Publicising and Reporting China's War with Japan

Victor Zatsepine (UConn), Assistant Professor (History)

Japan’s occupation of Manchuria on September 18, 1931, marked the beginning of its aggression in China. In July 1937, nearly six years later, the Japanese military provoked the Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing to start a full-blown war, which lasted for eight years. The fifteen years during which Japan encroached on Chinese territory was accompanied by mass killings, violence and destruction. Nearly every Chinese family suffered the consequences of this war, with the numbers of military and civilian victims in China matching the numbers of victims of Hitler’s invasion in Europe and the Soviet Union during the Second World War (1939-1945).

Chinese intellectuals, writers and reporters were deeply concerned about the fate of China during the war. The country found itself in crisis and the survival of the nation demanded personal sacrifice. This war forced the Nationalist government to flee from one city to another. The government relocated key industries and institutions to safer places, while mobilizing its army and society to confront the enemy. People flew away from their homes to escape areas occupied by the Japanese. The fate of the nation became inseparable from the fate of individuals, and the struggle for survival became an urgent theme for writers and reporters, whose roles often overlapped.

The war transformed Chinese culture and the press, which became a powerful channel for publicizing China’s war and for unifying Chinese people of different social and political backgrounds. The Nationalist government saw the press not only as a powerful means of mobilizing the society to support the war effort, but also as a powerful platform for protecting China from Communist ideas. The United Front temporarily shelved differences between the Nationalist government and the Communist forces for the common goal of fighting the enemy, but did not eradicate their decade-long hostility. At the same time, the war exposed the weaknesses of the Nationalist government, dividing not only the politicians and the military, but also the press and intellectuals.

Two men of letters discussed here (see Texts 1 and 2), represent similar sentiments of educated Chinese about the war against Japan. Despite their different backgrounds, exposure to war and purposes for writing, they saw war as a tragedy and as a challenge to the Chinese state and its people. They shared optimism about the ability of the Chinese nation to win this war in the long term. Chinese writer, poet and essayist Lin Yutang (1895-1976), came from a missionary background and was educated in Harvard and Leipzig. In 1936, when he moved to the United States, he was already an established bi-lingual writer and editor. During the war he lived outside of China, returning back on few occasions. He personally knew Chiang Kai-shek, remaining loyal to his cause for the rest of his life. His ability to write in English made him one of the most read Chinese writers in the United States during this time. As patriotic “global” Chinese, he writes about war in the context of Chinese culture, recent history and common humanity.

Fan Changjiang (1909-1970), was a professional reporter, different from cosmopolitan Lin Yutang. In 1937, he published a travelogue The Northwest Corner of China, which described the harsh reality of life in China’s frontier regions and established him as a social critic and political reporter. As a correspondent for Tianjin-based Dagongbao, (Great Public Newspaper) Fan experienced the war first-hand, covering the Marco Polo Bridge and Xi’an incidents, several major battles between the Chinese and Japanese troops, and widespread damage and suffering caused by the war. His war dispatches appeared as separate books and were very popular. He wrote in a simple, straightforward language. He represented a new type of politically engaged reporting, which embraced ideology and political advocacy, and drew him closer to the Communist cause.

Two excerpts, about wartime reporting and propaganda work among the troops, which appear here (Text 2), were written in 1938, at the time when Fan Changjiang became dissatisfied with the policies of the Nationalist government, and with Chiang Kai-shek’s sabotage of the United Front with the Communists, which, as Fan believed, weakened China in face of growing Japanese occupation. One year later, Fan joined the Chinese Communist Party. After the Communist victory in 1949, he became a prominent leader of the Maoist press. During the Cultural Revolution he was purged, and died in 1970. Lin and Fan, although both were patriotic Chinese men of letters, represent not only different kinds of writing, but also different political choices made by Chinese intellectuals during and after the war. Their writing remains a powerful testimony of how war affected Chinese journalism.

There were also dozens of European and American correspondents who were based in China during the wartime. Some of them were employed by powerful news organizations like the Guardian, Reuters, Associated Press, New York Times, etc., while others were freelancers, starting their writing careers in China and elsewhere in Asia. While their understanding of Chinese culture and politics was limited, their status of engaged outsiders gave them an advantage to travel to places which were off limits to local correspondents and to report this war from a different perspective. Theodore White (1915-1986), was a talented young American who studied history at Harvard under John King Fairbank. In 1939, he arrived at the wartime capital Chongqing, which at the time was severely bombed by the Japanese air force. After a short stint at the information agency of the Nationalist Government, he was hired by Time magazine as a correspondent. He travelled extensively, and wrote not only passionate first-hand accounts of the damage caused by the war, but also critical articles about the shortcomings of the Nationalist government in managing the wartime economy, army and society. His book, Thunder Out of China, co-written with Annalee Jacoby and published in 1946, became a powerful testimony of the political and social dimensions of war in China (see Text 3).



