Between Nanjing and Chongqing

Charles W. Hayford reviews Stephen MacKinnon's latest book about the indelible mark that time between the Rape of Nanjing and the retreat to Chongqing left on modern China

By Charles W. Hayford
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China
Stephen MacKinnon
204 pp: University of California Press, 2008. $39.95.




War is hell, none more so than the stymied, enraged, calculated brutishness of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and 1938. The Rape of Nanjing is familiar, but less well known is what happened afterwards. Chiang Kai-shek moved his government to Wuhan, on the mid-Yangzi, and presided over a bloody and successful strategy of resistance and retreat which left the Japanese exhausted. In the ten months before the Japanese took Wuhan in October 1938, a vast United Front formed. The epic retreat to the wartime capital to Chongqing, in Sichuan, had the same heroic, mythic ring as did Mao's Long March. In the years upriver, Chiang's regime stagnated, but when he arrived in Chongqing in early 1939, Chiang was, paradoxically, both defeated and triumphant.

Stephen MacKinnon's Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) tells the story of these crucial months between Nanjing and Chongqing. The story exposes the foundations of change which are usually suppressed and epitomizes the recent re-thinking of military history, a trend which MacKinnon helped to organize. As with Margaret MacMillan's The Week That Changed The World, a brief period illuminates longer sweeps of history.

For the "Wuhan moment" was a watershed. Fissiparous provincial generals (often misleadingly called "warlords"), Communists, and cultural entrepreneurs of the earlier generation came together in one place and rallied to the national cause. The lion did not exactly lie down with the lamb, but Zhou Enlai had tea with an Anglican Bishop, Mme. Chiang Kai-shek welcomed the notorious radical Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow wrote an encomium to the Generalissimo, and Chiang, precisely because he did not have unchallenged control, presided over a United Front which was militarily effective and culturally creative.

Yet themes of horror drive the action. One is the terrible swift transformative power of battle. The story begins with the single bullet to the back of General Han Fuju's head. In August, the old-style warlord defied Chiang's orders to fight to the last man and instead pulled out of Shandong, leaving Tianjin defenseless and Japanese troops free to descend upon Nanjing. The Council of Generals was united in the verdict for execution. They now formed a cohesive national military led by men who, like Chiang, had graduated from Yuan Shikai's Japanese-style Baoding Military Academy. Chiang supervised but did not control them.

Their tactics and organization prevailed at Xuzhou in April and Chiang's decision to blow up the Yellow River dikes in June stymied the Japanese advance for a time. Chinese military casualties alone were over half a million. MacKinnon reminds us of the irony that, as the United States stood by, Chiang's Soviet military advisers, some of whom had been in Canton in the 1920s, came to replace Germans. Germany (ring the irony bell again) originally supported China partly because Japan was allied with their enemy, Great Britain. Wuhan watched Soviet and Chinese pilots bravely fly outclassed Soviet and American planes against Japanese with better training and experience.

The second theme of horror is the refugees, more appropriately called "survivors." The invasion and the diversion of the river to the east produced civilian devastation and refugees on a scale unsurpassed in modern history. Their massive numbers forced governments to create, fund and administer new institutions and brought all classes together to deal with their survivor guilt. The book includes a section of photographs, especially those from Robert Capa, which goes beyond illustrating the text; it is a separate and unique statement of the humanity of the refugees.

The national crisis challenged the top-down, urban and Westernized culture produced by May Fourth intellectuals in the 1920s. The wartime culture produced art, literature and music that were populist, nationalistic and politicized. The government did not coerce or co-opt culture workers into the nationalist cause; they thronged to enlist. Some resisted the politicized vulgarization, but Guo Moro, for instance, who in the 1920s wrote poetry and adapted Marxist analysis to China, worked for a cultural United Front.

For these few months, Madrid and "romantic" Hankow were twin capitals of anti-fascism. Progressive Western intellectuals made them whistle stops on their global grand tours. The genius of Hollington Tong as Chiang's press impresario was to allow free rein to both the visiting journalists and the Chinese press, with no censorship. MacKinnon notes that not a single publisher or journalist was arrested or murdered in the year 1938, a record for a Chinese capital. Since reporters could select their own stories and interview anyone from Zhou Enlai to battlefield commanders, Chiang emerged in the international press as the brave leader of an indomitable nation. Edgar Snow called him "indispensable." Franklin Roosevelt distrusted the dispatches of his own State Department but eyewitness accounts from Evans Carlson and Snow led him to push for major loans to the Nationalists. In Chongqing, censorship and control bred cynicism among wartime correspondents such as Theodore White. Still, the brief freedom in Wuhan, speculates MacKinnon, showed that China's professional press corps had a potential which still exists.

The Wuhan moment passed. The decimation of Nationalist armies and officer corps left Chiang triumphant but sequestered and vulnerable. In Chongqing he worked to impose control, rather than building power, which harmed him in the long run. In Yan'an, the paranoid security regime and village centered strategy was solidified. Each side suppressed the Wuhan cultural United Front and repressed cultural dissidents by imprisonment, assassination or execution.

The most intriguing of MacKinnon's conclusions is that this war "profoundly brutalized" Chinese society and left a "survivor mentality" that lasted through at least the 1960s, as well as a "psychic numbness to violence and ability to endure oppression without protest." If World War II and the Holocaust transformed Europe, then how much greater were the effects of war on China?

In any case, read this slim and seductively informative book and recommend it to friends who are not China specialists.