China's Wartime Interpreters in the China-Burma-India Theater

Zach Fredman (Boston), PhD Candidate (History)

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Two Years of Civil Diplomacy as an Interpreter - Yang Xianjian [6]

Registration for the interpreter program began in the summer of 1942. A notice posted at Southwest Associated University (Xinan Lianda) in Kunming, read, “The American Air Force has come to China to assist our war effort. [7] As the organization responsible for hosting them, China’s War Area Service Corps (WASC) is recruiting English-Chinese interpreters to work alongside the Americans.” [8] The notice also stated that interpreter service was a glorious duty, a means for students to fight the Japanese and save the country. My closest friend, Zou Yitao, and I talked it over and decided to register together. Both of us were recruited. Another classmate from the Lianda Foreign Languages Department, He Xianglin, was also recruited.

In early July 1942 we joined the fifth cohort of trainees to go through the WASC’s interpreter course in Kunming. They gave us military uniforms, shaved our heads, and introduced us to military life. Our class was made up of about fifty students coming from various Chinese universities. Two Lianda professors, Fan Jichang and Wu Zelin, administered the program. [9] Our instructors came from Lianda and Yunnan University. Two Army officers took charge of military affairs and taught infantry drilling. The whole program lasted for over two months, and the classes included American history, geography, and culture, as well as English speaking, singing, and other subjects. I liked everything except for the infantry drilling and took my classes very seriously. The two officers in charge of military affairs took roll call during morning exercises and again before bed in the evening. These men knew that the trainees did not take them very seriously and were thus gentle towards us, never losing their tempers.

The director of the WASC, Huang Renlin, had studied in the US and spoke fluent English. He was said to be part of Song Meiling’s inner circle. [10] Before we graduated, Huang came to Kunming to teach us social etiquette, such as how to eat Western food. He emphasized that interactions among interpreters and American soldiers were a form of civil diplomacy, so we had to take care to uphold national and personal dignity. I agreed with Huang’s ideas and still remember his comments very clearly.

Huang also told us that he would arrange a party on August 27 for all the interpreter trainees and American Air Force personnel in honor of Confucius’ birthday. When the party began, Huang used Chinese to tell the story of Confucius to the American soldiers and said he would have one student translate what he said into English, sentence by sentence. He looked through the roster on the podium at the names of interpreter trainees and called my name. I was shocked, but my only choice was to do my duty and follow the order. While interpreting I did my best to remain calm and managed to finish the task. Luckily I did not embarrass myself. I did not know it then, but this incident would help me solve many difficulties in my later interpreting career.

Graduation scores were posted at the end of the program. Two people got A’s, everyone else B’s and C’s. The staff also issued military ranks to the new interpreters according to their grades: captains, first lieutenants, and second lieutenants [Yang’s note: an unwritten rule back then stated that air force ranks were two ranks higher than corresponding army ranks. In other words, an air force second lieutenant was equal to an army captain]. Depending on one’s rank, monthly salaries were either 200, 180, or 160 Chinese yuan. Graduates also had the chance to apply to where they most wanted to work. The WASC itself was divided into four administrative zones: the first, second, and fourth were Kunming, Chongqing, and Lanzhou, respectively [I couldn’t recall where the third zone was]. Graduates were mostly deployed to work at hostels in different zones, but two would go with the Chinese Army to India. [11] Back then I wanted to go far away from home, but the two A students had already taken the Indian spots, so thus I applied to go to Lanzhou, the next furthest place. Also going to Lanzhou were Dong Mouxian and Jin Chaobing, from Chongqing Fudan University and an Indonesian Chinese named Chen Weisheng from Chengdu Qilu University.

When I had registered for the interpreter training program, I never asked for permission from the two family members who had funded my university studies because I was afraid they would say no. One of my motives in applying for interpreter service was to take some time away from school, save a little money, and allow myself to become financially independent. Instead of telling these two relatives about what I had done before leaving for Lanzhou, I only wrote to my uncle in Chongqing and to my oldest brother, who taught at Wuhan University.

In early September the four of us assigned to Lanzhou left Kunming and headed north. To prepare for the trip, which would pass through Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms sites, I bought [the famous Chinese novel] The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

When we arrived at the Lanzhou Air Force Hostel, the director met with us and politely said, “American military personnel have not arrived yet.” Not long after, we were sent to a suburban Wulipu Air Force Hostel, and were given a task: compiling a simple English dialogue pamphlet that could be used to teach hostel service workers English. The director asked me to be responsible for this, which I guess was because my rank was one level higher than the other three interpreters.

