A revised version of this paper was published in the European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 9, no. 2 (2010), pp. 293-321
(please quote only the published version - pdf at bottom of page)
War is not the image that first comes to mind about Shanghai. In most accounts or scholarly studies, the city stands for modernity, economic prosperity, and cultural novelty. It was China’s main financial center, commercial hub, industrial base, and cultural engine. In its modern history, however, Shanghai experienced several instances of war. One could start with the takeover of the city in 1853 by the Small Sword Society and the later attempts by the Taiping armies to approach Shanghai. Eventually, the lack of coordination between the two groups and the intervention of Western forces led to the elimination of the rebels from the walled city. The cost was severe as the whole commercial district along the Huangpu River was burnt down. This set a pattern that would repeat itself in later conflicts. Fighting and destruction took place in the Chinese-administered districts, while the foreign settlements remained immune to the violence around them. Foreign authorities actually devised systems to insulate their territories, through a combination of military reinforcements and defense constructions (especially iron gates on the roads at their boundaries). In the following decades, the specter of war almost disappeared. The 1911 revolution in Shanghai was quite uneventful. In the 1920s, even if civil wars raged in the neighboring provinces, actual violence was kept at bay. The city enjoyed a long period of peace.
This period came to an end on the heels of the Northern Expedition, the military campaign launched by the Guomindang from Canton to fight the various regional warlords and bring China under a unified government. The wealthy Jiangnan area, and Shanghai in particular, became a major tug of war for the different contenders. Yet, the most serious threat came with the rising tensions between China and Japan. On two occasions, the city became a genuine battle ground. If one examines closely these “wars”, however, it becomes obvious that “Shanghai” or the “city” are misnomers for these tragic events. In fact, war touched only parts of Shanghai and, mostly, one particular neighborhood – Zhabei – that suffered from three successive waves of military operation at five-year intervals. This paper will attempt to explore why this happened and what impact these conflicts had on the area. Basically, I shall argue that Zhabei, due to its location and facilities, was exposed to military contest and, as a result, its population became hostage to conflicts that in various turns brought enormous violence. Eventually, Zhabei was fully destroyed and did not regain its pre-war composure until well after 1949.
Birth of a neighborhood
Zhabei counts as one of the major new-born urban neighborhoods of Shanghai outside the original walled city. It developed on the northern bank of Soochow Creek, where a sluice had been built in 1737. The area north of the sluice was called Xinzhabei, then Zhabei. It was an undefined area that belonged to Gaochang Township. Except for a small area that was carved out and included in the American Settlement, it remained under Chinese administration throughout its history. On its eastern and southern border, Zhabei was contiguous with the International Settlement. This presented various advantages, especially a shared river (Soochow Creek), but also problems. As foreigners also bought land in this area, the Shanghai Municipal Council started to send its police to patrol the streets and raise taxes. As in others contiguous areas – commonly known as “external roads area” – in Western Shanghai, this unauthorized extension of SMC power created frictions and even serious tensions with the local Chinese authorities. To oppose this covert extension, local elites set up in 1900 a Zhabei General Bureau of Public Works similar to the office created in the walled city.
Zhabei, therefore, was born as much as a result of a natural process of human settlement as of political factors. After the abolition of all self-government bodies by Yuan Shikai in 1914, Zhabei came under the authority of the Shanghai Township. It became a sub-office of the Shanghai General Bureau of Public Works, Police and Taxes (Shangai gongxunjuan zongju). Yet this also meant that for the first time, it was united to its southern sister as a part of Shanghai, Chinese Shanghai. In 1921, however, self-government organs were allowed again. Zhabei local elites strove to set up an autonomous body. A self-government agency under various designations did exist in name, but not in law. Eventually, Zhabei was absorbed into the Shanghai-Wusong Port Directorate established by Sun Chuanfang in 1926, then by the Nationalist municipality in July 1927. From then onward, Zhabei became fully part of Shanghai.
