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  • Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China
  • Roger B. Jeans (bio)
Stephen R. MacKinnon . Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. xiv, 182 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-520-25445-9.

Driven out of eastern China and up the Yangzi River by the relentless Japanese invasion in 1937, the Nationalist (Guomindang) regime of Chiang Kai-shek came to rest for a brief moment in history (January to October 1938) in Wuhan. Historians have long been aware that this was an atypical moment in the life of the Nationalist government. Stephen R. MacKinnon argues that Chiang's regime, with its back against the wall, permitted political opposition and freedom of the press. The necessity for unity in the face of the Japanese onslaught overrode the authoritarianism that previously characterized the Nationalist regime. The year 1938, he avers, was an "aberration" in Chinese Communist and Nationalist history because of the demands of the united front. This relaxation was also made possible by the weaknesses of the Nationalist central government, which had experienced successive disasters in Shanghai and Nanjing. [End Page 149]

Nevertheless, other evidence reveals that Nationalist authoritarianism may have been reduced, but it was definitely not eliminated during the Wuhan period. In January 1938, at the very beginning of the Wuhan era, a group of men destroyed the office of the Chinese Commmunist organ, Xinhua ribao. In the summer, the Nationalist Government began to ban some newpapers and public meetings. In July 1938, the government adopted a new censorship law, Regulations for Censorship of the Manuscripts of Wartime Books and Periodicals. That same year, it promulgated the Revised Standards of Censorship of Wartime Books and Periodicals. The latter prohibited criticism of the Guomindang, the national government, and the supreme leader (Chiang Kai-shek). By the winter, the jails and concentration camps began to fill up again, according to Western journalist Randall Gould.

This well-researched and well-written book offers much information. In seven pithy chapters, MacKinnon describes prewar Wuhan; Chinese military organization, strategy, and battles in 1937 and 1938; the overwhelming refugee crisis; the use of culture (the intellectuals played a major role) and the press for mass propaganda and to counter collaboration; mobilization of the flood of youth; and the international response to the spirited Chinese stand in Wuhan.

The author was driven at first by his interest in the "romantic atmosphere of the Wuhan moment," the "romantic magic of Wuhan in 1938," the "Wuhan spring," and the "Wuhan spirit" (still heralded in China and Taiwan). As his work progressed, however, he began to wonder why Wuhan's massive refugee crisis in 1938 was largely missing from standard histories of modern China. As a result, the central theme of his study became the effects of the refugee crisis on the regime. In addition to the social and economic effects, there also was psychological trauma. This forced migration of millions proved a great leveler, mixing people from various classes as well as different parts from China.

With its defense carried on at the same time as the Spanish Civil War on the other side of the world, Wuhan became known as "China's Madrid." Although international opinion was pessimistic about China's chances against the Japanese juggernaut at the beginning of 1938, that outlook changed by the time Wuhan fell in October of that year. Westerners, such as photographer Robert Capa and British writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, visited central China. Their photographs and accounts called attention to the heroic defense of Wuhan. A new breed of young Western reporters also filed favorable reports from the city. Few stories about Nationalist corruption in 1938 were reported, a situation that was very different from the later experience in Chongqing.

MacKinnon argues that the effects of the war were both destructive and constructive. The slaughter of soldiers and civilians was accompanied by massive social and cultural upheaval. Women's equality, child welfare, public health (with the hurried and intense course for paramedics perhaps a harbinger of the barefoot doctors in the PRC), education, popular unity, and economic reconstruction all [End Page 150] benefited in...


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