Writing the Early Postwar: White and Jacoby’s _Thunder Out of China_

Foreign correspondents are crucial conduits for insights into contemporary East Asia. As I’ve learned from my conversations with various bureau chiefs, stringers, and greybeards in the region, there are few people willing to share insights as journalists, as it is their job to be, and to stay, plugged in.

For the contemporary historian, reading the accounts of journalists in the region in the 1940s an 1950s is particularly salutary. They are layered and numerous — some journalists wrote books, works indicating a kind of concentration of what is usually years in the region, activity which itself emerged out of hundreds of dispatches which can often also be tracked down. The reporters may have left personal papers behind, or have done oral histories/interviews for documentary films in their later years. The papers of even journalists whose work is more general, like John Gunther, the supremely productive globetrotter whose papers are at the University of Chicago, can be very useful.

What follows are my own notes on and quotes from an important summary of China at a crucial turning point — the years 1945 and 1946, when the Republic of China was again on the brink of civil war, and yet trying to process the massive contusions that the just-ended War of Resistance had wrought.

White and Jacoby were both keen observers and sharp writers — the prose has a certain assertive momentum to it, and their summary of China’s nominal victory in the Second World War is excellent. At times common propaganda memes work their way into the writing, and China is ignored completely; at one such point the Japanese loss was ascribed to the fact that “they were led by military technicians who had only a jungle understanding of politics.” (p. xiv.) In describing the milieu onboard the USS Missouri at the most emblematic surrender of the Japanese to the Allies:

Shigemitsu was dressed…as if he were attending a wedding or a funeral. He had a wooden leg, and he limped along the deck; when he began to clamber to the veranda deck where the peace was to be signed, he clutched the ropes and struggled up with infinte pain and discomfort. With savage satisfaction everyone watched Shigemitsu struggling up the steps; no American offered a hand to help the crippled old man. (p. xii)

The events at Nanking a week later, and celebrated heavily today by the CCP, are left completely aside.

 The wells of hatred and terror that the Japanese had opened by their ferocity were ready to be tapped, and the Communists tapped them. (p. 50)

As ever, returning to writing that is 70 years old helps to remind us that the CCP’s attachment to anti-Japanese propaganda is hardly a new construct, and has some deep reservoirs of continuity.

However, White and Jacoby are justly more focused on the Kuomintang in this text, which is the foremost opponent of Japan in wartime. The government gets very little credit however for properly commemorating the war, or for defending Chinese territory or populations during the prior eight years (the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and the construction and destruction of Manchukuo is beyond the ambit of this very ambitious work):

Not even today is there any accurate estimate of the carnage at Shanghai [in 1937]; Chinese casualties mounted to the hundreds of thousands as the blood and courage of the soldiers absorbed the shock of Japan’s charges. (p. 52)

Held up equally for their flaws are the Japanese strategists who stumbled into a quagmire in China. White and Jacoby weave through some first-hand field observations of the static front lines with their excellent assessment of how Japanese intelligence on China had ‘blinded’ the Japanese general staff. Again the analysis gets mired in wartime propaganda memes about how Chinese peasants and endless tracts of soil would overcome — themes which were so pervasive in the war that even German reporters writing books about the Sino-Japanese conflict were duty-bound to cover them prominently.

What more recent analysis would tell us about Japanese foibles is how the general staff was shot through with somewhat personalized wishful assessments of the attractive  power of Japanese pan-Asianism in China. One is reminded of General Matsui Iwane’s pronounced views of Chinese warlords and dismissal of Chinese nationalism — that is to say, Matsui and some of his colleagues with experience in early-20th-century China saw the country less as a unifying nation-state under Chiang Kai-shek then as a collection of brutal local warlords who local residents would be glad to see displaced by a benevolent foreign power. In any event, this meant an erroneous assessment of the ease of Japan’s task on the mainland. (p. 54)

If the Japanese leadership (the homefront is not really broached here) was feeding itself illusions about the ease of the task at hand, White and Jacoby also pour scorn on the divorcing of Chinese propaganda from wartime reality. (p. 61-62).

