01/28/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

Two Kinds of Time: 2014 War Anniversaries in China and the West*

"A spectre is haunting the world: 1914." So writes Harold James, a professor of history [who is] certainly right that newspapers and learned journals are currently full of articles comparing international politics today with the world of 1914."
-- Gideon Rachman, "Does the 1914 Parallel Make Sense?" Financial Times blog, January 20, 2014

"Today's China is no longer [what it was] 120 years ago."
-- Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying's Press Conference December 31, 2013

The coming of one mode of reckoning time does not necessarily replace or even overshadow another. Many people living in China now, for example, take in stride to think of January 1 as signaling one kind of "New Year" moment, while still thinking that the Spring Festival, which takes place later this week and is tied to a lunar calendar that associates each year with a sign of the zodiac and one of the five elements, is in many regards a more important "New Year" time. This comfort with living with two calendars extends to historical anniversaries. In China now, centenaries and bicentennials of past events are noted, but a special premium is also put on 60th and 120th anniversaries. This is because of the traditional emphasis put on 60-year cycles, which are completed when each of the 12 signs of the zodiac have been paired with each of five of the elements.

In 2011, for example, the centenary of the 1911 Revolution was honored, but two years earlier, in 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was celebrated with the biggest National Day Parade to date. And last year, we saw official events commemorating what would have been Chinese leader Xi Jinping's father's 100th birthday, and then not long after that a lavish marking of the passage of 120 years since Mao Zedong was born.

The continuing significance of 60-year cycles as well as centuries in Chinese timekeeping has relevance for how geopolitical tensions of the present moment are being put into long-term perspective. In the United States and Europe, as the first quote used to open this post notes, the final weeks of 2013 and opening weeks of 2014, have seen a rash of ruminations on whether we now stand at a juncture similar to that which sent us over the precipice into the horrors of World War I. In China, though, as the second quote above indicates, which finds a government spokesperson stressing that her country is very different now than it was 120 years ago, there are two kinds of then and now analogies in play. Some refer to how 1914 and 2014 parallels work or are foolish, while others see links and contrasts between 1894 and 2014 as more meaningful.

Just as 1914 is no ordinary year in Western memory, 1894 is no ordinary one in the annals of Chinese history, as a war that began then and ended in 1895 was the first in which Japan defeated China in a military conflict. The war in question is typically referred to in Chinese as the Jiawu War, in honor of it having taken place in a Jiawu year (the term for a Year of the Horse that matches up with the element of wood in the five elements scheme). When Hua made her comment about China now being different than it was 120 years ago, she did so in response to being asked to reflect on the meaning of tensions between China and Japan escalating just as an important anniversary of a major conflict between the two countries was set to arrive.

Two days later, a Beijing newspaper known for its nationalist views, The Global Times, elaborated on the significance of the anniversary and relevance and limits of then-and-now analogies. "Considering the current confrontation between both countries, Japan becomes the biggest challenge facing China. This anniversary [the 120th of the late 19th-century war] has already become a daunting memory in the minds of many Chinese people." It went on to stress, though, that while Japan bested China on the battlefield 120 years ago, 60 years after that saw a year when Chinese and American armies fought "to a standoff" in Korea, and the country has moved even further forward in the world since then. Other references to echoes and contrasts between the Wood Horse years of 1894 and 2014 have also been appearing on websites and in blog posts.

Harold James, I think, needs to modify his reference to historical specters. More than one relating to a famous war year is proving its power to haunt just now.

* This is a modified and shortened version of a January 27, 2014, post for the "China Blog" of the Los Angeles Review of Books; the full text can be found here.