Saturday, 26 February 2011

Eamonn Fingleton's "quiz": Just how wrong can an article get?

I originally wasn't going to write anything about Eamonn Fingleton's somewhat daring "quiz" on East Asian topics because I have done too many of these Fiskings in recent months, but then I caught a friend of mine approvingly reposting it on Facebook and felt I had to say my piece. Quite simply, the man appears to know very little and is not afraid of advertising the fact. Let's start with this passage:

"Question 1: Can you name an atrocity that happened in East Asia in the 1930s that, on a one-day, one-decision basis, probably ranks as the worst atrocity in history?

Answer: It was an event that happened in China -- but, no, it was not the Nanking massacre. Rather it was the Huang He (Yellow River) flooding of 1938 . . . What is beyond question is that even many China specialists at U.S. universities have never heard of the Huang He massacre."

Let's get this straight, the flooding of the Huang He caused by the demolition of the river dams in 1938 was not a massacre, that is to say, it was not the intentional unjustifiable killing of a large number of innocent people. The Huang He flood was, arguably, justifiable as an act of scorched-earth policy designed to defeat the Japanese invaders, and its object was not the deaths of innocents, but the defeat of the Japanese invasion. Whilst it may have been wrong, and may even have back-fired resulting in the loss of innocent life along with the deaths of invading Japanese troops, it was not a "massacre". If an atrocity was committed, it was the Japanese invasion which necessitated the flooding.

Even more ridiculous is Fingleton's assertion that "China experts" (and I presume he means people with at least some background in Chinese history here) at US universities have never heard of the demolition of the Huang He dams. I personally read about them first in my childhood encyclopaedia and I cannot believe that anyone who studied modern Chinese history even superficially would not have heard of this event.

"Question 2: In what nation did the campaign for justice for the so-called comfort women (the sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial forces in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s) begin?

Answer: No, it was not South Korea; rather it was the Netherlands."

That the Netherlands should be the first country to seek compensation for the so-called "comfort women" is not surprising - the Netherlands was an independent and reasonably peaceful country in 1945. But more to the point, just who is it that is under the misimpression that South Korea was where such a campaign might start? Not anyone I know, and that's for sure.

"As for the comfort women issue, this came to be widely discussed in the English-speaking media only as recently as the early 1990s."

The existence of "comfort women" has also been known for a lot longer than since the 90's. As a simple matter of fact, the famous Australian author Neville Shute wrote about the rape of female prisoners in A Town Like Alice. J.G. Ballard also wrote about this in Empire Of The Sun. Perhaps the translated euphemism "comfort women" has only relatively recently been used for women who suffered this atrocious crime, but the fact that wide-scale abduction and continuous rape was conducted by the Japanese army during its rampage across Asia is something known to any reasonably well-read person.

His point about US politicians having "a lack of understanding of East Asia" may have some truth in it, but he then discredits himself by writing how had his own opinion on the Iraq war been listened to, things might have been different. Is he really claiming to be an expert on Iraq? Or is he saying that his understanding of Japan gives him an insight into how Iraq works? At any rate, it cannot be the latter because he himself says that "the only thing Iraq and Japan have in common is they are not the United States".

But it gets worse: just why is Fingleton emphasising the terrible nature of the Huang He floods and specifically pointing out that they killed more people than the Nanjing Massacre - something that was an intentional act of mass murder? Just why is he giving the treaties signed with the Mao and Park regimes denying further compensation equal weight to the crimes themselves? All of this reads a lot like the kind of apologia for Japanese war crimes familiar to anyone who has lived in Japan.

[Picture: Japanese soldiers stuck in the mud during the Huang He "massacre"]

[Update: You can see Fingleton's website here. As expected, his posts seem to consist mainly of cheer-leading pieces for the Japanese economy and government that are a bit off considering Japan's GDP growth over the past 20 years.]


James said...

Never heard of this bozo but your suspicions of Nipponophilia seem pretty fair.

