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In a Sea of Bitterness: Refugees during the Sino-Japanese War by R. Keith Schoppa (review)
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In his recent history of China’s international relations since the mid-Qing dynasty, Odd Arne Westad observes that “China in World War II is, remarkably, a study that is just coming of age.”1 R. Keith Schoppa’s book, In a Sea of Bitterness: Refugees during the Sino-Japanese War, is an important contribution toward the creation of that study by one of the most notable social historians of late imperial and modern China. The book concentrates on one province, Zhejiang, in east-central China. It studies the fate of its civilian population between 1937 and 1945, when the Japanese invaded the province and control flowed back and forth between the occupying Imperial Japanese Army and the weakened Nationalist (Guomindang) government. In so doing, it paints a powerful portrait of one key area of China during the period when huge numbers of its inhabitants were forced to become refugees in the face of war.

Thematically, the book concentrates on what Schoppa terms “the power of contingency in refugee lives” (p. 21). Much of the scholarship that deals with the late Qing and Republic has concentrated on the effects of modernity, examining ways that government, science and technology, and ideology defined a new mode of being in modern China. The contingency of a major conflict was perhaps the most powerful element that disrupted that modernity during the war against Japan. The attack on everything from transport networks to currency rates weakened China’s system of government, undermined ideas of a firm state-generated modernity, and threw people back to premodern and often highly improvised modes of survival.

This is particularly evident in the showing made by the Nationalist government’s refugee relief organizations in Zhejiang. Schoppa estimates that governmental programs reached about 1.5 million of the 5 million or so “long-distance” refugees in the province, but that their effects were patchy and variable. Instead, local organizations bore much of the burden; across Zhejiang, nearly a quarter of a million refugees received at least some assistance from the Red Swastika organization during the war (pp. 56–57). Nonetheless, overall philanthropy even at the local level was much weaker than it had been in the late imperial period. This owed not only to the breakdown of the traditional local elite power during the late Qing and early Republic (as Prasenjit Duara suggests in his classic work on the “cultural nexus of power” in north China), but also to the totalizing effect of the war against Japan, which uprooted many existing local networks and associations.2

Schoppa does a fine job of humanizing the numbing statistics on refugee numbers. One effective way he does this is through the journals of Feng Zikai (1898–1975), one of the most important artists of twentieth-century China. Day by day, almost hour by hour, Feng recorded his feelings as he and his family fled their home near Hang-zhou, never sure what the next moment would bring. A particularly poignant moment came when Feng, terrified that his sketches might be found by the Japanese and considered subversive, threw them away into the river:

The sound of the splash was like a blow that hit me in the heart: the pain was unceasing—I had never thrown away any of my sketches. . . . I don’t know how much of my heart’s blood was amassed in the collection, but now it’s completely flowing to the east. I hope that it follows the current to the east and will take root at the bridge at Yuanyuan Hall [Feng’s family home], and that . . . it will keep away bombs . . . and . . . that it will banish evil spirits.

(P. 73)

Feng is, of course, a well-known figure in Chinese history, but Schoppa also performs a valuable task by providing readers with extensive translations from the records of lesser-known figures, such as Boy Scout leadership trainee Jin Xihui, who witnessed the Japanese invasion in Dongyang county in 1941. “Last night I quarrelled with my wife,” Jin declared on May 14. “In the end, neither of us could settle down.” He went on to describe the family exodus: “Sister-in-law came to hurry me up. . . . Her fat...

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