The four of us lived in the Wulipu hostel for eight months without much to do and still did not see any American Air Force personnel. I did three things: first, I organized the English dialogue pamphlet and trained about twenty hostel staff members in simple spoken English. Second, I read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and drew a big map marking out the various military campaigns among the three kingdoms. Third, I learned to type in English. The Indonesian Chinese interpreter had an English book on palmistry, and I had just purchased an English typing textbook. I learned by gradually typing out the entire palmistry book, and this skill became useful in my later interpreting career. With little else to do, the four of us started to discuss going back to school in the spring of 1943 so we would not lose out on earning our degrees. After getting permission, we left Lanzhou and headed south in July.

In Lanzhou we had trouble buying long-distance bus tickets to Chengdu. The only solution we found was to hitch along with a commercial truck. After paying, we rode in the back of the truck on top of their merchandise and sat on steadily, regardless of the weather conditions. But not long after the truck left Lanzhou, we had to stop for repairs. In a single day, the truck would stop for repairs, start off, and then break down again. There were several breakdowns on the first day and many more on the second. And since there was no refund or chance for us to travel another way, we had to stick with the truck. Normally it should have taken a week to get from Lanzhou to Chengdu, but this broken down truck took over a month to arrive in Chengdu.

In Chengdu we stayed at the local Air Force Hostel and searched for tickets to Kunming. But after just a few days I came down with beriberi. Blisters emerged on my foot and began rotting, which made it impossible to walk. Other people had to bring me all of my meals. It took over half a month before I could walk again, and by then I had little money left. I had to borrow from friends who were at school in the
Huaxi area of Chengdu. [12] I ended up getting very little but I could not ask for more. Since I still did not have enough money to get to Kunming, I wrote to the WASC Director Huang Renlin in Chongqing. My letter explained my predicament and requested to get back on the job. To get his sympathy, I mentioned specifically that I was the student who interpreted for him at the party for the fifth Interpreter training class and the American military personnel.

After sending the letter, I feared that Huang would not reply. I had to resort to selling my clothes and bedding in order to eat. It now seemed like there was no alternative, and I had no choice but to register for the Chinese Expeditionary Army going to Burma. [13] I signed up, passed the physical, and was about to be inducted when the Chengdu Hostel director showed me the reply from Chongqing headquarters agreeing to readmit me and assigning me to work as an interpreter at hostel reception. It was already early October.

In Chengdu, the Air Force Hostel was located inside the city in a three-story building that looked pretty luxurious by contemporary standards. Entering the building you would first see a two hundred square meter lobby with a canteen on the right and reception office on the left. At the back of the lobby, on both right and left corners, were wide staircases with counters set up below them. The counter on the left was the information desk, which was also our office space for the reception department. American personnel lived on the second floor.

I now started to have contact with Americans. In the beginning I was a little intimidated and had difficulties conversing. I had learned English for eight years and could read English novels, so why would I have such trouble listening and speaking? It was actually psychological, all in my head. After a while my mental block disappeared, and I could deal with English conversations.

Soon a young man from Chongqing named Li Weishi arrived and become the hostel director. He was eight years older than me and had graduated from Fudan University and from the second WASC interpreter training class. He lived on the third floor. Four Soviets and their Russian languages interpreters took the other rooms on that floor, which was known as a “forbidden zone.” People speculated that they operated a secret radio station there. I often chatted with Li in his dorm. He liked drinking and usually bought liquor for himself, which led me to start cultivating a drinking habit of my own. When Li found out that I had almost sold off all of my clothes, he gave me a good quality beige suit. I liked myself more after putting it on. We talked about all matters big or small, worked together for over a year, and kept up a solid friendship for decades after.

Not long after Li arrived, the second zone department, which had been in Chongqing, moved to the Chengdu hostel. Two interpreters from that zone worked at the right hand counter in the lobby, and the big guy between them would change dollars for people. When American troops arrived, they would first register their rank and name at reception and then get their room. They had to sign out on the day they left the hostel. We had to print a list at the beginning of each month detailing each American’s name, rank, and duration of stay. This would be reported to the WASC as proof for calculating expenses between the Chinese and American sides. Because I could type in English, this became my job. During my interactions with Americans, I gradually realized what civil diplomacy was. When we talked, I would never forget the principle of upholding personal and national dignity. I acted neither overbearing nor self-effacing, and at the same time I showed a sincere service attitude. This resulted in friendly treatment from the other side.

