The teacher held a female mannequin in his hand. "This is my girlfriend," he said. "She's too fat, and she ought to go on a diet." Then the three students, who wore cardboard boxes on their heads inscribed with words like "sushi" and "ninja," cast off overcoats to reveal they were wearing red brassieres, with paper cups protruding suggestively from between their legs. They began to dance, gyrating their hips in a manner that "for Chinese was just nauseating," said one spectator. After three minutes university authorities frantically motioned for the organizers to close the curtains. The Japanese contingent had certainly performed in bad taste; but had it been their intention to offend their Chinese hosts?
More than five decades have passed since the end of Japan's occupation of China. Chinese middle-school students may now groove along to Japanese pop songs, but wartime atrocities are still drummed into their heads in heavy-handed textbooks. Students are encouraged to remember Japan's unwillingness to apologize candidly for its wartime behavior. Little wonder that Li Li, a 21-year-old history student at Northwest who did not see the Japanese skit, said she felt that "clearly the offense was deliberate. They designed it to insult the audience. No one, including the dancers themselves, could have found the skit funny." The Xi'an riots provide only the most recent evidence of the hostility and distrust some Chinese still harbor toward their neighbors to the East. In September, Chinese Internet chat rooms were inflamed over an orgy involving 500 Chinese prostitutes and 400 Japanese businessmen reported by state press to have taken place in the southern city of Zhuhai. Many Chinese assumed the businessmen were not merely indulging in vice, but had held the orgy as a premeditated slur.
The campus violence appears to have been tinged with a peculiar admixture of nationalist pride and developing-nation shame. Chinese students at Northwest live eight to a room in nonair-conditioned dorms. Their foreign classmates are sequestered in far cushier private digs with hot showers. Chinese students described their Japanese peers as aloof, but none interviewed by TIME had ever talked with one. "I see them in the cafeteria," says an economics student. "They always wipe their tables after they eat. Chinese don't do that so I think they must look down on us."
The Japanese dancers, who are already back in Japan, have offered a written apology. Japanese diplomat Norio Saito says the four hope to return to China soon. When they do, they may want to keep their sense of humor to themselves.