Crucible of History: China in World War II, 1937-45


China’s experience in World War II has long been overshadowed by, and at times literally overwritten with, the Communist revolution that followed the war. With the deepening of post-Mao reforms and China’s rise as an economic juggernaut, historians have turned their attention to World War II as a key watershed period in China’s recent past. The war’s significance is just now being pieced together from fragmented stories and experiences while its wounds linger, raw and sensitive, as witnessed by the simmering anti-Japanese sentiment in China in late 2012. This seminar is an extended and intensive look at China’s eight-year (1937-45) “War of Resistance” against Japan. Course material ranges from the terrain of contemporary journalism to US intelligence reports, historical scholarship, memoirs, propaganda, fiction, and film. We will cover the wide geographical differences in how the war was experienced, Nationalist (KMT) mobilization and strategy, Communist insurgency and rapid expansion, cultural change, the social dislocation of vast numbers of refugees, propaganda and art, the Nanjing Massacre (December 1937), life in occupied territory, American aid and involvement, and the political legacies and recent remembrances of the war.  We will interrogate the gender dimension of the conflict, as well as Chinese collaboration with Japan, exploring their implications for national orthodoxies and conventional patriotic understandings of the war. At the heart of this course are implicit questions about the limits of historical representation. Can we construct an authentic story of a conflict of this magnitude and complexity? Or does the contingency, chaos, and suffering defy any coherent understanding? Can we, in fact, understand modern war, or do all our lenses inevitably distort it and mislead us?