Our reception department had a few couches, and some of the soldiers would come down to the lobby, sit with us, and chat. A few liked to take out family photos and show us, and some liked to show family photos and pictures of their girlfriends. Li Weishi and I would often talk about the Americans’ characteristics. On the one hand, we thought they were simple-minded and uncultured. They usually swore when they spoke. On the other hand, we found them open, straightforward, and friendly. Our overall impression can be expressed using a sentence that’s popular today: people from all countries are kind and friendly.

One day an American officer came to the reception office asking if we could change U.S. dollars for him. Seeing that he was arrogant, I acted in kind and coldly told him we did not do this business and that he would have to go to the opposite counter. But besides that one time, I had no unpleasant dealings with the Americans. Our relations with them were harmonious, and I even made a good friend, Captain Conway, an American military doctor. We would go shopping and visit the universities in the Huaxi area with him. We also introduced him to some social activities, and two of his male nurses became our good friends.

Rumor had it that the WASC was a corrupt organization. The four zone departments purchased large quantities of permanent living items such as beds, blankets, and mosquito nets for distribution to hostels. But each hostel purchased food items directly, so there were opportunities for graft. But back then Li Weishi and I had not the slightest idea about corruption. We carefully tracked everything that we received and issued out. Li even asked me to assist headquarters personnel and supervise the canteen’s bulk purchases. Our serious attitude blocked opportunities for corruption, which may very well have angered some people and influenced our work coordination.

In the spring of 1944, the WASC zone director met with Li Weishi and told him that American personnel at the Qionglai First Air Force Hostel were very dissatisfied with the work being done there. He decided to send Li to take over, so he and I went to Qionglai.

The Qionglai First Air Force Hostel was in Qionglai, which was located more than 100 kilometers southwest of Chengdu, close to the Xinjin Airport, a base for the B-29’s that bombed Japan. Three hostels were located near the airport, and the one we took over, the first, was a newly built, simple, one-story flat. Its canteen could feed 100 people at once, and the American soldiers staying there all lived in tents. The sanitary conditions in the hostel were bad: you could see the swarms of flies in the canteen.

We discovered that none of the American troops staying at the hostel had registered. According to a Chinese interpreter working at reception, the Americans believed that registration here was a military secret, so only their side could be responsible for keeping track of arrivals and departures. At the beginning of each month the Americans would send a list of names and stay durations to the reception department. When we asked the interpreter if the Americans reported accurately, he said that he wasn’t sure. Li and I thought the Americans’ conduct undermined China’s national dignity, and we found ourselves facing a diplomatic struggle.

We talked the situation over with American soldiers in charge of logistics. They complained about work done at the hostel, especially the terrible sanitary conditions, and hoped we could take over soon. Li and I felt that their hope was our trump card. We explained that in the Chengdu Hostel, the reception department supervised registration, and that this wasn’t any sort of military secret. If this problem could not be settled appropriately, we would return to Chengdu rather than take over at Qionglai. The Americans recognized that while we used soft language, our attitude was firm. They relaxed a little bit but insisted that Qionglai was different from Chengdu and that the Americans had to handle registration and departures on their own. According to them, it would be redundant for the hostel to supervise registration, so we failed to reach an agreement. We took another look at the problem on our own and decided that if the Americans supervised registration but did not underreport the number of soldiers staying in the hostel or their duration there, things would be okay. So we devised a new supervision system. We gave weekly report forms to the hostel staff responsible for the Americans’ tents. They would write daily reports, and from these calculate total numbers and stay durations. The next time we talked with the American staff, we explained our new supervision system. We also told them that we wanted to be able to enter tents for random checks to verify the accuracy of our weekly reports. The American side agreed, including our rights to check their tents. We thought of it as a diplomatic victory, but in reality both sides won.

After we took charge at Qionglai, Li Weishi gathered the Chinese canteen staff for a meeting. He told them our American allies had come to China to help us wage war, so we had to make sure our service work was done well. If we did a sloppy job and angered the American troops, it would harm China’s reputation. Li asked the hostel workers to do a thorough cleaning, especially in kitchen and canteen areas. We spent several days weeding, unclogging drains, and cleaning trash. We also sprayed pesticide to kill the flies, and our work earned the Americans’ respect.

