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In often moving prose, R. Keith Schoppa’s In a Sea of Bitterness brings to life the world of the displaced in the province of Zhejiang on the central Chinese coast, south of Shanghai, during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). This is a welcome addition to the increasing body of historical literature in recent years that explores the impacts of that war on the civilian population as opposed to the operational aspects of the war. Schoppa examines the case of Zhejiang alone, and, given the sheer size of the displaced population and the repeated military [End Page 485] attacks by the Japanese in the region, this choice seems justified: a total of 5,185,210 Zhejiangese became long-term refugees, and “countless more” left their homes on a temporary basis (p. 10). Some of these displaced people headed to adjacent provinces while others traveled farther south, including Chongqing, the seat of the National government after the fall of Nanjing in December 1937. Those who remained in Zhejiang sought safe havens in the Guomindang-controlled areas or in the hinterland within the Japanese-occupied territories (pp. 30–31).
Three major military campaigns triggered massive displacement of Zhejiangese. The first was the Japanese landings in Hangzhou Bay in early November 1937, followed by the fall of Hangzhou, the seat of provincial government, on 24 December 1937. This caused the residents a rude awakening to the reality of the war. As much as four-fifths of the city’s population of five hundred thousand fled. Many eventually returned, however, in search of the comforts of settled life instead of the continued bleak uncertainties of refugee life (p. 15). Three years later, the Japanese launched a second round of large-scale armed attacks in the region. The goal was to take control of the greater part of northern Zhejiang that included Ningbo, a key seaport in the coastal area. This set in motion a fresh wave of refugees, who were guided by mis information, indecision, and misjudgment, “mirror[ing]” the experiences of refugees arising from the Hangzhou invasion (p. 26). The third strike of the Japanese massive military offensive—carried out in the spring of 1942—engulfed central and western Zhejiang. The Japanese targeted air bases so as to stem the enemy’s capability to initiate aerial bombardment of the Japanese home islands. The city of Quzhou in western Zhejiang was among the most affected, not only on account of the ferocity of the Japanese assault but also because of self-imposed acts of destruction. The Chinese military authorities ordered the evacuation of forty thousand residents within days as well as the destruction of homes along the city wall for defensive purposes. The worst flooding in sixty years added to the difficulties of the Quzhou residents’ evacuation (p. 29).
Against this backdrop Schoppa introduces an array of accounts of refugee experiences as recorded contemporaneously in diaries, journals, and newspapers, and as remembered by the victims in the aftermath of the war in other forms of writing. The evocative title of this book, In a Sea of Bitterness, is drawn from one such personal narrative, produced by Feng Zhikai (1898–1975), about two years after the end of the war. A native of Zhejiang Province and a noted artist, cartoonist, and essay-ist, Feng and his family left their beloved ancestral town of Shimenwan—north of Hangzhou—in November 1937 and, after much vacillation, [End Page 486] crossed the provincial borders for a safe location in southern China. The long flight away from home was hardly an easy decision for Feng, whose postwar account attests to immense mental anguish from which he suffered over the course of the flight. He lamented over the departure from the familiar social world in Shimenwan and over the difficulties of life as a refugee, writing, “This world is a sea of bitterness. I didn’t see evil here; I saw only hardship and bitterness” (p. 78). This poignant remark is central to...