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Reviewed by:
  • Workers at War: Labor in China’s Arsenals, 1937–1953
  • James Z. Gao
Workers at War: Labor in China’s Arsenals, 1937–1953. By Joshua H. Howard ( Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. pp. xix plus 452. $75).

Howard's work contributes to scholarship of modern Chinese history in two significant ways. First, it represents an effort to re-examine and re-interpret social dynamics of Republican China. Secondly, it is responsive to theoretical concerns for class formation and consciousness among the Chinese laborers. His empirical study is on workers in arms industry, which is isolated from other industrial sectors and under strict control of state. However, the close examination of war experiences of arsenal workers brings a new perspective to study of broad issues of labor history.

This solidly-researched book begins with the War of Resistance against Japan that spurred industrialization of the city of Chongqing and created a new living space for both "upriver" and "downriver" people. (p.85) To analyze the distinct identities among the diverse workforce in the wartime, Howard investigates the origins and composition of native and sojourner, skilled and unskilled workers. Not ignoring their family and native-place ties, he describes the workers as sharing intensity of suffering, including low wages, long working hours, poor working conditions, and risk of vital dangers that permeated arsenal work. Howard offers a considerable amount of evidence in support his argument that "regional divisions aligned themselves along division between workers and management... that fueled workers' grievances and their involvement in the labor movement." (p. 122) He refutes the argument that nationalism trumped class solidarity and points out that nationalism and class sentiment were mutually reinforcing. The book provides two illuminating examples in this regard. One was in the War of Resistance against Japan. As the communists gradually understood that improving workers' standard of living was a precondition to mass mobilization and national salvation, they renewed its emphasis on supporting workers' economic demands, giving "class issues equal weights with nationalism." (p.238) Another examples is the communist strategy to capitalize the Korean War—the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party used anti-American nationalism to mobilize workers for their political campaign against urban bourgeois.

This book describes the hierarchy and segregation within the arsenal compounds that reflected and reinforced the social stratification. The workers recognized that they were mistreated and thus "acquired an us versus them mentality." (p.259) However, the perceived and real inequalities between workers and management were not merely in housing and wage scales. To understand the workers and their struggle in the 1940s, the reader appreciates Howard's powerful point that the workers' demands were not just economic but "heavily grounded in moral terms that bolstered workers' quest for dignity and humane treatment." (p. 361) For this purpose, the workers' prose and poetry created their positive identification and constructed a discourse of class. Howard analyzes the ways in which the arsenal workers developed a sense of class—"through their ties to underground activists, through the development of mutual aid associations, and by imaging class," and more importantly, "though class struggle that workers came to know themselves as a class." (p. 357) Much literature has elaborated the impact of the communist organization on the labor movement. Howard's study [End Page 794] indicates that the Nationalist Party's patriotic propaganda also helped the workers to overcome their feeling of degradation and made them be proud in serving the country's defense industry.

The chapter on the "organic worker intellectual", Yu Zusheng, is extremely interesting and well written. Howard underscores influence of Russian fiction (not Marxist theory) on Yu Zusheng, revealing the true reason why thousands Chinese educated and self-educated youngsters chose revolution and joined the communist movement in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, the concept of organic intellectual and Gramsci's theory could not sufficiently explain the schisms between intellectuals and workers. It is not convincing to argue that "[Yu] became a writer in part because he feared that the party, still dominated by intellectuals, had distanced itself too much from workers." (p.325) By 1942, at the middle and low levels the Party was already dominated by leaders with peasant and worker background...


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