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Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II, 1937–1941*

  • RANA MITTER (a1)

This paper argues that the first phase of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945 saw a significant change in the relationship between state and society in China, leading to a greater use of techniques of classification of the citizenry for purposes of welfare provision and mobilization through propaganda, methods until recently more associated with the Communists than with their Nationalist rivals. The paper draws on materials from Sichuan, the key province for wartime resistance, showing that the use of identity cards and welfare provision regulations were part of a process of integrating refugees from occupied China into the wider wartime society, and that propaganda campaigns were deployed to persuade the local indigenous population to support wartime state initiatives. Although Nationalist efforts to mobilize the population in wartime were flawed and partial, they marked a significant change in the conception of Chinese citizenship.

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1 Kirby, W. C. (2000). ‘“Engineering China”: The Origins of the Chinese Developmental State’, in Yeh, W.Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 137160; Lipkin, Z. (2006). Useless to the State: ‘Social Problems’ and Social Engineering in Nationalist Nanjing, 1927–1937, Harvard East Asia Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

2 There is a small, but growing body of literature centred on Chongqing as the site of social change under the Nationalists in the wartime period, including Howard, J. H. (2004). Workers at War: Labour in China's Arsenals 1937–1953, Stanford University Press, Stanford; and Li, D. (2010). Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China, University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign; McIsaac, L. (1999). ‘The City as Nation: Creating a Wartime Capital in Chongqing’ in Esherick, J.Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, pp. 174190; Zhou, Y. (2002). Chongqing tongshi [Comprehensive History of Chongqing], Chongqing chubanshe, Chongqing, vol. 2, Chapters 8–22, is a very wide-ranging account of the political and social history of wartime Chongqing.

3 Skocpol, T. (1979). States and Social Revolutions, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 250251.

4 On the negative side is, for instance, Eastman, L. (1984). Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, Stanford University Press, Stanford; on the positive side, Bian, M. (2005). Building State Structure: Guomindang Institutional Rationalization during the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945, Modern China, 31:1 (January) 3571.

5 For instance, on military matters, van de Ven, H. J. (2003). War and Nationalism in China 1925–1945, Routledge, London; on bureaucracy, Strauss, J. C. (1998) Strong Institutions in Weak Polities: State Building in Republican China, 1927–1940, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

6 An important work that reconsiders Chiang Kai-shek, using his recently-released diaries as a key source, is Yang, T. (2008). Zhaoxun zhenshi de Jiang Jieshi: Jiang Jieshi riji jiedu [Searching for the real Chiang Kai-shek: an analysis of Chiang's diary], Shanxi renmin chubanshe, Taiyuan. In English, an important revisionist biography is Taylor, J. (2009). The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Making of Modern China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

7 Frazier, M. W. (2002). The Making of the Chinese Industrial Workplace, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 61.

8 Kapp, R. A. (1973). Szechwan and the Chinese Republic: Provincial Militarism and Central Power, 1911–1938, Yale University Press, New Haven, remains a classic account of militarist politics in southwest China during the Republic.

9 Sichuan, Provincial Archives . (2005). Kang-ri zhanzheng shiqi Sichuan sheng ge lei qingkuang tongji [Statistics on various situations in wartime Sichuan province], Xinan jiaotong daxue chubanshe, Chengdu, p. 29.

10 This author's emphasis.

11 Culp, R. (2007). Synthesizing Citizenship in Modern China, History Compass 5:6 (November, 1997), 1833 and 1849 (footnote 2), 1851. This suggestive article seeks to define the changing meaning of citizenship in China, focussing on the civic and cultural aspects of the term in the late Qing and Republic eras, with particular emphasis on the period before 1937 and the outbreak of war.

12 Author unknown (1996). ‘Kangzhan baofa hou Nanjing guomin zhengfu guofang lianxi huiyi jilu’ [Record of the National Government's conference on national defence after the outbreak of the War of Resistance], (7 August, 1937) Minguo dang'an [Republican Archives] 43, 30.

