China's World War

Written by: Diana Lary

China's Civil War

If you enjoyed Diana Lary's post last Wednesday, read on for a longer excerpt from her book China's Civil War about how WWII shaped Chinese society.

War and society

In 1945 Chinese society was almost completely disrupted. This situation did not change with the coming of peace. There was little possibility of a return to the pre-war world. There was a general post-war malaise, even amongst those whose lives had not been totally disrupted. Prolonged war had reduced communities to misery. Peasants were impoverished by years of military depredations. Many were listless, no longer bothering to plant vegetables, subsisting on a diet of coarse grains.

The leadership of the traditional social order was gone in much of China, its members either absent during the war or compromised by connections to the Japanese; much of the rural gentry and the urban bourgeois had worked with Japanese, willingly or through force majeure. The gradual movement towards reform and social progress under way before the war, especially in the eastern cities, was a forgotten dream. In the northwest and in Shandong radical social revolution was looming, not gradual change.

In late 1945 and 1946 the fundamental changes in society were less a matter of concern or comment than the need to solve urgent problems.

Getting home

The most obvious social issue in late 1945 was refugees. Tens of millions of people were away from home, many in the western areas. Getting them home was a problem of gigantic proportions. The return journey was described in terms of `flowing east [along the Yangzi] in victory’ (shengli dongliu ). The refugees struggled to get home, flowing eastwards in a chaotic flood by boat, train, road or even on foot. Most people went home by boat, a perilous trip down through the Yangzi Gorges. Very few people could fly, effectively only those with government connections. There were no rail connections in to West China at the time, but it was possible to go north from Sichuan, and eventually to the east-west LongHai railway, which connected to both north/south routes. The railways however were difficult for civilians to us; their main task at the time was to transport troops. The government provided five hundred transit stations along the east-bound routes, but these were only for those in dire need. The stations provided food, delousing, and help with onward transport. Individual journeys were odysseys, taking weeks or months.

Many of the peasants who had been resettled during the war tried to get back to their home villages. One huge group was made up of the hundreds of thousands who had been displaced by the Yellow River flood (1938). For many peasants there was no village to return to. The Japanese army had razed thousands of villages along the Great Wall, and created a `no-man’s land (wurenqu)’ as a defensive band. Not everyone wanted to go home. For many young people, the definition of home was changing. Their home was now their university, the close community they had lived with during the war. They had been away from their families for so long that their original home was remote from them.


One of the greatest social stresses during the war had been separation from family and friends. This had meant not only physical separation, but also lack of news. In an era before the telephone, the only reliable means of communication was by post, which had its own difficulties; many people were illiterate, others had no address. At the end of the war finding relatives was not easy, as the columns of names of missing people listed in newspapers showed. The fear was always that they might be dead.

For many people there was no reunion. This was especially true of the millions of soldiers. Most of them were still on active service, but others had disappeared without a trace (shi zong). In 1945 and 1946 it became apparent that there were virtually no Chinese prisoners of war. Captured soldiers were either killed on capture, taken in to the puppet armies or used as slave labour. The Japanese justification for not treating prisoners as POWs was that first, there was no formal declaration of war in China until 1941, and that second, though Japan had signed the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, she had never ratified it.

Many of the forced labourers taken to Japan, Korea and Taiwan did not survive, but in late 1945 some of men started to arrive back in China.

Efforts to resume the old life

People returning from exile in the west saw themselves as the victims of the war. They now deserved compensation from those who had `chosen’ to stay under the Japanese. There was little sympathy or understanding for those who had lived under occupation. The joy of the reunions was tarnished by the quite different experiences over the last years.

Marital reunions had particular problems. Trust had often been broken. Eight years of separation had been the death knell to many marriages. Wives whose husbands could no longer support them had moved on to other partners; this was considered a fundamental breach of morality When separated husbands had taken second wives while they were away from home, this was considered a less serious breach of social norms, since polygamy for men was still acceptable. But to a devoted wife the discovery that a husband had taken another wife was heartbreaking. The iconic film The Spring River Flows East (Yijiang chunshui xiang dong liu), sometimes called China’s Gone with the Wind, dealt with that theme. A loyal wife who stayed in Shanghai during the war to look after her son and mother-in-law kills herself when her much-loved husband returns from Chongqing, now a rich profiteer with a flashy wife. The first wife, played by the beautiful Bai Yang, throws herself in to the Huangpu River. The refrain of the long film, constantly repeated, is a phrase first used in the turbulent Yuan Dynasty:


Qian xing wan ku

A thousand misfortunes ten thousand bitternesses

The film was one of many that appeared in the two years after the war, most dealing not with the joy of coming home but with disappointment, pain and betrayal.

