The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

My review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang went up at Strange Horizons a few weeks ago.

I have at least three hands of feelings about this book, and not all of them made it into the review, which I wrote several months ago. In the interim, I’ve continued talking with people about it, and I’ve been able to articulate some of the things which were still inchoate for me while I was writing the review.

I didn’t lean into this angle too much in the review for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that I consider it a professional obligation to not crush would-be scholars in the field too hard, but I do have a PhD in modern Japanese history and I have studied and written about human rights in the 20th century, with a specific focus on human rights and war crimes in the Pacific War. Based on this expertise, I very much question Kuang’s decision to rely so heavily on Iris Chang’s largely discredited book on the Nanjing Massacre, which unquestionably raised the profile of the events in question in popular consciousness in the United States when it was published, but which exaggerates its case in some really unfortunate and unnecessary ways. Let me be clear: I say “unfortunate” and “unnecessary” not to attempt to downplay the gravity or the death toll of the Nanjing Massacre, but because those who would seek to deny the war crimes in question are always focusing on details in order to deny the larger picture (a tried and true propganda strategy), and Chang’s book contains plenty of exaggerations and inaccuracies.

As a professional historian with a degree in the field I am also extremely leery of Kuang’s decision to transport her cod!China setting back into the Song Dynasty, approximately the 12thC CE. A good chunk of the point of the history of human rights is that genocide, as the term was originally coined and defined, is a modern crime which relies on the conditions of modernity to be thinkable and possible. “Thinkable” here refers to the emergence of the nation-state and the idea of ethnic minorities as concepts, and “possible” refers to industrialization and its advances in the technologies of mass murder; both as well rely on modern bureaucracy and modern abstractions at scale. I have become painfully aware over the past few years that the term “genocide” has escaped its original definitions in popular consciousness, for extremely good reasons, but the term was only coined in 1944 to describe the Nazi extermination of European Jews in the Holocaust. The genocides of the twentieth century were deliberate, premeditated, and relied on modern industrial technologies of death, which distinguishes them categorically from more gradual, earlier events like the obliteration of Native Americans in North and South America from 1492 onwards. There are good reasons to use the term to describe what happened in the Americas, but the two kinds of things are not the same, and using the same term for both obscures important differences.

The larger significance of the Asia-Pacific Wars and World War II is that the Nanjing Massacre was not an isolated event; a good chunk of the point of the Nürnberg and Tokyo trials was that these kinds of crimes were widespread. (Nor were the United States and its allies entirely innocent of such behaviors. For a less well-known example comparable in some ways to the Nanjing Massacre, read A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous.) In this respect Kuang’s decision to deny the cod!Japanese all humanity whatsoever is especially unfortunate, as the abuses committed by the Imperial Japanese Army were in many respects sadly predictable, the only expected outcome of a military culture in which abuse was exported down the chain. The only outlet the enlisted soldiers had for their own satisfaction were the civilians around them, and no one in the IJA cared about the civilians of other races; the Japanese government hardly cared about its own subjects, the military included. In these circumstances IJA personnel not committing widespread war crimes would have been more remarkable than the fact that they demonstrably did. Here Kuang’s depiction of Unit 731, in which cheap drama is elevated over a more accurate representation of the historical record, is also relevant and unfortunate: the whole point is that the Japanese staff at the facility saw their Chinese subjects as not even human, depersonalizing them utterly through a series of deliberate strategies comparable to Nazi protocols in the death camps of Europe.

Which brings me to the other hand of points. I can certainly understand, intellectually, the desire for revenge, as well as the desire for crimes committed against one’s own nation and people, however far back in the past, to be better known. (I won’t get into the questions of propaganda and nationalism in the PRC that this approach raises.) But China is certainly not the only country to have suffered at the hands of the Japanese Empire, and it’s certainly legitimate to ask whether a country like Korea (North or South) doesn’t have just as much grounds or more for making similar claims. The Koreans or an easily legible analog for them and their experience as a Japanese colony are entirely absent from The Poppy War, however–although one aspect of the experience of the comfort women is represented, it’s done so in the person of one of the protagonist’s academy friends, another cod!Chinese character. For a variety of reasons, the majority of comfort women were Korean, and while I don’t want to get into the question of attempting to quantify who suffered more (quantifying suffering being another strategy of war crimes deniers, as well as partaking of the dehumanization that makes war crimes and genocide possible), I do want to flag this aspect of Kuang’s book too.

If this is your first exposure to the specifics of the Nanjing Massacre, I want to suggest Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City as a more directly representative attempt to portray it in fiction. Ultimately, Kuang’s project is to delve into the psychology of Mao (which I wonder how she’ll be able to do, as Mao was in his own way one of the last heirs of the Enlightenment, which didn’t exist in her world), and the atrocities of The Poppy War are a stepping stone on that path. As for me, I still prefer history to fiction when it comes to topics like this, because history is always more complicated than the requirements of novels allow it to be.