From Shanghai to Wuhan: Chinese intellectual women's migration and unification in the Second World War

Vivienne Xiangwei Guo (King's College London), PhD Student

In 1937, The War of Resistance (1937-1945) in China abruptly changed the political landscape of the lower Yangtze region. In less than half a year, both Shanghai and Nanjing fell to the Japanese troops, and the Nationalist government was temporarily moved to Wuhan, a tri-city complex of Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang in the eastern Jianghan plain in central China. Together with approximately half a million refugees, most of the Chinese intellectuals in Shanghai and Nanjing including many of China’s greatest minds, migrated to Wuhan. [1] The so called “defence of Greater Wuhan” (Baowei da Wuhan) therefore provided these intellectuals with the opportunity to engage with national politics and to support the propagandas of the national resistance. The majority of Chinese Intellectual women, who had established their resistance organisations during the National Salvation Movement in the 1930s, also moved to Wuhan and participated in the nation’s heroic defence.

Examining the “defence of Greater Wuhan” from different angles, Stephan MacKinnon emphasises the political and social changes brought about by the War in Chinese communities; in his words, “a more integrated collective consciousness energised society in new ways.” [2] MacKinnon devotes his attention to the unprecedented level of community volunteerism and state intervention in relief and health work and also touches on intellectual women’s war relief efforts. However, the full picture of the united intellectual women in wartime Wuhan, and of their further political communication and participation during the Second World War in China, is left unrevealed. When the wartime era was previously discussed from the perspective of women’s political activism, the dominant war theme of “national resistance” either made this period gender-irrelevant or reinforced the dichotomy between “women” and “nation”. As a result, the initiatives of and diversities in intellectual women’s political communication were largely overlooked. Worse still, compared with the May Fourth era and the Maoist era, not enough research of women’s history has been devoted to the 1930s and 1940s, let alone to intellectual women’s migration and unification during the War of Resistance. [3] Who were these intellectual women migrating from Beiping, Shanghai and Nanjing to Wuhan in 1938? How did they travel across the country through the Japanese-occupied areas? How did they network with each other, and then expand and integrate their networks in Wuhan for war relief and for the women’s mobilisation? These questions will lead us to the understudied history of Chinese intellectual women in World War II.

These intellectual women were well-educated in the early twentieth century and experienced the May Fourth movement when they were students. While the world war in Asia was looming large, they also became politically mature and ambitious. Undoubtedly, The Second World War inflicted trials and tribulations on the political, family and personal lives of women. But traumas and ruptures in life were not the only memories Chinese women had of this period; just as Chinese women did not only play the role of “victims” during the War. In the story that Shen Zijiu (1898-1989) told below, the War did not deprive Chinese intellectual women of their May Fourth tradition of fighting for women’s rights and freedom, rather it opened a larger geographical, social and political space for them to communicate and network with each other, despite their different political backgrounds and ideologies.

With a degree in fine art from Japan, Shen Zijiu came back to China in 1926. She became a teacher first in Hangzhou High School, and then in Songjiang Girl’s Normal School of Jiangsu Province, teaching art and home domestics. [4] Like many intellectual women of her age who had experienced the May Fourth movement in 1919 and had been educated abroad, Shen supported women’s independence in society and was concerned about the nation’s deepening crisis in Manchuria. In Hangzhou and Songjiang, Shen inspired many of her female students who shared her ambitions and who then followed in her footsteps. Ji Hong, Peng Zigang and Hu Ziying were all Shen’s students who later assisted Shen with her journal Women’s Life in Shanghai. And through the fast spreading National Salvation Movement in the 1930s, Shen Zijiu became friends with more women leaders and activists from Nanjing and Beiping, while her Women’s Life reading society gradually came to play an important role in building and strengthening connections between the various women’s networks during their migration to Wuhan around 1938. [5]

Shen Zijiu’s memoir, “I left Shanghai”, detailed her journey from Shanghai to Hong Kong by sea and then from Hong Kong to Wuhan by road through Canton, Guangxi and Hunan. On board of the Italian cruise ship named Duke Russell, Shen was excited to find many familiar faces; among others, the National Salvation Movement leaders Shi Liang and Zhang Naiqi were also taking the same route to Hong Kong by sea. When these intellectual friends sat together in the cabin, Shi Liang suggested that everyone tell each other about their plans in Wuhan. Being modest, many shook their heads and some responded that they were simply going to find an editing or writing job in Hankou. But Shi Liang suddenly raised her voice: “I am not modest, I am going to the hinterland to mobilise women for national salvation.”[6]