In Fujian and Guangdong, the left-behind wives (fankeshen) of Overseas Chinese had struggled alone to survive for years without remittances from their husbands – the Pacific War had effectively broken off all connections between migrants and their home communities (qiaoxiang). The end of the war did not improve matters very much. Some of the husbands came home penniless, others with news that they had married another wife in the Nanyang. Very few Overseas Chinese in North America returned to China after the end of the war; trans-Pacific ship traffic had fully resumed, and flights were prohibitively expensive.

Friendships were as much compromised by long separations as were family relationships. Old friendships between people who had stayed and those who had fled could seldom be revived; the clouds of suspicion about what those who had stayed had done during the war were too thick to blow away. One of the legacies of the war was a universal break-down of trust; people had survived the war by looking after themselves, not by holding on to old customs of family responsibility.

Recovering property

Property abandoned early in the war at the time of flight now had to be reclaimed by people returning, from squatters, or from relatives, friends or colleagues. There was little hope of retrieving movable property – it was gone for good. The most people could hope for was to recover immovable property, houses or land.

In rural north China in places not already under CCP control landlords who had fled at the start of the war caused outrage when they came back after the end of the war. They demanded back rents from their tenants, on the grounds, just as returning local officials were demanding back taxes. No actions were more likely to push peasants in to the arms of the CCP.

Loss of property seems less serious than loss of life, but it has long-term effects. Those who have lost possessions react either by becoming indifferent to material property, or by developing deep, even obsessive attachment to their lost possessions, exaggerating the amount and value of what was gone, nursing feelings of deep grievance. The wartime loss of property went beyond personal property; it often involved enterprises that provided employment. The Japanese confiscation of factories, banks, stores, mines, ships was sometimes reversed, and returned to its previous owners, sometimes not. The inability to reclaim property created unemployment. It also, in a convoluted way, prepared for the state ownership of property after 1949. The actual ownership of so much property was still in doubt that the new CCP government had no difficulty in putting enterprises under state control.

Demands for a new life

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the gulf between the generations that had developed during the war opened up even further. The GMD leaders, like the CCP leaders were still, in comparison to other national leaders, quite young, on either side of fifty, but they were now of the parent generation. The GMD leaders made little effort to appeal to the young; the CCP took the opposite tack.

Young people had no memory of the old world for which their elders were so nostalgic. They had lived only in the turmoil of war and were eager for a new life. Some young people saw the end of the war as the chance for escape in to hedonism and self-indulgence, but many others were taken by an idealistic vision of a new world led them towards the CCP.

The most vocal of young people, impoverished students, spent a great deal of their time now on protests and demonstrations; those who were back in the academic capital of China, Beiping, were particularly vocal. Their demonstrations were not at first directed against the government, but against the British (for not giving back Hong Kong), the USA (especially after the reported rape of a Beiping student by US soldiers) and the USSR (for the occupation of Manchuria). Later the student protests were targeted against inflation and government corruption. Essentially the students were protesting about their own misery, and the lack of any sense of the future. They saw themselves as voicing the misery of the nation.

The CCP used student discontent skillfully. It brought young people over to the CCP not by overt propaganda, impossible at the time, but through discreet or covert approaches. CCP organisers had a hand in many of the demonstrations. Their success in recruiting young people was a quiet triumph, especially when the young people were well-connected and well-educated. A few became spies against their own parents, providing invaluable intelligence to the CCP.

The CCP had equally great success in recruiting soldiers and local officials had been too close to the Japanese. These men were critical to its military success, to fill the ranks and to provide the logistical support for its armies. The method relied on stressing redemption, promising men that if they turned to the `right way’, they could make themselves new (zixin). The idea that people could rescue themselves from their past and be born again had a strong quasi-religious aspect to it, which made it very powerful; it was a great inducement to conversion to the CCP cause. The GMD took an almost opposite approach, refusing to recruit many people who had worked for the Japanese, as soldiers or civilians.

