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  • Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China by Danke Li
  • Shana Brown (bio)
Danke Li. Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 232 pp. 19 photographs. Hardcover $70.00, isbn 978-0-252-03489-3. Paperback $25.00, isbn 978-0-252-07674-9.

The Chinese war of resistance against Japan officially began in the summer of 1937, although frequent fighting, colonial incursion, economic disputes and strikes, and diplomatic sparring had characterized Sino-Japanese relations for decades. Beginning in July 1937, the war moved to a very active tense. Shanghai was quickly conquered, the capital of Nanjing succumbed a few months later, and thousands of civilians fell prey to murder, torture, and rape by soldiers of the imperial Japanese army. The Chinese government retreated to Wuhan. After destroying Yellow River levees to try to prevent further Japanese success (and drowning civilians in the process) in the summer of 1938, the government retreated for a final time up the Yangtze River to the Sichuan city of Chongqing.

Chongqing remained the wartime capital for seven years. The influx of officials, army personnel, and foreign diplomats and staff was dwarfed by the number of civilian refugees who flocked to the city—not only individuals, but entire hospitals, universities, and other institutions made the trek to the picturesque city, stacked like bricks on narrow terraces above the river. They carried their books and equipment up the stairs that served as the city’s throughways and turned a sleepy river town into the hub of China’s government, economic, academic, and artistic life. Thanks to opaque fogs that hampered Japanese bombing, the Nationalist government remained there in relative safety until the end of the war. Arguably, Chongqing’s survival made Chinese victory possible. Given these momentous consequences, what made it possible for Chongqing to survive?

As Danke Li argues, to understand Chongqing’s endurance, we need to rediscover the accomplishments of the women of the city. As Li writes, “collectively, women as a social group were indispensable during the war; without their sacrifices and contributions China would not have been able to sustain the eight years of bitter war” (p. 8). Working within a network of government-sponsored organizations that sought to tap the energies of native female residents (“Chongqingese”) and refugees (xiajiang or down-river newcomers), women contributed extensively to the war effort. They brought gifts to soldiers and their families, established social groups to safeguard civilians and promote their welfare, and bolstered wartime economic efforts. Indeed, the war created important opportunities for women to join the government and its sponsored organizations, within which women “seriously practiced politics” for virtually the first time in the history of the Republic (p. 9).

But not all of the contributions of women to the war effort were made through the framework of official relief organizations. Indeed, Danke Li argues that the success of women in “innovating and managing everyday survival” (p. 8) was just [End Page 523] as significant to the survival of Chongqing and the nation as a whole. Even a teenage xiajiang woman who became a prostitute in order to help her family is rendered a heroic figure (p. 32). “Ordinary women were the unsung heroes who witnessed and endured much more of the war’s detrimental harm than did many men and never received any recognition,” Li contends (p. 32). She hopes that oral history accounts by these women can provide an alternative to the “gendered discourse” (p. 5) of some scholarship, where the men are heroic actors and the women are tragic victims. In contrast, Li argues that a mother “routinely running for air shelters with her children and going out to salvage edibles expanded a mother’s sphere and blurred the boundary between domestic and public spheres” (p. 36). Even in their most intimate domestic moments, women were political actors, heroic survivors, and contributors to national victory. The personal was political, indeed.

Li’s book is divided into three main categories of experience: gender and social roles, economic impact, and political impact. Across these thematic categories, all the book’s histories share the quality of dramatic personal experience. In several cases, the women Li...