Li and I also met with the American canteen supervisors and suggested that they divide the canteen into separate dining areas for officers and men. They agreed and hung white curtains as a divider. I chose a saying and had it stitched into the curtains in Chinese and English versions: “Confucius said, ‘is it not pleasant to welcome friends coming from afar?’” We also prepared a banquet for the American officers and men we had been talking with and printed out formal invitations in English. The chefs prepared their feature Chinese dishes and also proposed to supply alcohol for the event. They had already opened a bar next to the hostel. The atmosphere at the banquet was harmonious and happy, which improved our friendship.

There was one American, the head quartermaster, who used to give me a carton of cigarettes every month. One day he patted me on the shoulder and said, “come to the U.S. and I’ll let you marry my daughter.” After word of that got around, whenever people saw him approaching they would say to me, “look, your American father-in-law is coming!”

After a while, I saw that my service was about to end and started thinking about going back to school. But returning to Kunming required money for travel expenses, and I had not saved much, so I considered transferring to the Economics Department at Yanjing University in Chengdu to begin my junior year. After taking the transfer exam and gaining admission, I left the hostel and headed for Yanjing University in July 1944, ending my two years of interpreter service.


From 1942 until the end of the war, the American Air Force came to China as our ally. I got along with the American soldiers peacefully. Back then I did not hear of any violent actions among American soldiers, but later, during the Civil War, the government brought in American troops to support them, turning the latter against the Chinese people. The Americans saw the areas under Chiang Kaishek’s administration as semi-colonial, which led to violence from their side. I faithfully recorded my career as an interpreter, which shows that I did nothing wrong during those two years. But during the Cultural Revolution, my interpreter service became a crime. That was a willful distortion of the history of the war against Japan. In those illegal struggle sessions, I had a board hung from my neck that said “Senior American Military advisor.” Was that supposed to put feathers in my cap?


[1] See Michael Schaller, The U.S. Crusade in China, 1938-1945 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).
[2] See Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013); Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China (London: Routledge, 2003), Hans van de Ven, “Stilwell in the Stocks: The Chinese Nationalists and the Allied Powers in the Second World War,” Journal of Asian Affairs, (November 2003), pp. 243-260; Ch’i Hsi-sheng, Jianbanuzhang de mengyou: Taipingyang zhanzheng qijian de ZhongMei junshi hezuo guanxi, 1941-1945 [Allies at Daggers Drawn: U.S.-China Military Cooperation Relations during the Pacific War, 1941-1945] (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chuban she, 2011); Matthew David Johnson, “Propaganda and Sovereignty in Wartime China: Moral Operations and Psychological Warfare Under the Office of War Information,” Modern Asian Studies 45:02 (March 2011) pp.303-344.
[3] See Zuo Ping, “Kangzhan shiqi mengjun zhong de Zhongguo yiyuan,” [The Chinese Interpreters in the US Military during the War of Resistance] Shehui kexue yanjiu (2013.1) pp. 167-172.
[4] For the history of Lianda, see John Israel, Lianda: A Chinese University in War and Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
[5] See Daniel Ford, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942 (New York: HarperCollins 2007).
[6] This memoir is part of a collection published by the Flying Tigers Research Association in Kunming, China. Forthe original text, see Yang Xianjian, “Liang nian fanyi shengya luxing guomin waijiao,” in Yunnan sheng Kunming shi Feihudui yanjiu yuan ed., Er zhan ZhongYinMian zhanchang zhong Zhongguo yiyuan, Kunming: Feihudui yanjiu yuan chuban, 2006, pp. 132-138.
[7] During World War II, the American Air Force was part of the U.S. Army and officially called the United States Army Air Forces.
[8] The War Area Service Corps (WASC) was under the command of China’s highest military body, the Military Affairs Commission. The WASC supervised the training of Chinese interpreters and the housing and feeding of American troops in China.
[9] Fan Yichang was director of teaching affairs at Lianda. He had completed his graduate studies in psychology at Washington University, St. Louis, U.S.A. during the early 1920s. Wu Zelin earned his PhD in Sociology at Ohio State University in 1927 after earning his BA and MA degrees at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Missouri.
[10] Song Meiling was the wife of China’s wartime leader, Chiang Kaishek.
[11] Hostels (招待所 or zhaodaisuo in Chinese) were the facilities in China that housed American soldiers. The Chinese Army in India was originally made up of the elements of the Chinese 5th and 6th Armies that had retreated into India during the summer of 1942 after the disastrous First Burma Campaign. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of Chinese troops flew to India to join the Chinese forces there and prepare for the Second Burma Campaign.
[12] This was the location of Chengdu’s main universities.[13] Chinese Expeditionary Army was the name given to the Chinese forces that fought in the two Burma campaign.