The authors witnessed Japanese air raids  on the wartime capital of Chongqing (Chungking), which are dealt with descriptively in the first chapter of the book.


Points about rural destruction by Japanese troops are also informed by first-hand observation, and are worth quoting in full given recent controversies over “comfort women” narratives:

The Japanese had just left, but they had blazed a black, scarred trail of devastation across the countryside. You might ride for a day through a series of of burned villages that were simply huddles of ruins…The peasants had fled before the Japanese advance. When they did not flee voluntarily, they were forced to leave by government edit, and they took with them everything from seed grain to furniture…The Japanese entered a barren wasteland. They had been held up by floods, and when they reached their key objectives they had two weeks’ growth of beard; caked with mud, they were exhausted and furious.

In some of the districts through which I passed, every woman caught by the Japanese had been raped without exception. The tales of rape were so sickeningly alike that they were monotonous unless they were relieved by some particular device of fiendishness. Japanese soldiers had been seen copulating with sows in some districts. In places where the villagers had not had time to hide themselves effectively, the Japanese rode cavalry through the high grain to trample the women into showing themselves. The Japanese officers brought their own concubines with them from the large garrison cities — women of Chinese, Russian, Korean, or Japanese nationality — but the men had to be serviced by the countryside. (p. 65-66)

Japanese revisionists prone to minimizing the above account will be glad to note that the authors do include a tale of communist women being raped by Kuomintang government soldiers after the the New Fourth Army incident in 1940 (p. 76), but the latter story lacks the systematic — and foreign — character of the first.

Drawing again on fieldwork on the front lines in North China, the authors provide a good sense of the stasis along the front (p. 67), the lack of mobility in the war, the front as “anticlimax”. With this kind of depressing ethos, the feeling of a phony war, some readers will be prone to liken it to the war novels of Jean Paul Sartre, Le Chemins de la Libertebeing written in that same pregnant year of 1946, but not to be translated into Chinese until the early 1980s.

Chen Lifu in 1947, TIME magazine cover, art by Boris Artzybasheff

The authors embark on an epic description of one leader of the so-called CC Clique and influential figure in Kuomintang youth organization, Chen Li-fu:

[Chen Li-fu was] easily the most impressive man of the triumvirate of deputies. He had an exquisitely handsome face, with burning eyes and glossy silver hair, and seemed as as a piece of old ivory. He was a ruthless, hated zealot– high-principled, relentless, and incorruptible; he wad a mystical nationalist…Chen was a great Kuomintang theorist, and his writings were an inchoate mass of half-rational, half-mystical pronouncements; no American could possibly understand them…His sleep was untroubled by the screams of those who suffered in Kuomintang concentration camps or by the terrors his policy imposed on liberals…During the middle years of the war Chen Li-fu rode high. His censors made the press, stage, and literary world writhed under his directives. (pp. 107-110)

Chapter 8, “Chiang Kai-shek — The People’s Choice?” is an evocative one whose questioning title tells the reader what he or she really needs to know.

Finally, White and Jacoby do succeed in breaking down the Sino-Japanese binary decades before historians of East Asia finally stole a page out of the French historian’s repertoire (which itself only had really got off the ground in the 1970s) and developed an interest in Chinese collaborators.

Japanese agents were everywhere. One war area commander admitted that he paid a friendly visit to the Japanese commander he opposed, because the commander had been his schoolmate in Japan. Individuals went back and forth between Chungking and puppet officials of the Japanese government in Nanking. (p. 141)

A very demoralizing unpublished account is included by a  Chinese journalist about Chinese peasant apathy toward Japanese occupiers in 1943-44. (pp. 143-44) Such writing is a clear reminder that for every patriotic journalist like Wang Yunsheng, braving Japanese air raids in Chongqing, there were other writers working for the Japanese in the interior or Manchuria, and others observing the deep failings of the Chinese national project on the margins during the War of Resistance.




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