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Imagining the Refugee:
The Emergence of a State Welfare System in the War of Resistance
Figure 9.1The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was not just a tragedy that took thousands of lives and ravaged the city of New Orleans; it was also a media spectacle in which news coverage played a major role shaping public interpretations of events. This image of the flooded city provides a fairly detached portrayal of the events: no suffering people or chaotic crowds are visible here, simply the stunning scope of the flooding.
Figure 9.1bThis image of Katrina victims sleeping on the pavement in front of the Superdome, provides a more critical visual narrative of the events by portraying the government’s powerlessness to help many flood victims (the Superdome was supposed to provide shelter to flood refugees, but was unable to accommodate them all and many were left to sleep on the pavement). The Internet abounds with far more politically charged and disturbing images of the events; see for example the BBC photo essay at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/americas_the_story_of_hurricane_katrina/html/1.stm
Source: Nicholas Kamm for the Agence France Press, Getty Images
Figure 9.1cThis is one of many photos taken of President George W. Bush looking out the window of Air Force One at the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and it is an interesting example of government publicity badly misfiring. Meant to document Bush’s serious concern for the problems in New Orleans, the public interpreted photos like this one as illustrating his distance from the suffering of Katrina victims.
Source: George Bush Whitehouse archives.
Figure 9.1dFor images that portray the US government response in a more favorable and often heroic light one could look to the hundreds of images available at the government’s FEMA website at http://www.fema.gov/media-library.
Source: Photo by Jocelyn Augustino at FEMA website.
Figure 9.2Thousands of residents of Shanghai’s Native City press for admission to the French Concession on November 15, 1937. Many waited at the gates for days, but the French authorities did not grant entry due to sanitary and other concerns. This photograph (originally run in the 1937 North China Daily News) like many others recording these events, depict a “sea” of humanity, swamping cars and other vehicles, in such a dense crush that no ground can be seen. Taken at the end of the Porte du Nord, at B. des Deux Republiques. Much thanks to Christian Henriot for permission to use it.
Source: Virtual Shanghai: Shanghai Urban Space in Time, at www.virtualshanghai.net
Figure 9.3Another image of a flood of refugees attempting to enter the foreign settlement in August 1937. This and dozens of other images of the refugee crisis in Shanghai during World War II are available to search and study at www.virtualshanghai.net
Figure 9.3bAnother image of refugees in Shanghai showing conditions outside the foreign concessions and capturing the situation on a more personal scale. Here some street activity seems to be going on almost as normal, though several refugees sleep on the sidewalk in a heap that is disturbingly similar to a pile of bombing victims.
Figure 9.4Photography was not the only medium through which the events of the war were communicated and interpreted; an extremely influential art movement used woodcut prints to portray highly evocative and often politically explicit (usually Leftist) messages regarding war-torn China’s plight. This image by Cai Dizhi title “Refugees Flocking To the Guilin Station” captures the desperate strain placed on infrastructure by the mass of refugees while also including touching details of mothers clutching children in the foreground.
Source: Woodcuts of Wartime China 1937-1945 (Hong Kong: Cosmos Books Ltd, 1978)
Figure 9.4bA woodcut image of refugees by the famed artist Li Hua from Woodcuts of Wartime China. For more images and discussion of the modern woodcut print movement in Republican China see Tang Xiaobing’s Origin’s of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement from University of California Press. A short essay with images that includes a translation of an essay by Lu Xun on the woodcut movement can be found at http://www.justseeds.org/blog/2008/12/modern_chinese_woodcuts.html. More images and analysis of Chinese war era woodcuts (and many other excellent essays on Chinese visual culture) can be found at http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/imagearchive/IMAGE.htm
Source: Woodcuts of Wartime China
Figure 9.4cAnother woodcut portraying the plight of refugees, this on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Source: Woodcuts of Wartime China
Figure 9.4dThese uplifting images show villages scenes in which refugees arrive to warm greetings and material aid. The uniforms donned by leaders in the pictures and other images of hearty poor peasant life indicate almost certainly that this is Communist linked aid; the artist, Yan Han, taught at the CCP affiliated Lu Xun Arts Academy.
Source: Woodcuts of Wartime China
Figure 9.5Baby crying at Shanghai railway station, after Japanese bombing; aka the “Bloody Saturday” photograph. On August 28, 1937, the Japanese launched an air attack on the Shanghai south railway station, killing hundreds. This photo, taken by H. S. Wong, a Chinese American employee of the Hearst Metrotone News, became an iconic image of Japanese wartime atrocities in China. But it is has also been the subject of controversy: there is some evidence that the child was posed by Wong, and some argue that the photo incites anger by presenting an exaggerated image of Japanese cruelty.
Source: National Archives, ID 535557
Figure 9.6Just one captured image from an incredible sequence in Frank Capra’s Battle For China depicting the westward march of China’s war refugees. Capra’s film is a fantastic example of propaganda crafted to create a sense of sympathy in U.S. viewers for their Chinese allies. The brilliant sequence on the refugees’ journey west begins around minute 30/31 and runs until minute 37, culminating with the ringing phrase that could as easily describe U.S. manifest destiny as the Chinese migration: “Westward to Freedom!”
Source: Several copies of the film can be found on the Internet; this image is taken from an excellent print at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIkrgOmsbVY
Figure 9.7Image from Dianshizhai Pictorial, an illustrated supplement to Shanghai’s leading newspaper, Shenbao. Dianshizhai used methods of lithographic printing that coupled rapid reproduction with great sharpness of detail, qualities that imparted a sense of immediacy and clarity and lent the paper’s representations an aura of realism. Dianshizhai Pictorial, series 4, vol. 4. Shanghai: Shenbao guan, 1895. More discussion of lithographic news pictorials can be found on the webpage for Chapter 4 of this volume. Several entire volumes of Dianshizhai images (with over 100 prints per volume) can be viewed or downloaded at virtualshanghai.net, available in its E-library (Book IDs 346, 1411 and 1412).
