China's Wartime Interpreters in the China-Burma-India Theater
Zach Fredman (Boston), PhD Candidate (History)
Yang Xianjian’s memoir offers a glimpse of life as a Chinese interpreter during World War II. It adds to our understanding of the war by showing us what the U.S.-China alliance was like on the ground in China. Yang, like other interpreters, was trained by American and European-educated Chinese professors who had fled to southwest China from eastern cities like Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai in response to Japan’s invasion. While training to be an interpreter, Yang met other cadets from all across China. His work brought him to new cities like Lanzhou and Chengdu and eventually put him into daily contact with the Americans. While working alongside his American allies, Yang encountered college-educated officers from the East Coast as well as semi-literate farm boys who had never left their hometowns before joining the army. Wartime migration flows and military deployments exposed Yang to the cultural, geographic, and linguistic diversity of his own country while at the same time teaching him more about the United States than he could have learned from any textbook.
Despite their importance to the alliance, interpreters have largely been ignored in the scholarship on wartime U.S.-China relations. Stories of grand strategy, military operations, and the personal clash between China’s leader, Chiang Kaishek, and his American Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, have overshadowed interpreters’ contributions to the war effort. For example, Michael Schaller’s The U.S. Crusade in China, long the standard text in the field, focuses on American China policy and U.S. operations in China.  In more recent years scholars like Rana Mitter, Hans van de Ven, Ch’i Hsi-sheng, and Matthew David Johnson have used Chinese sources to enrich our understanding of the Washington-Chongqing alliance and the military history of World War II in China.  But besides one recent article in a Chinese-language journal, no other study has fully examined the story of China’s wartime interpreters.  Yet these young men (and some young women too), allowed the alliance to function on the ground. Without them, none of the American pilots, logistical troops, liaison officers, or advisers who served in China would have been able to do their jobs. Before becoming an interpreter, Yang Xianjian, attended school at Xinan Lianda(often translated as Southwest Associated University), China’s leading wartime university.  Lianda combined three of China’s top prewar universities—Beijing’s Peking and Qinghua Universities, and Tianjin’s Nankai University—into one campus in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province. Lianda provided around half of China’s wartime interpreters, and the school’s professors and administrators played a leading role in the interpreter training program.
Universities like Nankai and Qinghua ended up in Kunming because the Japanese quickly conquered China’s important coastal cities after launching all-out war in 1937. Students, staff, and professors fled from the Japanese and moved entire laboratories and libraries thousands of miles to set up temporary campuses in China’s southwest, mostly in and around Chongqing, Kunming, and Chengdu.
The interpreter program that Yang was a part of had origins in the 1941 arrival of the volunteer American fighter pilot group known as the Flying Tigers. Less than a year before Pearl Harbor, American President Franklin Roosevelt agreed to allow American pilots to travel to China as mercenaries in order to protect cities like Kunming and Chongqing from relentless Japanese bombing.  For the Flying Tigers to carry out their mission in China they would need interpreters, so China’s President, Chiang Kaishek, appointed his friend Huang Renlin as commander of China’s War Area Service Corps (WASC) and ordered him to establish an interpreter training program and set up hostels to house the Americans. Tall, athletic, and outgoing, Huang had thrived as an exchange student in the United States, earning a BA at Vanderbilt and an MA at Columbia. He saw the interpreters as cultural ambassadors and devised a program to transform college students into physically fit, worldly, and competent young professionals. After Pearl Harbor, China and the United States became formal allies, and the interpreter program expanded. By early 1945 Chinese women could also serve as interpreters, and the program ended only after Japan surrendered.
Yang’s memoir is a journey through the life of a Chinese interpreter. He looks back on his decision to join, the training program, and his daily work. He ends by briefly discussing his experience during the Cultural Revolution. Here Yang was actually one of the lucky ones. Branded counterrevolutionaries by the state, many interpreters and soldiers who fought for the Chinese Nationalists against Japan served lengthy prison sentences or faced firing squads after the Communists won China’s Civil War. Their wartime experiences contradicted the Cold War certainties of the Mao Zedong era—which posited that the Communists alone had defeated the Japanese, as Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists had oppressed the Chinese people and refused to fight. Having witnessed a different wartime reality, interpreters became a threat to Mao’s totalitarian state. Most lived in fear all the way up to Mao’s death, knowing that their service to the Nationalist government, western-style college educations, and experience working with the Americans as allies made them easy targets for any political movement. Only in the last few decades has the Chinese public been permitted to learn the truth about their wartime interpreters.
Zach Fredmam is a PhD candidate in History at Boston University. This translation comes from research done for his dissertation, “A Wary Embrace: American soldiers and the People of China, 1941-1947.” His work has been published in Diplomacy and Statecraft and Diplomatic History.