13 Culp, Synthesizing Citizenship, p. 1837. These terms all carry the meaning of ‘citizen’, but as Culp notes, they relate respectively to the role of the citizen as an actor within the state; in terms of public status; and in terms of urban role.

14 Harrison, H. (2000). The Making of the Republican Citizen: Political Ceremonies and Symbols in China 1911–1929, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 243.

15 Ferlanti, F. (2010). The New Life Movement in Jiangxi, 1934–1938, Modern Asian Studies 44:5 (September, 2010), 9611000.

16 On the New Citizen Movement, see Barrett, D. (2001). ‘The Wang Jingwei Regime, 1940–1945: Continuities and Disjunctures with Nationalist China’ in Barrett, D. and Shyu, L., eds. Chinese Collaboration with Japan: The Limits of Accommodation, 1932–1945, Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 102115.

17 Howard, Workers at War, pp. 201–218. However, Howard does point out the importance of coercion and repression by the Nationalists, particularly in the munitions industry, a key part of the government's resistance effort.

18 Lipkin, Useless to the State, p. 11.

19 van de Ven, War and Nationalism, pp. 160–163.

20 For the first phase of the refugee crisis, see MacKinnon, S. (2008). Wuhan 1938: War, Refugees and the Making of Modern China, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 4461.

21 On the construction of narratives (verbal and visual) of the wartime experience, see Mitter, R. (2008). Writing War: Autobiography, Modernity and Wartime Narrative in Nationalist China, 1937–1946, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series: 18:2, 187210; and Mitter, R. (2008) The Visual Imaginary of the War of Resistance, European Journal of East Asian Studies, 7: 2, 167192.

22 Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). (1938). Wei guojun tuichu Wuhan quanguo guominshu [Message to the nation on the National Army's withdrawal from Wuhan, 31 October, 1938], in Zongtong Jiang gong sixiang yanlun zongji [Collection of the thought and speeches of President Chiang Kai-shek] [Accessed 16 December 2010], p. 301. I translate the term jianguo here and elsewhere as ‘reconstruction’: this term seems to me to capture the element of continuation, by which the war and the aftermath became part of a longer trajectory of republican and citizen consciousness in the minds of Nationalist policymakers.

23 White, T. & Annalee, J. (1947). Thunder Out of China, Victor Gollancz, London, p. 13.

24 This was manifested, for instance, in a new interest in the anthropology of the border areas (see Andres Rodriguez's paper in this collection, entitled: ‘Building the Nation, Serving the Frontier: Mobilizing and Reconstructing China's Borderlands during the War of Resistance (1937–1945)’).

25 Chiang Kai-shek, Fang Zhi diji hongzha gao ge sheng shi zhengfu ji quanguo guominshu [Letter to the provincial and city governments and the whole citizenry of the country regarding defence against enemy air-raids], in Zongtong Jiang: [Accessed 16 December 2010], p. 56.

26 RG08 (Box 173, Folder 7, M. M. Rue papers), pp. 5–6, Yale University Divinity School Library.

27 Lincoln, T. (forthcoming). The Rural and Urban at War: Invasion and Reconstruction in China during the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, Journal of Urban History.

28 Ristaino, M. (2008). The Jacquinot Safety Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

29 Zhou, Y.Chongqing tongshi, vol. 2, p. 876.

30 For refugee relief in wartime Shanghai, see Ristaino, The Jacquinot Safety Zone; and on Wuhan, MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938.

31 Liu, L. (2002). ‘A Whole Nation Walking: The “Great Retreat” in the War of Resistance, 1937–1945’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, San Diego, pp. 202–203, 210, 250 and 287. Liu's work gives a powerful account of the changes in welfare and employment provision in the Interior.

32 For relief in the Ming dynasty, see Smith, J. H. (2009). The Art of Doing Good: Charity in Late Ming China, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles; for the Qing, see Edgerton-Tarpley, K. (2008). Tears from Iron: Cultural Responses to Famine in Nineteenth-Century China, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

33 Kirby, ‘Engineering China’, pp. 144–145.

34 MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938, pp. 54–61; Ristaino, Jacquinot, pp. 51–53.

35 Reeves, C. (2007). ‘Grave Concerns: Bodies, Burial, and Identity in Early Republican China’, in Cochran, S. and Strand, D., eds. Cities in Motion: Interior, Coast and Diaspora in Transnational China, Center for East Asian Studies, Berkeley, pp. 2752.