With this growing passion and determination for participating in national salvation, intellectual women travelled across the country and finally joined each other in Wuhan in 1938. Shen Zijiu arrived in January and approximately one month later Shi Liang also arrived after her short stay in Hong Kong to help with establishing women’s organisations there. [7] Liu Qingyang from Tianjin, Peng Zigang from Beiping, Ji Hong and Cao Mengjun from Nanjing had already arrived in Wuhan by the end of 1937. Other members of the Women’s Life society such as Du Junhui, Chen Boer, Luo Qiong, Wang Ruqi, Luo Shuzhang and Lu Huinian also joined them one after another in this exiting city. [8] To co-opt the Nationalist party (Kuomintang, KMT) in defence of the nation, the Communist Party (CCP) established the Wuhan Office of the Eight Route Army (武汉八路军办事处) and the CCP Yangtze Bureau (中共中央长江局). Communist women leaders Deng Yingchao and Meng Qingshu also formed a women’s committee under the CCP Yangtze Bureau to assist with women’s movements in this region. [9] Even local women leaders and activists in Wuhan, such as Li Wenyi and Yang Moxia, were quickly absorbed into this expanding network of intellectual women for national salvation and resistance.

Wuhan therefore became the political, military and cultural centre of China with a high ‘esprit de résistance’. And for Chinese intellectual women like Shen Zijiu, Wuhan was the place where she extended her network to include friends from different regions and political backgrounds, thus to enhance women’s political communication at a national level. The adventurous wartime experiences of Shen Zijiu, in this case, begin with her journey from Shanghai to Wuhan. Her memoir, “I left Shanghai”, offers an important view of the social and political changes in Chinese communities, not only in terms of the geo-political relocations of Chinese intellectuals, but also in terms of women’s political communication and engagement during the Second World War. [10]


Vivienne Xiangwei GUO is a PhD student in King’s College London. She also works as the Academic Services Officer at the Lau China Institute, King’s. Her research interests focus on the political and social transformations in China during the Second World War and the following Civil War; adopting a gender perspective, her PhD thesis concerns intellectual women’s political networks in 1930s and 1940s China. She can be reached at


Shen Zijiu's Memoir, "Wo zouchu le Shanghai (I Left Shanghai)"

Goodbye Shanghai

Ever since Shanghai fell to the evil enemy, I knew that I could not stay in the city. But I still wished to stay as long as possible so that I could do a bit more work to resist the enemy. But on 21 November, the Life bookshop (生活书店) [11] called and told me that the police had already informed all bookshops in Shanghai of the upcoming search for ‘anti-Japanese publications’, so we had to cancel the latest issue of Women’s Life (Volume 5 Issue 5) to avoid trouble. Feeling both angry and sad, I clinched my fist and my teeth, and left home. I went to the China Travel Service and booked a ship ticket to Hong Kong. I planned to go to Kong Hong by sea and then make a detour to Wuhan through the Canton-Wuhan railway. I expected to recover Women’s Life in Wuhan and to discuss the work of national salvation with sisters in the hinterland.

Many friends, who used to be active in Shanghai’s social circles, were then forced to leave for the hinterland to continue their work. However, account for half of Shanghai’s population, the one million Shanghai women were still needed for forming a solid foundation for resistance in the city, and this work had to be shouldered by those brave and steadfast sisters who chose to stay. Before I left Shanghai, we all met up to say goodbye to each other.

It was a windy and wet morning; fallen leaves were quivering in the heavy rain. We shrank in heavy coats and met together in the house of a friend who decided to stay in Shanghai. At the meeting, women activists who were in charge of mobilising female students briefed us on the situation in different schools, and those in charge of mobilising housewives reported how they formed a sewing group in their neighbourhood. The most exciting news came from whose who were in charge of mobilising career women in town: saleswomen in local stores were already contacted so that they could take effort to reject Japanese goods, female workers in factories were also organised, even dancing girls in clubs were mobilised to learn ‘national salvation’ theories and skills. After these reports, one friend raised her voice and promised the leaving members: ‘do not worry! If we can keep working like this, when the enemies swallow up our city, it would be the same that they swallow up a bomb, right?’

