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Writing about Atrocity: Wartime Accounts and their Contemporary Uses*

  • PARKS M. COBLE (a1)

In today's China, public memory of the War of Resistance against Japan, 1937–1945, is more visible than ever. Museums, movies, television programmes, and commemorations focus heavily on the victimization of the Chinese people at the hands of the Japanese invaders. Japanese atrocities, particularly the Nanjing Massacre, are at the centre of much of this remembering. But what of the wartime period? How did journalists and writers discuss Japanese atrocities? This paper finds that most wartime writing stressed the theme of ‘heroic resistance’ by the Chinese rather than China's victimization at the hands of Japanese. Exceptions to this approach included efforts to publicize Japan's action to Western audiences in the hope of gaining support for China's cause, and a related focus on the bombing of the civilian population by the Japanese. This paper suggests major differences between the current approach to remembering the war and to writing during the war itself.

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1 Rose C. (2005). Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future, Routledge, London, p. 2.

2 The New York Times (24 April, 2009), p. A8. See also Mitter R. (2003). Old Ghosts, New Memories: China's Changing War History in the Era of Post-Mao Politics, Journal of Contemporary History, 38:1, 127; Lam P. (2005). Japan's Deteriorating Ties with China: The Koizumi Factor, China: An International Journal, 3:2, 275291; Reilly J. (2004). China's History Activists and the War of Resistance Against Japan: History in the Making, Asian Survey, 44:2, 276294.

3 Denton K. (2007). ‘Horror and Atrocity: Memory of Japanese Imperialism in Chinese Museums’, in Lee C. K. and Yang G., eds (2007). Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China, Stanford University Press, Stanford, p. 248.

4 Hung C. (1994). War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937–1945, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 152.

5 MacKinnon S. (2008). Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China, University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 63.

6 Hung, War and Popular Culture, pp. 171–172.

7 Unit 731 was a secret biological and chemical warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army headquarters in Harbin, northeast China during the Sino-Japanese War.

8 ‘Comfort women’ is a euphemism for women (mostly Korean and Chinese) who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

9 Chang I. (1997). The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Basic Books, New York.

10 Hung, War and Popular Culture, p. 167.

11 Denton, ‘Horror and Atrocity’, p. 246.

12 Yang J. (1938). Huzhan mihua [Secret talk of the battle of Shanghai], Liming shuju, Hankou, p. i.

13 Fenghuo [Beacon fire], (21 November, 1937), 12, 218.

14 ‘Diren kongjun shangwang de tongji’ [The statistics on the injuries from the enemy's air force], (1938) Dongfang zazhi [Eastern Miscellany], 35:1, 1.

15 For an analysis of Fan Changjiang's style see Charles A. Laughlin (2002). Chinese Reportage: The Aesthetic of Historical Experience, Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 6374.

16 Fan Changjiang (1938). ‘Gaobie Shanghai’ [Farewell to Shanghai], in Hu Lanxi, et al., Dongxian de chetui [Withdrawal on the eastern front], Shenghuo shudian, Xi'an, pp. 46–51.

17 Ibid., pp. 55–64.

18 Ibid., pp. 59–60.

19 Ibid., p. 62.

20 Xie Bingying (2001). A Woman Soldier's Own Story: The Autobiography of Xie Bingying, Brissman L. and Brissman B., trans., Berkeley Books, New York, p. 273.

21 Xie, A Woman Soldier's Own Story, p. 274.

22 Fan Changjiang (1938a), ‘Gankai guo Jingling’ [An emotional departure from Nanjing], in Hu, Dongxian de chetui, p. 74.

23 Fan Changjiang (2001). Fan changjiang xinwen ji [A collection of newspaper articles by Fan Changjiang], Shen Pu , ed., Xinhua chuban she, Beijing, 2, 794.

24 Fan, Fan Changjiang xinwen ji, vol. 2, pp. 815–819.

25 The Marc Polo Bridge Incident of 7 July, 1937, led to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945.

26 Hu Yuzhi (1996). Hu Yuzhi wenji, [The collected works of Hu Yuzhi], Sanlian chuban she, Beijing, 4, 6768.

27 Fan Changjiang et al. , (1969). Jiang Huai jian de yundong zhan [The movement war between the Yangzi and Huai rivers], Hong Kong, pp. 9199.

28 Jin Yi (1938). ‘Shanghai shujian’ [Shanghai correspondence], in Hu, Dongxian chetui, p. 101.

29 One of the most widely circulated was Timperley J. (1938). Japanese Terror in China, Modern Age Books, New York.

30 Reprinted in He Shengsui, Cheng Maiqing, eds (1999). Lunxian tongshi (The painful history of the occupied zone; Shanghai: Fudan daxue chuban she), vol. 2, pp. 482–483.

31 See for instance, Guo Moruo (1944). ‘Rikou de canku xinli zhi jiepou’ [Analyzing the Japanese bandits’ cruel mentality], in Yushu ji [A collection of dispatches] Lianying shudian, Chongqing, pp. 21–27. This article was originally published in March, 1938.