Class struggle

The CCP had learnt in the 1920s and 1930s that it would have to base its victory in China on rural revolution, not on the industrial proletariat that Marx saw as the leading revolutionary class. At the Japanese surrender the CCP found a strategy to introduce class struggle and at the same time to assuage some of the economic needs. The Anti-traitor Speak Bitterness (fanjian suku) Campaign started in the coastal areas as soon as the Japanese had left. Since many local elites had collaborated with the Japanese, either actively or involuntarily, and had been involved in the last years of the war in such dreadful actions as helping the Japanese to round up forced labour and sex slaves, they had already attracted a great deal of anger in their communities. In villages under its control the CCP organised thousands of mass meetings against traitors, mainly members of the old elite, starting in the early autumn of 1945. The targets were expropriated, many executed, not on the grounds that they were class enemies, but on the grounds that they had collaborated with the Japanese.

The anti-traitor movement and the actions that followed had the effect of creating class divisions that had not been visible before. The targets of the campaign were senior members of tight, common-descent, lineage groups. Leaders of lineages had not been able to defend the people of their common descent group or to continue their traditional roles. They had lost much of their personal prestige. The punishment of traitors was so popular amongst those who had suffered through the occupation that it enabled the introduction of what before the war would have been almost unthinkable and unnatural: socialist class divisions in communities based on common descent.

The situation of women

The exigencies of war had created great changes in the situation of women, and in their relative status in their families and communities. Many had acquired greater independence from their men folk, whether they wanted it or not. Many had been forced in to self-sufficiency by the death or absence of their fathers or husbands, and they had survived, becoming stronger in the process. For women in the Japanese-controlled areas, the war had been terribly dangerous; the fear of rape encouraged them to stay out of sight. But for other young women, the war had brought an unexpected freedom – to choose their own husbands. In the turmoil of the war it was often impossible for parents to arrange their children’s marriages, or to go through with marriages already arranged. Young people had a freedom not dreamt of before. The demands of survival, plus the new freedom of marriage, marked a key stage in the emancipation of Chinese women in general. Previously freedom for women was limited to the wealthy, living in westernised parts of China. The war brought it to far more women.

Peasant women were a particular target of communist activism. Married women were the most crushed, maltreated by their husbands and their mother-in-law, suspected of immorality if they got involved in any activity outside the home. The CCP set up women’s associations in the places they came to control. One of the most dramatic activities of the associations was against wife-beating, a sad routine in many families. The associations organised groups of women to attack offenders, kicking them, spitting on them, scratching their faces and pulling their hair.


Local Taiwanese lived through a period of nightmare after they were `liberated’ from the Japanese in 1945. Abandoned by China in 1895, when Taiwan was surrendered to Japan in exchange for the territories the Japanese had won in Manchuria, they were now forced to be Chinese again, and to give up anything Japanese, including the Japanese language, their surnames, their educational qualifications, the currency. From October, 1945, when the GMD formally took over, the Taiwanese went through a series of horrible, jolting shocks.

Japanese soldiers and civilians (about 400,000) were rapidly repatriated from the island. The in-coming Chinese found an island that seemed very Japanese. Many people wore Japanese clothing, and spoke Taiwanese and Japanese – two languages that very few of the incomers knew. The incomers started to strip away all evidence of the Japanese. Street names were changed, to the names of Chinese provinces. The old occupational structure for Taiwanese disappeared; incoming Mainlanders took many of the best jobs. With the loss of livelihood the Taiwanese, who were used to a fairly prosperous life under the Japanese, were reduced to dire poverty, and to every conceivable form of lawlessness. Taiwan had passed from one colonial rule to another – but the new one provided no security.

The 1989 movie City of Sadness (Beijing chengshi), directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, is a brilliant portrayal of the period. Its stress on the sadness of victory looks only at Taiwan – but the sombre mood was typical of most of China. The eight years of war had destroyed so much – physical, social, psychological – that few had confidence about the future. Those who did, the CCP, would win the civil war that broke out within weeks of the victory.

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About the Author: Diana Lary

Diana Lary is the author of China's Civil War (2015)....

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