Remembering the brave ‘nine gen­tle­men’

Chi­nese he­roes’ dossier of ev­i­dence drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to Ja­pan’s in­va­sion of North­east China in 1931, re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

Open­ing a fad­ed­blue file with trem­bling hands, Gong Jie had mixed feel­ings, at once ner­vous and ex­cited to fi­nally be see­ing the doc­u­ments her grand­fa­ther and sev­eral oth­ers had risked their lives for 84 years ago.

Gong Tian­min was one of the “nine gen­tle­men”, a group of Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als who in 1931 se­cretly com­piled a dossier of ev­i­dence to show Ja­pan’s true in­ten­tions af­ter the Sept 18 In­ci­dent, also known as the Muk­den In­ci­dent, that led to the in­va­sion of China.

The col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments and photos helped win sup­port from the League of Na­tions, the pre­de­ces­sor of the United Na­tions, and ex­posed Ja­pan’s so-called Manchukuo state in North­east China as a pup­pet gov­ern­ment.

“Ev­ery night when my grand­fa­ther left home, he would al­ways tell my grand­mother that he was go­ing out to ob­tain more ev­i­dence and asked her not to look for him if he didn’t re­turn,” said Gong Jie, who lives in Frank­furt, Ger­many.

She saw the file for the first time in 2008 dur­ing a visit to the UN Li­brary in Geneva. This year, the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of World War II, she said she wanted to high­light the work of Chi­nese who, like her grand­fa­ther, had at­tempted to pre­vent a full-scale war be­tween China and Ja­pan.

At 10:20 pm on Sept 18, 1931, the Ja­panese Kwuan­tung Army sta­tioned in North­east China blew up Liu­tiaohu Rail­way in Shenyang, Liaon­ing province, and blamed Chi­nese sabo­teurs.

Us­ing the in­ci­dent as an ex­cuse, the next day, the Ja­panese bom­barded the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Army’s Bei­day­ing Bat­tal­ion as well as the city of Shenyang. The at­tack is re­garded as mark­ing the start of Ja­pan’s in­va­sion of China.

The Na­tion­al­ist Army’s gar­ri­son in the city ad­hered to the pol­icy of “non­re­sis­tance”, and within months the Ja­panese had over­run all ma­jor towns and cities in Liaon­ing, Jilin, and Hei­longjiang prov­inces, which to­gether are about 1.5 times the size of New York state. The oc­cu­py­ing forces de­clared its Manchukuo state in the North­east in March 1932.

At the time, the rul­ing Na­tion­al­ist cen­tral gov­ern­ment was strug­gling with in­ter­nal is­sues, so it turned to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity for a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion.

The For­eign Min­istry is­sued a strong protest, call­ing for a end to all Ja­panese mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity in China, and ap­pealed to the League of Na­tions, which was set up in 1920 as a re­sult of the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence that ended World War I with the prin­ci­pal mis­sion of main­tain­ing world peace.

The Ja­panese army in­sisted China was to blame for the Sept 18 In­ci­dent and said their re­sponse was made in self­de­fense. They also claimed the Manchukuo state was es­tab­lished with the sup­port of the lo­cal Chi­nese peo­ple.

To end the hos­til­i­ties, the League of Na­tions sent a com­mis­sion to China in April 1932 to in­ves­ti­gate the cause of the in­ci­dent and the es­tab­lish­ment of the Manchukuo state. The team was headed by Vic­tor Bul­wer-Lyt­ton, the sec­ond Earl of Lyt­ton in the UK, and con­sisted of four other rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the US, Ger­many, Italy and France.

The Chi­nese peo­ple saw an op­por­tu­nity to protest di­rectly to the Lyt­ton Com­mis­sion. Yet the Ja­panese army blocked any ac­cess, tightly su­per­vis­ing the del­e­ga­tion from morn­ing to night. Res­i­dents and pup­pet Chi­nese of­fi­cials were even given stock an­swers for any ques­tions they might get from the com­mis­sion mem­bers.

In one let­ter to his wife, Lord Lyt­ton calls his stay in China “a night­mare” and com­pared the Ja­panese pro­tec­tion pro­vided to him and his col­leagues as like be­ing in a prison.

At the same time, Gong Tian­min, a banker, and eight oth­ers in Shenyang, mostly physi­cians who stud­ied medicine in the West, were col­lect­ing their ev­i­dence.

Due to their con­nec­tions abroad, they had been in­formed in ad­vance about the Lyt­ton Com­mis­sion’s visit. “My grand­fa­ther thought the visit was a golden op­por­tu­nity to let the world know the truth, and the group knew it could not miss the chance,” Gong Jie said.

Photos were seen as the best ev­i­dence, so im­me­di­ately af­ter the Manchukuo state was es­tab­lished, the “nine gen­tle­men” pre­tended to take pic­tures of the “cel­e­brat­ing” Chi­nese but in­stead fo­cused on the Ja­panese sol­diers car­ry­ing loaded weapons and threat­en­ing lo­cals with bay­o­nets.

