our camera woman, who is doing the briefing, changes course. She stresses that the Chinese and the Vietnamese people are friends. These days in Jinping county they walk across each other’s border. It was a conflict at government level. Just as the current tensions between China and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea that both countries claim are a problem between governments, not between the people.
No unpleasant traces of nationalism run among the people who run this place. Their focus is on the human cost of war.
* The cemetery’s website is www.jplsly.com
** For a complete and objective overview of these events see Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy, The War After the War