What you need to know
A WWII cemetery in Yunnan still remembers the ROC army's battlefield triumphs over the Japanese.
The flag of the Republic of China (ROC) is not often seen across the Strait in China. Chinese iPhones don’t show the Taiwan flag emoji and, until July, were prone to crashing whenever they received the emoji in a message. In 2018, China has pressured Australian students to paint over the flag and has unsuccessfully ordered a Taiwanese furniture manufacturer in Vietnam to yank it from its flagpoles.
Of course, the flag is controversial within Taiwan for different reasons. For some, it represents decades of martial law and an outdated claim over what is now the People’s Republic of China (PRC), along with parts of states including Russia, Pakistan and Mongolia.
But during World War II, the flag was also carried into battle by solders resisting the Japanese occupation of southwestern China and Burma (now Myanmar). Some of these battles were fought in and around Tengchong, in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province. Today, Tengchong’s Cemetery of Revolutionary Martyrs and the adjacent Anti-Japanese War Museum still honor the sacrifices of ROC and foreign soldiers. Within the museum, there are portraits of former ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who fled along with the ROC government to Taiwan in 1949.
Tengchong is known nowadays for its sweeping mountain vistas, spatterings of active volcanoes, and its numerous natural hot springs. During World War II, however, Tencghong was home to fierce battles between Japanese troops, invading from Burma, and combined Nationalist (ROC) and Communist (PRC) forces receiving U.S. assistance. American air squadrons passed over Tengchong while flying the harrowing supply route known as “The Hump,” during which they passed over the Himalayas from India to China to replenish Chiang Kai-shek’s troops.
U.S. Army General Joseph Stillwell and aviator Claire Lee Chennault led American operations in the region. Chennault, who had gained the trust of Chiang Kai-shek, commanded an air squadron dubbed the “Flying Tigers” tasked with defending China against Japanese air forces.
China has long had a complicated relationship with its remembrance of World War II. At times, anti-Japanese fervor runs rampant due to lingering memories of the atrocities committed by invading Japanese forces. But the Nationalist and Communist forces were, of course, fighting a war on two fronts – aside from fending off the Japanese, they were also battling for political control of China. The contributions of Nationalist soldiers have, in many cases, been quietly forgotten.
This makes Tengchong one of the few places in China where the ROC flag can still be seen, along with portraits of Chiang Kai-shek. There’s a photo of Chiang inside the war museum with a flag bearing the ROC “blue sky with a white sun” emblem:
The museum’s exhibitions delicately obscure what was an acrimonious relationship between Nationalist and Communist forces while recognizing the contributions made by both parties to defeating the Japanese. China’s victories in Yunnan were of particular importance as the ROC government, having lost territory in China’s east, had already fled to nearby Sichuan.
It’s an impressive museum which draws large tour bus crowds as they make the rounds in Tengchong, itself an unheralded tourist destination which sees mostly domestic Chinese tourists.
The path through its exhibitions ends with a paean to victory over the Japanese, quite antagonistically named “Get Out of My Country” – complete with a reminder that, aside from everything else, this sentiment was something Chiang and his Communist counterpart Mao Zedong could agree on.
Outside the museum, the Cemetery of Revolutionary Martyrs, or Guoshang Cemetery, memorializes the U.S. and ROC soldiers who died in battles in and around Tengchong.
A quiet shrine displays the flags of the Republic of China and the Kuomintang (KMT) flanking a portrait of the founder of the ROC, Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙). Behind the shrine, thousands of gravestones rest on a steep hill which leads to a monument adorned with the sun symbol of the Nationalists.
The ROC flag may not be officially outlawed in the People’s Republic of China, but its display is deeply discouraged – making Tengchong one of the rare places in China where it’s possible to explore the country’s history before the Communists took power and initiated the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Even here, however, the museum’s exhibitions omit the conflict between Communists and Nationalists which underscored China’s fight against the Japanese and led to Chiang fleeing the mainland for Taiwan in 1949.
Taiwan has its own questions on how to recognize its history, and whether to keep the ROC flag. But it’s also a prescient reminder that, in Taiwan, there remains a general emphasis on presenting a clear and unvarnished version of history – a quality which, if preserved and taken seriously (especially in cases of remembering injustices committed against Taiwan’s indigenous communities), makes Taiwan unique within the Chinese-speaking world.
Getting to Tengchong
Regular flights make the journey from Kunming to Tengchong or to nearby Baoshan. There are also buses running between Kunming’s western bus station and Tengchong.
Tengchong lies just west of the Gaoligong mountains, one of China’s most biodiverse areas and a paradise for trekkers. Permits are needed for most treks and can be obtained for free in Baoshan.
There’s also an urban waterfall, a volcano park and a cluster of hot springs, all accessible from the town’s main tourist bus station. Tengchong’s Heshun Old Town, speckled with quiet cafes and stands serving local ersi rice noodles, sees its share of visitors but remains far quainter than the heavily touristed Dali and Lijiang.
For more information, check out GoKunming’s excellent travel guide.
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