Victor Zatsepine is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Connecticut. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia (2006) and specializes in frontier and social history of modern China. His interest in wartime China stems from his graduate studies and development of an undergraduate course, “Living through war: society, culture and trauma,” which he taught at the University of Hong Kong. He can be contacted at


Text 1 - Lin Yutang on the Future of China (1940)

Since the outbreak of the war, we have had a glimpse of China’s new national entity. She has been defeated on the battlefield; she has lost large bits of territory; she has even lost her former capital. But so far nothing has happened to Chinese leadership and the internal solidarity of Chinese resistance. On the other hand, all signs – the reorganization of the Chinese Government, the removal of the capital, the rejection of successive Japanese peace offers, the adoption of the “scorched earth” policy and guerrilla tactics, the intensive training of millions of recruits, and the building of thousands of miles of highway – point to an intensified determination to fight to the end. These things could not have happened five years ago, and they afford a glimpse of the strange force that is transforming China.

…During the series of uninterrupted encroachments upon Chinese territory and sovereignty in the six years following the Manchurian conquest (Jehol, Chahar, East Hopei, Suiyuan), awakened national consciousness, synonymous with hatred of the Japanese invaders, has had plenty of time to sink deep into the minds of Chinese of all classes, and it has been intensified by Nanking’s suppression of all forms of anti-Japanese expressions or activities through censorship in order to avoid inopportune “incidents.”

At this present moment, against her will, Japan is strengthening this very nationalism of China and solidifying Chinese unity. It is clear that Japan had plunged along a road from which there is no retreat. She must go on straight toward the goal of forcing a collapse of Chinese resistance, without hesitation and without regret, although she knows the method employed means raising more and more bitter hatred. If she attains her objective, and China abjectly gives up the battle, well and good; but if she falls short of this objective and there is no collapse of Chinese resistance, she must be prepared to accept the consequences.

I believe Japan is taking very large chances. Anyway, the die is cast, and she knows that henceforth she can have Chinese “co-operation” on the Japan- Manchukuo pattern or not at all. Bombs are bad messengers of love and friendship.

Everywhere a Japanese bomb drops, anti-Japanese hatred sinks into the soul of the Chinese as the metal splinters sink into Chinese bodies. If there was any doubt that Chinese of all classes had heard of Japanese invasions, the airplane trips of Japanese bombers have completely removed it. And when it comes to reaction to alien aggression, the Chinese feel exactly the same as all peoples of other lands. Therefore, I regard the Japanese bombers as the most reliable propaganda arm of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, for the Japanese are known to be hard workers.

Source: Lin Yutang, With Love and Irony (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1945. First published in 1940), 274, 277-278.

Text 2 - Fan Changjiang on media and propaganda work during the War

A. Supply of Cultural Commodities in the War Areas

(Published in March 1938)

Mr. Lu Yi and I recently went to the war areas as journalists, and one of the things that struck us most is the extreme lack of essential cultural commodities among the army and the public in the war areas. In general, the lack is so severe that it is causing symptoms similar to those of mental illnesses.

Take the example of No. X war zone. With the exception of Xuzhou, service people and the ordinary population in general do not have access to newspapers with comprehensive coverage published in areas that are not engaged in war. Among the army stationed south of the Huai River, some young officers told us they have not seen any newspapers for two or three months. While things are better off slightly in Xuzhou, it is still hard to find any newly published magazines or books. Thus, in this war zone, over 95% of people, both military and civilian, living on more than 99% of the land, are disconnected from any evolution of culture. They are only aware of things limited to a very small scope, and they have no means to learn things beyond their direct experiences. The longer the war lasts, the simpler their minds become.

This is a very dangerous thing. The resistance war relies on material aspects, and also on spiritual beliefs to be successful. Unless people believe that it is possible to eventually win the war, they will not develop the determination to support the war and will lack the courage to overcome challenges. The belief in ultimate victory results from constant knowledge of changes in various factors of the war; and to be able to perceive strong development of positive factors and how to influence negative situations, the service and civilian people engaged in the resistance war must have sufficient cultural content. To be specific, newspapers, magazines, brochures, books, etc. are absolutely essential, and as the war progresses, cultural guidance efforts must be strengthened.

B. Establishing the Correct Approach among Journalists

(Published in April 1938)

War is both the greatest destroyer and the greatest builder. Only war can rapidly destroy accumulated vices of a nation, both external and internal, while contributing powerfully to the growth of new life. During this resistance war, many weaknesses in the journalism sector will be inevitably exposed, and new approaches and improvements are much anticipated.

