The light at the end of the tunnels of war

Updated: 2011-11-25 07:31

By Angela Shen (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

 The light at the end of the tunnels of war

Above: The entrance of the Underground Tunnel Museum in Ranzhuang. Below: Iron hoes used to dig tunnels, on display in the museum. Photos by Mike Peters / China Daily

It isn't quite like landing in a video game, but visiting the Underground Tunnel Museum in Ranzhuang is easily one of the most stimulating ways to experience China's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945).

The scene is nearly dark by the time we arrive, and the museum's moody lighting gives us the sense that we, like the locals who spent much of the war years in the tunnels, are underground.

This feeling was compounded when we were led through a small tunnel that listed the years backwards from 1945 to 1937. Although not elaborate or fancy, the setup helped us imagine that we had traveled back in time, and stepped into the year 1937.

Our guides relate stories of extreme cruelty by Japanese soldiers. In Qingyuan county alone, there were 13 massacres between 1937 and 1945, they say.

Hence, "tunnel warfare" was born.

"The people of Ranzhuang began digging underground tunnels for two reasons - to protect themselves and defeat the enemies," one of our guides says.

"First and foremost, however, they did it for survival."

Locals had to get creative to counter the Japanese army's superior weapons. Depending on their location, people would use their geography to their advantage - burrowing underground in tunnels or taking to the water in boats.

In Ranzhuang, where there was nowhere to hide once the year's harvest had been collected, the only option was to go underground and conduct "tunnel warfare".

We were surprised to learn that altogether, over the entire expanse of China, there were at least 12,500 km of underground tunnels - the "Underground Great Wall" of China.

Near the end of our tour, we get a chance to enter the famous tunnels.

The walls are not particularly high, but due to my height, I did not have to bend until further in, where the ceiling is lower.

The tunnels are fairly wide, however, easily allowing two people to walk side by side.

We did not tour the entire length of the tunnel, but we got a chance to see a room within the tunnel (most likely an office) and several traps (holes in the ceiling used to snare unwary Japanese soldiers). These had been blocked off for visitors' safety.

Exploring the actual tunnel showed us how ingenious the people of Ranzhuang had been, because the tunnels had everything needed for survival - including areas for food storage and preparation.

The tunnels were not only dark and cold, but also the air was thinner than the air aboveground.

We could imagine that the constant fear of exposure and attack would have made conditions worse.

In one exhibit, moving figures were projected onto a canvas of the tunnel, and an entire battle scene played out.

Japanese soldiers search for the tunnels' entrance, and then use a mixture of tactics to try to kill the Chinese in their hideout. As a result, the Chinese were forced to constantly invent new ways to protect themselves from the flames, floods and poisonous gases.

Besides self-defense, however, the tunnels were also used as a means to fight back.

As we move through the museum, we see some of the unique weapons the locals invented to counter the Japanese.

One is the zimulei - a device where a series of small bombs go off once a single string is tugged. Another is a cannon made from a hollowed-out tree, which has a range of 200 to 300 meters.

Many of these weapons, we're told, were built underground in the tunnels. (A replica of the scene is featured in the museum.)

One interactive exhibit is sure to delight young boys: You can peek through a fake brick wall and watch an animated clip of a Japanese invasion. In the short span of the clip, you can take on the role of a local militia, wait for just the right moment, press the "fire" button and light the bomb. BAM!

The tour's story concludes on a reconciliatory note. The last exhibit features pictures of Japanese veterans, returning to visit China and apologize for their misdeeds.

After seeing everything from torture chambers to poisons and bombs as well as the heroism of everyday Chinese civilians, it was nice to leave on a note of closure.

China Daily

(China Daily 11/25/2011 page18)