These friends and I used to be a close group, but all of a sudden, we had to part from each other. Feeling deeply upset, everyone was worried about each other’s safety and the future of national salvation. Our departure at this moment thus felt so different from the usual parting of friends! Holding each other’s hands, we all tried to control our tears and encourage each other when it was time to say goodbye.

One friend was especially concerned about my safety. Fearing that I might encounter enemies’ check at the Wusong port, she suggested that I put on some makeup and cure my hair to look more fashionable. Although I knew that Japanese control had not yet affected foreign ships passing Shanghai, I still followed my friend’s kind advice and went to a hair salon with her. However, because of my continuous busy work for days, I quickly fell asleep in the comfortable chair and let the hairdresser be creative with my hair style. When I woke up and looked in the mirror, I realised it was a terrible mistake: my short hair was completely cured up from both sides above my temples…seeing my shocked face, the hairdresser flaunted his skills: ‘this is the most fashionable air-plane style.’ My friend was also clapping by my side, ‘now you only need some makeup and you are not the old Shen Zijiu anymore.’ Knowing that I would feel uncomfortable with this new look when I meet my friends in Wuhan, I still could not complain about these kind-hearted and considerable friends in Shanghai.

On Board

When the Italian cruise ship carried her desperate passengers out of Wusong, a hot air balloon appeared above the river in the sky. We could read the words on the balloon: ‘Wuxi fell to Japan.’ Staring at those words, passengers on the deck showed the same sorrow of losing territory while they each worried about their own future. The ship slowly approached the Wusong port. In the scattered fields along the river, peasants already started their daily farm work. They probably had no idea that their lands had already been occupied by the evil enemies. I was overwhelmed by the view of the vast fields and my simple compatriots—if we had organised these peasants earlier, now they would be able to join the local guerrillas to harass the enemy’s rearguard…

Duke Russell (name of the ship) seemed to try to move slowly so that I could engage in the sad sight: the heavily invested Hongjiang port was now used for the landing of Japanese troops, while the elegant building of the Shanghai Municipal Government was in ruins. After the January 28 incident, [12] if any large-scare project must be planned, it should be planned for the purpose of national defence. I wondered if those high-ranking officials in the municipal government really cared or at least felt sorry (for their country). I hope they would no longer harm other places and no longer harm China.

Our Meeting

In the same ship I saw over ten friends from Shanghai, therefore we sat together in the cabin to talk about each other’s plans for future. Shi Liang and I, among some other friends, planed to go to Canton from Kong Hong, then head for Hankou through the Canton-Wuhan railway. Mr. Yang Dongzhuan, an expert of Guangxi, believed that we must go to Guangxi to have a look and recommended himself as our travel guide. Thus we soon agreed on the new route. When we talked about our own plans for future work, everybody became modest. Shi Liang, as the head of our group, had to oblige everyone to talk. Most of intellectuals were going to Wuhan to continue their writing or editing job. But Shi Liang suddenly said: ‘I do not like to be modest, I am going to the hinterland to mobilise women for national salvation.’

In Hankou

When we finally arrived in Hankou, the first problem was to find a place to stay. There were only two rooms left in hotel for the whole group of us. On the third day, we got lucky and found a house to share together, which was all furnished and very convenient. We had great fun sharing our life as well as our thoughts in Wuhan.

Hankou now is a sea of people who are gathering together from different places, that you might be surprised by whom you run into. Among my female friends, I first met Ji Hong and Zigang (Peng Zigang). Zigang came to Hankou from Beiping a while ago, while Ji Hong just arrived with many refugees from Nanjing. Liu Qingyang, the well experienced women leader, rushed to visit me after my arrival. And following Liu, Boer (Chen Boer) came to invite me to the women’s forum organised by the Young Women’s Christian Association (女青年会 YWCA). From Boer, I know that in Wuhan there already gathered many women’s organisations and groups: the Chinese Women’s Association of War Relief and Self-defence for the Army in Resistance (中国妇女慰劳抗敌将士总会) has been moved to Wuhan, with its branches set up in Hankou and Wuchang. the Hubei Provincial Women’s Wartime Service Group (湖北省妇女战时工作团) is also established in Wuchang, while the YWCA, the Wuhan Women’s Resistance Support Association (武汉妇女抗敌后援会), the Hankou branch of Hubei Provincial Women’s Wartime Service Group (湖北省妇女战时工作团汉口分团) are all active in Hankou.