In peaceful times, we do not see any urgent weaknesses in Chinese journalism that merit immediate, radical reforms. This is because when people watch the news and read commentaries, they do not perceive how they are eminently linked to the fundamental common interests of the nation or society. However, when the war threatens the very survival of the whole nation, the impact of news reporting becomes very significant. One telegraph, news report or commentary may immediately touch the readers and influence their attitude toward the war, the confidence in victory among soldiers at the front, and the morale of people living away from the war zones.

Therefore, journalism has a more powerful role during the resistance war than at other times, and at the same time there is a greater need for journalists to exhibit personal integrity. If we are seduced by external factors and do not remain faithful to our news reporting, by portraying inefficient resistance war fighters as national heroes and corrupt hypocrites as patriots, or alternatively, misrepresenting or smearing real brave fighters, then the public will have wrong perceptions of the truth and make false praises and denunciations, losing correct and powerful public opinion and undermining support for the war.

Source: Shen Pu, ed., Fan Changjiang xinwen wenji [Collection of Fan Changjiang’s reports]. Vol. 2. Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 2001, 784-785, 794- 795. Translated by Ben Zong

Text 3 - Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby on the damage to the Chinese countryside by the Japanese troops in 1939

The Japanese had just left, but they had blazed a black, scarred trail of devastation across the countryside. You might ride for a day through a series of burned villages that were simply the huddles of ruins. In some places the roads were so torn that not even Chinese mountain ponies could carry you down the ditches cut across them. You had to pick your way down on foot and lead your horse after you or ride for hours on the crest of a barren ridge looking out into the hills beyond. Then there would be a single hut standing by itself in the vastness of the hills; with roof fallen in and timbers burned black, it would stand as symbol of the desolation than ran from end to end of no man’s land.

The stories the villagers told were such tales as I heard repeated later after every Japanese sortie. The peasants had fled before the Japanese advance. When they did not flee voluntarily, they were forced to leave by government edict, and they took with them everything from seed grain to furniture. They bundled their pigs and cattle off into the hills, hid their clothes and valuables in the ground, and retired to the mountains to build mat sheds and wait for the armies to force a decision. The Japanese entered a barren wasteland. They had been held up by floods and when they reached their key objectives they had two weeks’ growth of beard; caked with mud, they were exhausted and furious.

In some of the districts through which I passed, every woman caught by the Japanese had been raped without exception. The tales of rape were so sickeningly alike that they were monotonous unless they were relieved by some particular device of fiendishness. Japanese soldiers had been seen copulating with sows in some districts. In places where the villages had no time to hide themselves effectively, the Japanese rode cavalry through the high grain to trample the women into showing themselves. The Japanese officers brought their own concubines with them from the large garrison cities – women of Chinese, Russian, Korean and Japanese nationality – but the men had to be serviced by the countryside. When the Japanese transport system broke down, peasants were stripped naked, lashed to carts, and driven forward by the imperial army as beasts of burden. Japanese horses and mules were beaten to death in the muck; on any road and all the hills you could see the carcasses of their animal rotting and the bones of their horses whitening in the sun. The Chinese peasants who were impressed to take their places were driven with the same pitiless fury till they too collapsed or were driven mad.

Source: Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby, Thunder out of China (New York: William Sloan Associates, Inc., 1961. Originally published in 1946), 65-66.

Further Reading

  • Parks M. Coble, “Writing about Atrocity: Wartime Accounts and their Contemporary Uses,” Modern Asian Studies 42.2 (2011): 379-398.

  • Chang-Tai Hung, “Paper Bullets: Fan Changjiang and New Journalism in Wartime China,” Modern China 17.4 (1991): 427-468.

  • N.A., War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937- 1945 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1994).

  • Stephen R. MacKinnon, “Toward a History of Chinese Press in the Republican Period,” Modern China 23.1 (1997): 3-32.

  • Rana Mitter, “Writing War: Autobiography, Modernity and Wartime Narrative in Nationalist China, 1937–1946”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series) 18 (2008): 187-210.

  • Mu Xin, Kang Ri fenghuo zhong de Zhongguo baoye [Chinese press at the height of the Anti-Japanese War] (Chongqing: Chongqing chubanshe, 1992).

  • Shen Pu, ed., Fan Changjiang xinwen wenji [Collection of Fan Changjiang’s reports], Vol. 2 (Beijing, Xinhua chubanshe, 2001).

  • Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby, Thunder out of China (New York: William Sloan Associates, Inc., 1961).