Source: Dianshizhai Pictorial, series 4, vol. 4. Shanghai: Shenbao guan, 1895.
Figure 9.8By the 1930s, pictorials had moved from single-image, hand-drawn lithographs (as in Figure 9.7) to photographic montages. The Young Companion (Liangyou) was the most famous Chinese news pictorial of the era (one might call it the Dianshizhai of its day, or even more aptly, China’s Life Magazine.) These images from the May 1938 issue (showing Madame Chiang Kaishek giving comfort to an injured orphan, and Madame Feng Yuxiang speaking above a cheering mass of children) comprise half of a 2-page photo spread that also shows orphans in school and getting medical check-ups. Young Companion’s national and international readership included overseas Chinese communities whose donations were being solicited by the Wartime Orphanage Committee.
Source: Young Companion, May 1938, Shanghai.
In late-August 2005, Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast of the United States, leaving a trail of devastation and human suffering. For the millions of television viewers worldwide who had been following the news, initial curiosity quickly turned into fear, concern, and profound sorrow at the catastrophe that destroyed neighborhoods, killed 1,300 people, and displaced 1.1 million residents. Soon this sorrow turned to frustration and outrage at the patent failure of the government—local, state, and federal—to respond effectively to the crisis.i The disaster exposed gaping flaws in the government’s capacity for emergency management. The 600-page National Response Plan to coordinate federal agencies and integrate them with state, local, and private sector partners was put to the test and came up tragically short. Waves of criticism across the political spectrum assailed the relief response by national and local governments to the disaster.
Now imagine if Hurricane Katrina had broken out on a much larger scale. Not limited to the Gulf Coast, its devastation covers an area ranging from Massachusetts to Florida; not confined to just the one historic city of New Orleans, it batters multiple political, cultural, and financial centers such as New York, Washington D.C., Boston, and Miami—all would have to be abandoned. Imagine tens of millions of refugees as well as thousands of business, factories, universities and other institutions had to be evacuated. How would the government react to meet the challenges of such a catastrophe?
That was precisely what happened in China toward the end of the 1930s. The Nationalist Guomindang (GMD) government was facing exactly such a challenge as China was plunged into a total war that would soon develop into World War II. Beginning in July 1937, Japan initiated a series of invasions first along the eastern coast and in central China, then in 1938 pushed its military advance farther westward. After a series of military frustrations, the GMD government was forced to relocate the national capital from Nanjing, located near China’s southeast coast, to Chongqing, a mountainous city deep within the western interior.
This chapter describes the massive human tragedy and exodus instigated by the Japanese invasion—but that is merely the setting of our story, not its primary focus. The comparison with Hurricane Katrina not only helps us understand the enormous scale of the wartime catastrophe, but also its important political and historical consequences. Catastrophic events like Katrina and the Japanese invasion are certainly real occurrences that directly affect the lives millions of people, but they are also events that become media spectacles for even larger national and global audiences. The representations of such catastrophes can have a tremendous impact on how they are interpreted—particularly on how they are interpreted politically—and therefore also on how they are handled when governments respond to them.
i U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, by Frances Townsend, Open-file report, Office of the President, February 2006, 5-11.
Chickering, Roger, and Stig Forster, eds. Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Cambridge, UK: The German Historical Institute, 2000.
Finlayson, Geoffrey. Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain 1830-1990. Oxford: Clarenson Press, 1994.
Goodman, Bryna. Native Place, City, and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853-1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Lary, Diana. Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
MacKinnon, Stephen. “Refugee Flight at the Outset of the Anti-Japanese War.” In
Diana Lary and Stephen MacKinnon, eds. Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare on Modern China. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2001.
Parsons, Martin, and Penny Starns. The Evacuation: the True Story. London: 1999.
Tang Xiaobing. Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement. University of California Press, 2007.
Zolberg, A.R. et al. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Chapter 9 Study Questions
Photographs of disasters can be visually shocking and emotionally and politically powerful. There are often striking similarities in the themes and compositions of such images even though the events themselves might be hugely separated by distance, time and culture. Some common compositions include: birds-eye views of teaming masses; close-up portraits of the most vulnerable; stark landscapes of devastation; etc. Look over the images on this chapter’s webpage and do a bit of searching on the Internet for other images of Chinese WWII refugees and Hurricane Katrina victims. What kinds of compositions and themes do you find? Do certain kinds of themes and compositions lend themselves to particular political or social messages?
The webpage for this chapter provides several images of woodcuts from WWII-era China; many more such images can be found online. Compare these kinds of woodcut images with the New Years prints presented and discussed in Chapter 4 of this book. How would you describe the differences in style, message, purpose and even in mode of viewing? (Think, for instance, of how New Year’s pictures were used to decorate and to be viewed all year long and how that compares). It might also be interesting to compare the woodblock images with the photographs of similar events.
Watch Capra’s film Why We Fight: The Battle For China—either all of it or the portion that deals specifically with refugees. What are the main messages that Capra is trying to convey in his film and how does he use these images to do it? Then think about these images from the perspective of the Chinese and the GMD government (some of these images, though by no means all, were even filmed by the GMD party for their own films). This chapter has described how the GMD tried to create their own narrative of events and take greater organizational and welfare responsibility over refugees. Could the images in Capra’s film also function to get across the GMD’s messages? Which images might have been most helpful to the GMD, which ones less so? How so?