36 On the use of identity documents to restrict global Asian migration, see McKeown, A. (2008). Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, Columbia University Press, New York.

37 Sichuan Provincial Archives (hereafter SPA) Min [i.e.: Minguo-Republican era files] 38 [Files relating to conferences of the Sichuan Party cadres] Folder 2/614 (6 April, 1939).

38 SPA 38/2/614 (June, 1940).

39 SPA 38/2/614 (14 July, 1939).

40 SPA 38/2/614 (November, 1939).

41 SPA 38/2/614 (June, 1940).

42 SPA 38/2/614 (June, 1940).

46 See Plum, M. C. (2006). ‘Unlikely Heirs: War Orphans During the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945’, Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford.

47 SPA 38/2/1737 (21 November, 1938).

48 Liu, ‘A Whole Nation Walking’, pp. 260–262, notes this phenomenon also. See also Lincoln, ‘The Rural and Urban at War,’ on the way in which conditions in the Yangtze delta calmed down in the months following the Japanese occupation.

49 SPA 38/2/614 (15 April, 1938).

50 SPA 38/2/614 (10 January, 1940).

51 SPA 38/2/1737 (3 March, 1939).

52 SPA 38/2/614 (June, 1940).

53 Harrison, Making of the Republican Citizen, p. 241.

54 Hung, C.-T. (1994). War and Popular Culture, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 221270.

55 SPA Min 50 [Files relating to provincial mobilization committees] Folder 23, pp. 47–48 (4 April, 1939).

56 See van de Ven, War and Nationalism, pp. 131–169.

57 On Nationalist Party politics of anti-superstition, Nedostup, R. (2009). Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity, Harvard East Asia Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

58 SPA Min 50/23, pp. 47–48 (4 April, 1939).

59 Callahan, W. (2009). China: The Pessoptimist Nation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 6782.

60 SPA Min 50/23, p. 17 (July, 1939).

62 See, for instance, Hung, War and Popular Culture, pp. 221–285. Recent work that addresses the question of culture in the Nationalist regions includes: Xie, X. (2001). Chongqing wenhuashi [A cultural history of Chongqing], Chongqing chubanshe, Chongqing, pp. 260–343; and Tang, Z. et al. (2004). Zhongguo xibu kangzhan wenhuashi [A cultural history of western China during the War of Resistance], Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe, Beijing and Sun Yatsen Research Group (Chongqing branch) (2005). Chongqing kangzhan wenhuashi [A cultural history of Chongqing during the War of Resistance], Tuanjie chubanshe, Beijing.

63 SPA Min 50/23 (22 July, 1939).

64 van de Ven, War and Nationalism, pp. 255–258.

65 SPA Min 50/23 (22 July, 1939).

66 Author unknown (1996). ‘Kangzhan baofa hou Nanjing guomin zhengfu guofang lianxi huiyi jilu’, p. 30.

67 SPA Min 50/23 (22 July, 1939).

68 See, for instance, Glosser, S. (2002). ‘“The Truths I Have Learned”: Nationalism, Family Reform, and Male Identity in China's New Culture Movement, 1916–1922’, in Brownell, S. and Wasserstrom, J., eds. Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 120144.

69 SPA Min 50/23 (3 February, 1939).

71 On mobilization of women in the Nationalist areas, see Li, D., Echoes of Chongqing, pp. 20–1.

73 SPA Min 113/6 (1944–1945) contains details of the effectiveness of health and hygiene reforms at the county level in Sichuan in the later war years.

* This paper was first presented at a conference sponsored by a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award, which was organized by the China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust ( [accessed 15 December, 2010). I would also like to thank Lily Chang, Federica Ferlanti, Matthew Johnson, Hongping Annie Nie, Andres Rodriguez, Helen Schneider, and the journal's readers for their contributions and valuable comments on earlier versions.

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