The presence of Soochow Creek was a major factor in the development of Zhabei. In the past, the river had served mostly as a waterway that connected boats en route to or from the walled city to the Huangpu River. With the emergence of the foreign settlements, however, the spatial layout of the city took a new turn. With the increased flow of vessels on Soochow Creek, small local markets started to coalesce on its northern bank within an area that remained largely rural. In 1906, there was only one cotton mill in Zhabei. The second major factor that played a fundamental role was the building of the Nanjing-Shanghai railway line and its train terminal in the middle of Zhabei. There was an initial experiment in 1874-1876 with the building of a railway line between Shanghai (Zhabei) and Wusong. It created a sensation that attracted thousands of visitors, vendors, etc. It also caused strong resentment from the villagers along the line who believed the train affected the local fengshui and disturbed the graves of their ancestors. By the fall of 1877, the first railway line was gone.
Railway did not return to Shanghai until October 1898. Again it was a line that connected Shanghai to Wusong. By 1903, the line was linked to the Shanghai-Ningbo line under construction. When the new line was completed in 1908, a new station opened the following July. With ten daily departures, it could carry 1,000 passengers. In 1916, Shanghai was connected to Hangzhou. The station received larger quantities of freight, but above all higher numbers of travelers. Its capacity rose to 10,000 daily. Zhabei became the place were trains unloaded their countless passengers coming to Shanghai. With the traffic that came by boat on Soochow Creek, Zhabei became the “Great Northern Gate” of Shanghai, a central node for transportation to and from the city. A whole new economy developed around the train station and the wharves. Shops, taverns, hotels, restaurants, banks literally mushroomed in the neighborhood. By 1930, there were no less than 86 large shops, selling food (11), shoes and hats (11), house ware (7), cigarettes and sugar (4) or offering various services (38). As passengers needed to get to the other sectors of Shanghai, especially the foreign settlements, or to the nearby villages, various modes of transportation offered their service around the station: wheelbarrows, rickshaws, buses, etc.
These transportation facilities and the availability of cheap land attracted Chinese capital. On the heels of services came industry, mostly in the form of light industry workshops. They processed cotton, silk, leather; they produced soap, music instruments, flour, books, etc. Most workshops were concentrated on Baoshan, Xindaqiao, Xinzhaqiao, Kongjiang, Ximin or Baotong Roads, next to or near the train station. To promote industrial development and placate the influence of foreigners, Chinese merchants established a power and water treatment plant that became operational by 1911. Zhabei eventually rose to prominence. In the late 1920s-early 1930s, it was home to 256 large factories in twenty different fields of industrial production. In 1930, it represented a substantial portion of the city’s total industrial production: textile (42.6%), chemical industry (23%), food (22.4%), printing (29%) and electromechanics (16%). One of the most prestigious companies was the Commercial Press founded in 1897. It occupied a large plot with its presses, warehouses, its famous library and living quarters for its employees.
These developments stimulated a boom in construction. In 1909, there were hardly 30 residential lanes (lilong) in Zhabei, but by 1926 the built-up area had grown to 721 lanes. Zhabei benefited from the rising cost of real estate in the foreign settlements, especially in the International Settlement. Urbanization, however, reflected primarily the steady demographic increase. The most radical shift took place in the early 1920s, with a massive population increase – from 23,000 in 1910 to 154,684 in 1926 – and sprouting of all kinds of commercial and industrial ventures. On the eve of the second Japanese attack, residents numbered close to 700,000. Within the Zhabei district, some police wards like Menggulu had the highest population density in the city, above 160,000 people per square kilometer. Mostly, the residents were natives from the neighboring provinces or from Guangdong. Non natives represented 63 per cent of the total population in 1926, with a significant share of migrants originating from the poorest areas of Jiangbei.
The sociological profile of Zhabei residents revealed a large proportion of skilled workers, craftsmen, and merchants from Jiangnan, Zhejiang, and Guangdong. Certainly, its location and function as a major transportation hub also played a role in the diversification of its population and activities. Compared to Yangshupu, the other major industrial base of Shanghai, Zhabei offered far more resources for education and entertainment. In 1931, there were 160 primary schools, 40 middle schools, 20 technical schools and 10 advanced schools, and six libraries. In particular, there were several establishments for the professional training of girls. Obviously this was a population that cared about the education of its children and could afford the cost of tuition fees. This reflected also the higher level of literacy and general education of the local population. Another indicator, for instance, was the number of companies that edited, printed and distributed publications (74) or the number of journals (25) published there. These were activities that required skilled and literate workers. The population of Zhabei, therefore, presented a particular social mix of workers and employees, middle-class urbanites from various parts of China, yet with a significant share of poorer laborers who settled in makeshift squats.