Have to admit I don't think I'd heard of the Huan He flooding and I always make the connection with South Korea or even other East Asian countries (including Taiwan) when I hear the term 'comfort women' as it is in that context that I first heard it.

Gilman Grundy said...

@JB - I think it must have been mentioned in Seagrave's "The Soong Dynasty", and if that didn't cover it, then any history of the war mentions this event.

I'll be the first to admit that there are few good histories of WWII in China in English (and I suspect few good, relatively propaganda-free ones in Chinese either), Jonathan Fenby's "Chiang Kai-Shek: The Generalissimo and the China he lost" is the best one I have seen, but even that is really more a biography of Chiang. However, every one of them I've read, as well as most general histories of China I've read, mentions this event.

The comfort women thing, I've always associated as much with China, HK, the Philippines, Indonesia etc. as with Korea.

Gilman Grundy said...

And even if you haven't heard of it, how is the flooding of an area in an attempt to stop an invader, which then causes some of the inhabitants of that area to die mainly of starvation, a "massacre"? The implication seems to be "look at what they did to their own people, the Nanjing massacre wasn't as bad as this".

I have no time for the excessive anti-Japanese rhetoric you hear coming from a lot of people on the Mainland (and some in Taiwan n' all), but I also have no time for apologists for well-known war crimes.

some guy said...

What a shockingly bad post, considering I like most of what you write. Needless to say I didn't find anything disagreeable in the original article, and found that you totally missed the point.

Accusations of "Nipponophile bozo" (ok that was from James) every time someone disagrees with your understanding of history are a bit much. What we are seeing is the result of Japanese language scholarship into the War, with the result that the one-sided Tokyo Trials version of history will be challenged to some extent. It would be wrong to confuse that with the Nanking denying uyo-tards.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Some guy - So are you saying that the Huang He flooding, the result of the demolition of dams to stop invading Japanese forces, should be referred to as a "massacre"? Do you really believe that people with a general knowledge of Chinese history have never heard of this event? DO you really believe that no-one knew of the Japanese policy of kidnapping women and using them as sex-slaves during WW2 before the 90's?

The original point of Fingleton's article was that people in the west know nothing of the East, yet the examples he cites show that he knows next-to-nothing of the events. Worse still, what little he does know seems to be a grab-bag of J-nationalist talking points.

This is my problem with his article. I'm quite willing to hear your defence of it though.

some guy said...

Hey FOARP, thanks for the reply.

Hmm, where to start. Well, to answer your three questions 1. Debatable, but calling it a massacre does offer a different perspective, which is useful. 2. Yes, I definitely think a lot of people don't know about it. 3. I'm not old enough to say LOL. But why I say you miss the point is that J-nationalists are the ones saying that the comfort women issue was "invented" by Koreans in the 90's, to which he offered a counter argument.

Maybe the reason I didn't react the same way as you did to the article is that I guess I always assumed that Chiang, Mao and the Japanese Army didn't really give a sheesh about the LBX, who were caught in the middle as usual. So whether it was a patriotic act to halt the evil invader or a massacre by some dude who only cared about his own vision for China is, at least in my mind, unsettled history. At least I can say I'm glad that Mr Fingleton raised the issue because I feel that we Westerners are too quick to put white hats and black hats on historical figures in Asian history.

some guy said...

Interesting related blog post:

Darnit, now you've got me interested in this subject ;)

Unknown said...

The Huang He flooding of 1938 was a deliberate man-made disaster and killed 800,000 people, most of them innocent civilians, according to some estimates. Surely it is not unreasonable to describe such killings as a massacre?

Gilman Grundy said...

Kevn - Except the killings weren't intentional. A "massacre" has the specific meaning of "mass murder". For something to be a murder there has to be intent. You don't call the accidental killing of a hostage by the police during an attempt to rescue them a "murder". instead, you would blame the hostage-taker whose actions, in the view of the police, necessitated the rescue attempt which lead to the death of the hostage.

The real culprits in the case of the Huayuankou floodings were, therefore, the people whose invasion necessitated the flood - that being the Japanese leadership.