The dossier also in­cluded copies of a 1-me­ter-tall, printed no­tice com­mis­sioned by the Ja­panese Kwan­tung Army com­man­der, Shigeru Honj, that was posted through Shenyang on the morn­ing of Sept 19. The no­tice blamed Chi­nese sabo­teurs for the Liu­tiaohu Rail­way ex­plo­sion.

“If the Ja­panese army had not been plot­ting the in­ci­dent for a long time, how could it have man­aged to print so many big no­tices in such a short time?” Gong Jie ar­gues.

The in­tel­lec­tu­als also took pic­tures of a se­cret or­der of the Ja­panese army to the Manchukuo author­i­ties, prov­ing it was a pup­pet state.

“The work to col­lect the ev­i­dence was all done in the high­est se­crecy be­cause of the close su­per­vi­sion of the Ja­panese army,” she added. “All the print­ing and edit­ing had to be done un­der the cover of night.”

In the 40 days run­ning up to the Lyt­ton Com­mis­sion’s ar­rival, the group had col­lected more than 400 pages of ev­i­dence. The doc­u­ments were placed in a blue file, on which the word “truth” was stitched in English.

The group knew it could not hand the dossier di­rectly to the com­mis­sion, as the streets in Shenyang were full of Ja­panese po­lice. So in­stead it turned to Fred­er­ick O’Neill, an Ir­ish mis­sion­ary in nearby Faku town who had known Lord Lyt­ton since child­hood.

“Once a Chi­nese gen­tle­man named Gong Tian­min came to Faku to meet my grand­fa­ther, and asked him whether he could help to hand in some doc­u­ments to the Lyt­ton Com­mis­sion. My grand­fa­ther promised he would help,” the mis­sion­ary’s grand­son, Mark O’Neill, wrote his book about his grand­fa­ther.

The mis­sion­ary wrote a let­ter to Lord Lyt­ton to tell him about the dossier, and on the fifth day af­ter the ar­rival of the com­mis­sion he in­vited the peer and his sec­re­tary to a pri­vate din­ner at the home of Wil­liam McNaugh­tan, another mis­sion­ary whose home was too small to ac­com­mo­date the Ja­panese “pro­tec­tion” of­fi­cers.

It was dur­ing this din­ner that Lord Lyt­ton first laid hands on the ev­i­dence col­lected by the nine in­tel­lec­tu­als. The next day, he ex­am­ined the dossier at the Bri­tish con­sulate in Shenyang.

In its con­clud­ing re­port on Oc­to­ber 1932, the com­mis­sion said the oper­a­tions of the Ja­panese army af­ter the Sept 18 In­ci­dent could not be re­garded as le­git­i­mate self-de­fense. And re­gard­ing Manchukuo, the re­port added that the state would not have been formed with­out the pres­ence of Ja­panese troops and that there was no gen­eral Chi­nese sup­port, and there­fore not a gen­uine, spon­ta­neous, in­de­pen­dent move­ment, as the Ja­panese had claimed.

In Fe­bru­ary 1933, the League of Na­tions took a vote and con­demned Ja­pan’s in­va­sion of China, call­ing for the oc­cu­py­ing force to with­draw im­me­di­ately. Ja­pan in­stead with­drew from the League of Na­tions in March 1933.

Although the work of the nine in­tel­lec­tu­als did not pre­vent Ja­pan from in­vad­ing China, “they col­lected em­pir­i­cal, on­site ev­i­dence of Ja­pan’s in­va­sion af­ter the Sept 18 In­ci­dent”, said Wang Jianxue, vice-pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety for Study of Mod­ern and Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese His­tor­i­cal Ma­te­ri­als.

When the Ja­panese army learned of the dossier that had been handed to the Lyt­ton Com­mis­sion, Gong Tian­min and his eight col­leagues were im­pris­oned and tor­tured. One of them, Liu Zhongyi, died while in cap­tiv­ity. When they re­fused to re­veal any de­tails, the sur­viv­ing eight were re­leased on bail af­ter 49 days.

Lord Lyt­ton re­turned to Eng­land with the dossier, and it was later placed in the UN Li­brary in Geneva, where it re­mains to­day.

“De­spite all these ef­forts and the tor­ture, my fa­ther hardly men­tioned what he and his col­leagues did for us,” said Gong Tian­min’s son, Gong Guowei, who first heard of the group’s brav­ery in the 1950s in a speech by premier Zhou En­lai. “I think they thought they were just do­ing some­thing that any re­spon­si­ble Chi­nese would do,” he added.

Chi­ne­sis­che Han­del­szeitung in Ger­many con­trib­uted to this story.

Con­tact the writer at zhouwa@chi­


Above: In the UN Li­brary in Geneva, Gong Jie opens the file that in­cludes the ev­i­dence col­lected by her grand­fa­ther and his as­so­ci­ates. The doc­u­ments tell the truth of the Sept 18 In­ci­dent. Left: The no­tice col­lected by the “nine gen­tle­men”.

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