The Sunday forum organised by the YWCA is a good platform to communicate with women activists from across the country. Here we discuss current affairs and issues, share our work progresses and receive new friends. At this forum, I met again Junhui (Du Junhui), Huinian (Lu Huinian), Peng Hui, and Ruqi (Wang Ruqi), as well as many other friends from Shanghai, and learnt that they have been working very hard in Wuhan. I feel happy to be a part of this forum and I believe that this forum will lay a good foundation for the national unification of intellectual women.

Once I travelled to Wuchang to attend a meeting organised by the Wuhan Young Women’s Executive Committee (武汉青年妇女行动委员会). In the ferry across the river, I was squeezed in the middle of the crowd, barely able to breathe. But a sharp voice came through: ‘everyone, we are the Guangxi female student army!’ People were soon attracted to this voice, so I took the chance tolean against a pillar and relax my legs. I met with people from the Guangxi female student army twice before, and knew that they also arrived in Wuhan to mobilise women. However at that moment, I did not want to disturb their speech. The girl who was speaking told people that their army was going to the frontline to kill the enemies. Suddenly, an old man in the audience started to applaud, and he was soon joined by all the people in the ferry. Then I saw a very familiar face in the crowd that reminded me of Tang Guozhen from the Nanjing Municipal Women’s Community (南京市妇女会). But I was not sure, so did not go to ask her.

After our ferry reached the riverside of Wuchang, I walked up the long stone stairs and took a car to the conference hall of the KMT Provincial Party Headquarters. The lady I saw earlier in the ferry now walked straight toward me. How could I expect to see Ms. Tang Guozhen again in Wuhan after our last meeting in Nanjing before the September 18 incident? Ms. Tang introduced me to Ms. Xu Kairui from the KMT Central Women’s Department, as well as Ms. Lü Xiaodao, Ms. Fu Boqun and Ms. Zhuang Jing etc. from the Chinese Women’s Association of War Relief and Self-defence for the Army in Resistance. The enemy has driven us together from different places and occupations; perhaps all Chinese women would be united together soon. In the past, there were political antagonisms among us both in theory and in practice, but now it is possible for us to overcome these barriers to communicate with each other and to fight together against our common enemies. At the conference when we discussed things together, I deeply felt that we women were united.

I learnt that Cao Mengjun, the National Salvation activist who was imprisoned for ‘saving the nation’ [13], also arrived in Hankou from Changsha. But I did not have the opportunity to meet her until the tea party organised by the National Council on Foreign Relations (国民外交协会). We were invited to the tea party because women were also expected to take part in international communication. Here I met again with women leaders from Nanjing such as Xu Kairui and Tang Guozhen, and then I saw Mengjun. The eight-month prison life did not undermine her tough character and lively personality; with a big smile in her face, she came to shake my hand.

At this moment, someone introduced a new friend to me, ‘this is Ms. Deng Yingchao.’ In front of me was a lady who looked firm and robust…Ms. Deng Yingchao, the one who finished the Long March…with this thought in my mind, I hesitated for a second before extending my hand to greet her. Seeing that I was stunned, the introducer continued, ‘she is the wife of Zhou Enlai.’ Then the introducer pointed at another lady who was in her military uniform and looked very pretty, ‘this is Ms. Meng Qingshu, the wife of Chen Shuyu (Wang Ming).’

I could feel my blood fluxing in my body and rushing toward my cheeks. After the meeting, Ji Hong asked why I looked so excited, I told her: ‘today’s meeting is so fascinating. Here we meet KMT women leaders, Communist women leaders as well as local women activists in Wuhan. Their passion is burning me, don’t you feel the same?’