32 Qiyue [July], (1 February, 1938), 8, 233–235.

33 China Weekly Review, Supplement (19 March, 1928), pp. 10–11; Damei wanbao [Great American evening news], (3 April, 1938), p. 3; (5 April, 1938), p. 3.

34 Reprinted in He, Lunxian tongshi, vol. 2, pp. 488–490.

35 Kangzhan sanri kan (29 June, 1938), 85, pp. 5–6. For further discussion, see Coble P. (2010). The Legacy of China's Wartime Reporting, 1937–1945: Can the Past Serve the Present?, Modern China, 36:4, 442443.

36 Sekine, K. (2004). A Verbose Silence in 1939 Chongqing: Why Ah Long's Nanjing Could not Be Published, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Centre, [accessed 21 December 2010]; Yunzhong Shu (2000). Buglers on the Home Front: The Wartime Practice of the Qiyue School, State University of New York Press, Albany, pp. 7375; Berry M. (2008). A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 142151. Berry suggests a more complex set of factors which prevented publication of the novel in 1939, including its implicit criticism of the GMD authorities.

37 A Long (2005). Nanjing xueji [Nanjing blood sacrifice], Ningxia renmin chuban she, Yinchuan, p. 197.

38 Liu Liangmo , ‘Feiji he Zhongguo xiaohai’ [Airplanes and China's children], Dikang sanri kan (3 October, 1937), 14, 910.

39 Wenyi zhanxian [The literary battle line], edited by Ba Jin, in its first issue in February, 1939, noted that international propaganda work to promote China's cause remained essential to the war effort. See pp. 39–40.

40 Ba Jin , ‘Suowei Riben kongjun de weili’ [The so‑called might of the Japanese air force], Fenghuo [Beacon fire], (5 September, 1937), 1, 5.

41 Nahan [War Cry], (25 August, 1938), 1, 29, reported that ‘This was clearly a Japanese bomb dropped from an airplane’.

42 Peattie M. (2001). Sunburst: The Rise of the Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909–1941, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, pp. 116119.

43 Fenghuo, (1 October, 1938), 19, 473–474.

44 Zhang Mengyang (1938). ‘Riben fenghuang hongzha Guangzhou de fanxiang’ [Repercussions of Japan's crazed bombing of Guangzhou], Dongfang zazhi, 35:11, 23.

45 Fang Jiada , ‘Ren zai siwang xiantu’ [People on the death line], Yuzhou feng [Cosmic Wind], (21 February, 1938), 61, 1719.

46 Yu X. (2005). Buddhism, War and Nationalism: Chinese Monks in the Struggle Against Japanese Aggressions, 1931–1945, Routledge, New York, pp. 9596.

47 Peattie, Sunburst, pp. 116–118.

48 Taofen Zou , ‘Zhanshi shoudu bei di kuangzha hou zenyang’ [What happens after the wartime capital is savagely bombed by the enemy], Quanmin kangzhan (5 May, 1939), 69, 1.

49 Qian Junrui , ‘Muqian de shiju’ [The present situation], Dikang sanri kan (3 October, 1937), 14, 34.

50 Wang Jiyuan , ‘Jianding women bisheng de zixin xin’ [Determined self–confidence that we must succeed], Dikang sanri kan (13 November, 1937), 26, 3.

51 Shi Fuliang , ‘Zenyang cai buhui dongyao?’ [How can we stop wavering?], Wenhua zhanxian, (10 October, 1937) 5, 2.

52 Guowen zhoubao, (4 October, 1937), 14:33–35, 1.

53 Guowen zhoubao, (11 October, 1937), 14:36–38, 2–3.

54 Cathcart A. and Nash P. (2009). War Criminals and the Road to Sino-Japanese Normalization: Zhou Enlai and the Shenyang Trials, 1954–56’, Twentieth-Century China, 34:2, 89111.

55 Zheng Y. (1999). Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 2.

56 Zheng, Discovering Nationalism, p. 51.

57 Gries P. H. (2005). China's ‘New Thinking’ on Japan, The China Quarterly, 184, 846847.

58 Mitter R. (2005). A Slow Remembering: China's Memory of the War Against Japan, IIAS Newsletter, 38, 14. Chinese are certainly not alone in remembering themselves as victims in the war. Most other nations, including Japan, have a similar approach to war memory.

59 Coble P. (2007). China's ‘New Remembering’ of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, 1937–1945, The China Quarterly, 190, 404405.

* The author thanks Rana Mitter, Aaron William Moore, Hans van de Ven, and other participants in the workshop, ‘How to Tell the Tale: The Wartime Generation and Historical Memory in Postwar East Asia’, for their support and assistance. The conference where this paper was presented was organized by the China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust ( [accessed 21 December, 2010]).

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Modern Asian Studies
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