Rain fell on Jinan yesterday. This in itself is such a significant event that I feel it justifies my naming of this post, even though the event that I really want to focus on happened today, when, as usual, no rain fell.
Why is it that the British commemorate in silence? Is it because we are remembering, for example, “the moment that the guns fell silent”, or is it because our memorials are more of a reflection of contemporary cultural practice than we like to think? In Britain, silence is supposed to represent being absorbed in quiet thought, and in the case of war memorials, of silent horror, a sort of humbling at the scale and violence of human conflict.
In Jinan this morning, the noise of the sirens competed with and overwhelmed the noise of the street, not that anyone stopped what they were doing for more than a couple of seconds. Runners on the sports field, the track visible outside my classroom window, just kept running.
At first I feared an earthquake drill, and despaired that I was on the 6th floor of an aged tower block, with only one central set of stairs. The wooden desks are wobbly, and the doorframe unsteady. Occasionally a door in the corridor is slammed shut by the wind, sending shards of glass everywhere. None of my classmates attended today. After evaluating my chances of surviving the impending disaster alone, I decided to see what the class next door was doing, and almost collided with my incoming teacher for the next lesson, who seemed remarkably unconcerned about the wailing.
My teacher only stopped to explain what the noise was, and how long it would last, when I demanded an explanation. Apparently it was a similar scene in the other classes, though with even less of an explanation. Then I realised. There were Japanese students in the other classrooms, and this was not supposed to be an opportunity for dialogue, rather, the klaxons silenced any chance of discussion.
Equally, unlike in the UK, these minutes were not about ceremony and a sense of seperation from the past, but the chaos was perhaps supposed to echo the surprise and confusion felt by those caught in the midst of an attack. This was intended to be less of a voluntary demonstration, and more of a lived reality, which everyone in the locality would be drawn into now, as they were then.
Eighty eight years ago today what is technically referred to (but rarely referenced) in western history as the “Tsinan [Jinan] incident” took place. Thousands of civilians were killed in an armed conflict between the Imperial Japanese Army (allied with the northern Chinese warlords) against the National Revolutionary Army.
Thus on this day, from unseen sources (the small speakers tied to trees and posts around campus? Boom boxes on the street? Radios padlocked to fences? All of these are possible) between 10:00 – 10:30am, sounded a great droning cry.
According to some of the people in Jinan, Japan still hasn’t properly apologised, though I don’t know what formal political gestures may have been made.
My teacher gets confused with similar English words sometimes. Today, when explaining all this to me, she kept using the word “souvenir” instead of “to commemorate”, or “in memory of”. “We do this all” – she motioned to the cacophony outside – “for souvenir”, she said solemnly. On reflection, I realise that she was unintentionally (or at least unconventionally) profound, for memories may be left behind, but souvenirs are to be carried away from the scene, and remain with us.
Long after the sirens were faded out, the noise still silently roars.