  • Huang, Jingyun. “Fengyun suiyue—Shen Zijiu yu Funü Shenghuo.” [Life As Wind and Cloud—Shen Zijiu and Women’s Life] Xinguancha, 18 (1983).

  • Ji, Hong. “Zijiu laoshi yu Funü shenghuo.” [Ms. Chen Zijiu and Women’s Life] in Nüjie wenhua zhanshi Shen Zijiu [Shen Zijiu—A Female Culture Warrior], ed. Dong, Bian. Chinese Women’s Press, 1991.

  • Li, Danke. Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Li, Guohua. “kangzhan chuqi changjiangju lingdao xiade funügongzuo.” [Women’s Work Led by the Yangtze Bureau at the Beginning of the War of Resistance] Funü Xueyue, 04 (1991).

  • MacKinnon, Stephen. “Refugee Flight at the Outset of Anti-Japanese War.” in Scars of War: the Impact of Warfare on Modern China, ed. Diana Lary and Stephen MacKinnon. University of British Columbia press, 2001.

  • Shen, Zijiu. “Wo zouchu le Shanghai.” [I Left Shanghai] in Kangzhan zhongde nüzhangshi [Women Warriors during the War of Resistance], ed. Shen, Zijiu. Wartime Press, 1938.


[1] Stephen MacKinnon, “Refugee Flight at the Outset of Anti-Japanese War,” in Scars of War: the Impact of Warfare on Modern China, ed. Diana Lary and Stephen MacKinnon (University of British Columbia press, 2001)50, 119.
[2] MacKinnon, “Refugee,” 60-61.
[3] Danke Li, Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010) 26.
[4] Ji Hong, “Zijiu laoshi yu Funü shenghuo,” [Ms. Chen Zijiu and Women’s Life] in Nüjie wenhua zhanshi Shen Zijiu [Shen Zijiu—A Female Culture Warrior], ed. Dong Bian (Chinese Women’s Press, 1991) 41. Huang Jingyun “Fengyun suiyue—Shen Zijiu yu Funü Shenghuo,” [Life As Wind and Cloud—Shen Zijiu and Women’s Life] Xinguancha, 18(1983): 52.
[5] The memoir “I left Shanghai” was published in Kangzhan zhongde nüzhangshi [Women Warriors during the War of Resistance] in 1938.It contains 18 sections, part of which was also published in Women’s Life, (No.5 Issue 8, February 1938), under the title “from Shanghai to Hankou”. The original copy of this memoir is held in the Republican collection, Chongqing Library.
[6] Shen Zijiu, “Wo zouchu le Shanghai,” [I Left Shanghai], in Kangzhan zhongde nüzhangshi [Women Warriorsduring the War of Resistance], ed. Shen Zijiu (Wartime Press, 1938) 95.
[7] “The Introduction of Shi Liang”, materials recollected by Fei Yingfen, the Shanghai Municipal Archive, C31-6-258, 72-76.
[8] Shen Zijiu, “I Left Shanghai,” 112-113.
[9] Li Guohua, “kangzhan chuqi changjiangju lingdao xiade funügongzuo,” [Women’s Work Led by the Yangtze Bureau at the Beginning of the War of Resistance] Funü Xueyue, 04 (1991): 29-30.
[10] The translated material is only four of the eighteen sections of Shen’s memoir “I Left Shanghai”.
[11] A publisher established in Shanghai in 1932, which was originated from the Life Weekly magazine, edited by the famous patriotic journalist Zou Taofen.
[12] Known as the Shanghai Incident, on 28th January 1932, Japanese marines invaded Shanghai and encountered resistance of the 19th Route Army of the KMT. The military conflicts lasted from 28 January to 3 March. On 5 May 1932, the Songhu Truce Agreement was signed after negotiation and mediation between China, Japan, the UK, the US, France and other countries.
[13] On the night of 22 November 1936, National Salvation Association leaders Shen Junru, Zhang Naiqi, Zou Taofen, Li Gongpu, Wang Zaoshi, Sha Qianli, and Shi Liang were arrested by the KMT in Shanghai, while Cao Mengjun and Sun Xiaocun were arrested in Nanjing. These National Salvation activists were guilty for their participation in resistance, since Chiang Kai-shek implemented the policy of “resisting foreign aggression only after stabilising the country”.