Wartime China

Photo: Robert Capa’s photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938 © Cornell Capa / Magnum International Centre of Photography

China’s experience of World War II (1937-1945) was in some ways as destructive and horrific as that of the Soviet Union. Japan’s occupation of many parts of China was extremely brutal, with terrible massacres in Nanjing and other cities, the use of chemical and biological weapons, and extreme mistreatment of civilians and prisoners of war. And the violence deployed against civilian populations in cities — both air attack and ground forces — produced vast numbers of refugees surging towards safer destinations in the interior of the country. Estimates indicate that tens of millions of Chinese people, perhaps as many as one hundred million people, of all social strata, were forced into painful and dangerous migration. (The photo above suggests the chaos and suffering this implies.) Casualty figures are somewhat imprecise, but estimates range from 10 to 20 million deaths, with the great majority being civilian deaths. (The Wikipedia entry offers a number on the higher end: 3.8 million military and and 16.2 million civilian, for a total of 20 million deaths.) So the experience of war for China’s population must have created a searing, formative experience for the several age cohorts who were caught up in it.

Stephen MacKinnon’s recent book Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China casts a bright light on the great suffering that China experienced during the war years (1937-1945). MacKinnon focuses on the strategically and historically crucial role that Wuhan played in the unfolding of Japan’s war of conquest over China. Wuhan is a tricity on the upper Yangzi, including Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang in close proximity at the juncture of the Han and Yangzi rivers. In 1938 it had a combined population of roughly two million, and hundreds of thousands of refugees soon crowded into the city. The location of Wuhan along the Yangzi placed the city in a central position from the point of view of Japanese war planning: capturing Wuhan would leave central China open to rapid conquest.

The story of Wuhan is one of the more positive episodes in China’s military efforts to resist Japanese occupation. After the rapid fall of Shanghai and other coastal cities, it was expected that Wuhan would fall quickly as well. In fact, the defense of Wuhan was much more effective than previous efforts had been, and the Chinese military was successful in delaying Japan’s offensive into the interior by a crucial ten months. When it eventually fell, Republican forces were able to fall back to Chongqing, and though the Japanese subjected the wartime capital to intensive bombing, they did not succeed in capturing the city. So the prolonged defense of Wuhan set the stage for a turning point in the Chinese resistance to Japan.

MacKinnon offers an analogy that was current in 1938: Wuhan is China’s Madrid. The analogy implies several things — a place where republican forces took a major stand against their enemies; a place where there was a flowering of expression, politics, and literature; a place where desperation and hope intermingled to produce courage, resistance, and endurance. Wuhan became a focus for intellectuals, artists, and political activists throughout China and the world in these months. Much as western writers and artists made their way to Madrid in 1936, they also came to Wuhan in 1938. Robert Capa, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood traveled to Wuhan and added their creative voices to the mix. Auden and Isherwood published many of their observations about China’s experience in Journey to a War, and Robert Capa’s photographs from this period capture much of the pathos and destruction that the city’s defense involved. (MacKinnon reproduces a number of Capa’s photographs in the book.)

MacKinnon’s book provides a schematic military history of the Japanese assault on Wuhan. But the book is not primarily an exercise in military history; instead, MacKinnon also gives focused attention to the civilian part of the story: the burst of journalism and political debate that took place in the city, the great expansion of social services for orphans and displaced persons, and the mobilization of students and other young people in support of the war effort. The cultural experience of Wuhan is as important a part of the story as the military events.

And in fact, MacKinnon thinks that part of the significance of the defense of Wuhan in these months was the flourishing of mobilization of the mass population in social and cultural affairs, as well as in dedicated defense of the city and the war effort. “Wuhan in 1938 became a laboratory for cultural experimentation. The intellectuals who gathered at Wuhan — a group that included the nationally prominent figures in most fields — shared a consensus that their nation needed to turn culture into a potent weapon in the war against the Japanese. They sought to reshape arts and letters to reach the masses — especially the rural masses — and persuade them, at the least, to cease cooperating with Japanese occupying forces” (115). (This is pertinent to the issue of “nationalism” discussed in the mention of Chalmers Johnson’s treatment of the Chinese Revolution in a prior posting.)

The topic of Wuhan and wartime China is inherently interesting and important. But it is also valuable from the point of view of historiography. Consider the choices that an historian must face in setting out to write a history of an event of the scope of Wuhan 1938. This event is more localized and limited than “the French Revolution” or “British colonialism in South Asia.” At the same time, it is far more complex and multi-stranded than events such as “the assassination of President Lincoln” or “MacArthur’s decision to cross the Yalu”. The Wuhan story involves millions of people, military organizations of great complexity, movements of population, rapidly changing political circumstances, the creation of dozens of newspapers, and shifts in popular culture. And the consequences of the Wuhan episode are complex and unexpected as well. So the historian is forced to decide which threads he or she will focus on; what she wants to explain; and how much of the story to attempt to tell.

Consider the wide range of questions that could be posed about this piece of China’s history: What were the actions and deployments of the Japanese and Chinese military forces in the middle Yangzi region during 1938? What was the nature of the human experience of civilians in Wuhan during the period of assault, bombardment, and destruction? How did circumstances of Guomindang leadership and power relationships influence the behavior and deployment of the Chinese military? What role did Communist forces and leaders play in the defense of Wuhan? What influence did the defense of Wuhan have on later events in the conduct of the war? How was the battle of Wuhan captured in popular memory in China? What influence did this historical moment have on future developments of politics or culture?

So one could try to use available historical sources to tell a fairly straightforward factual narrative; one could give an interpretation of the actions and choices of the leaders and generals; one could attempt to reconstruct the experiences and memories of ordinary Chinese people who lived through these events; and one could offer an analysis of historical causation: X led to Y, Y had important consequences Z. The point here is a simple one: each of these approaches is a different kind of historical reasoning and presentation, and each involves a somewhat different kind of historical reconstruction. It is possible to interweave these approaches; but their foundations in evidence and reasoning are fairly distinct.

Wuhan is one episode in a long and painful period of warfare against the Chinese people. But MacKinnon believes that this episode may have had important effects on the political psychology of China as a whole for the decades that followed. He closes his book with these sentences: “Finally, the most important impact of the wartime refugee experience on the history of modern China … may be psychological. The scars on the national psyche are a deeply tragic legacy… In China the Great Anti-Japanese War produced a survivor mentality — a kind of psychic numbness to violence and ability to endure oppression without protest — that continued well after 1945 and possibly laid the groundwork for sullen acceptance of the horrors of the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s” (118).

(Another book worth reading in this general area is Poshek Fu’s Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration: Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937-1945.)

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