The history of Zhabei could have been a success story. With its hundreds of workshops and its capacity for innovation, it was a powerful engine that nourished the development of the city. Yet the history of Zhabei is also one of tragedy. The source of its woes was twofold. The first element was the presence of the North station in its midst. The train station and its connected lines, as we shall see, became both a tug of war and a major military target every time opposing forces went into fighting in the city as in 1927, 1932 and 1937. The second element was its proximity to Hongkou, a sector included in the International Settlement where a large part of the Japanese community had settled. The rise of Chinese nationalism from 1919 onward was fueled by various incidents and events that took Japan as its target. In Shanghai, strong protests and demonstrations, most often at the initiative of students, created serious tensions, but until 1931 they were limited to the boycott of Japanese goods. The invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese army in September 1931 created an uproar that soon turned into massive demonstrations and pressures on the Shanghai Japanese community. The Japanese Navy brought in reinforcement, seeking a pretext to strike and punish the Chinese military. Five years later, the tensions between the two countries escalated into a full-fledged war. Shanghai – and Zhabei in particular – became again a ferociously disputed battle ground.
Death of a neighborhood
Zhabei became engulfed into war at successive and increasingly destructive intervals. In the early 1910s, revolutionary movements had already caused twice a “scare” among the population, especially merchants, when the risk of fighting arose in Zhabei. In 1911, the revolutionary forces had established their headquarters in the area. Yet the resistance of the authorities just crumbled before actual fighting took place. Two years later, when the revolutionaries made a feeble attempt to oppose Yuan Shikai, representatives of the local elites managed to convince their leaders to move their headquarters and forces out of Zhabei. The area again suffered no more than a little panic. The “Nanking decade” that saw the establishment of a modern municipality by the Nationalist government and a determined effort to build a new city should have brought stability and prosperity. Yet for Zhabei it turned out to be the “Warring decade”. Within ten years, the new-born but thriving neighborhood was turned into a heap of rubles.
1927: Civil war in a “revolutionary” quarter
By early spring 1927, the Northern Expedition launched by the Nationalists from Canton had reached the outskirts of Shanghai. Twice the revolutionary forces had tried to force destiny and to topple the authorities that ruled the Chinese districts of the city. Twice they had failed, at a high human cost. By mid-March, however, the nationalist armies were closing in on Shanghai. The revolutionary forces decided once again, under the initiative of the CCP, to organize an uprising and a general strike. Tensions quickly built up around the Zhabei train station from where warlord soldiers were being evacuated. On the morning of March 20, troops swarmed the platforms. All peddlers and rickshaw pullers were expelled from the station. Access to the station was severely guarded and regular trains were suspended. The nationalist army reached Shanghai from the south. It met with little resistance and quickly seized control of the area south of the French Concession. In the northern districts, however, the warlord armies made a last-ditch effort against the combined assault by soldiers and workers militia.
Fighting took place mostly around the train station where warlord soldiers and a battalion of White Russian mercenaries held their position from an armored train. Fighting raged for only a couple of days, but it had a strong impact on neighboring residential blocks. The streets south of the station were the scene of heavy fighting and shelling. By the end of the second day of fighting, however, the warlord troops withdrew to the north or sought refuge in the International Settlement, leaving behind about 70 dead. Yet fires had erupted in several places, especially around Baoshan Road and Jukong road, destroying about 1,000 houses, including the building of the firemen station. The Zhabei “big fire” (閘北大火), as the press reported it, left thousands homeless. Altogether, about 2,000 houses were said to be lost to the fire and 5 million yuan worth of properties and goods had been destroyed. Yet a later survey revealed lesser damage, although the survey dealt only with the area most affected by fighting. The report published on 29 April 1927 recorded 395 destroyed houses and 300,000 worth of goods.
Different kinds of people were involved in the fighting or in peace-keeping forces. Zhabei, due to the presence of myriads of workshops and factories, had a large population of workers. Hence it was a major stronghold of trade unions and CCP activists. The General Labor Union had its headquarters in the area. Workers militia took an active role in taking control of the whole district even before the arrival of the NRA. Yet the situation of relative disorder that prevailed brought all kinds of problems. The voluntary Peace-keeping militia (baoweituan), for instance, was exposed to violence by thugs and rowdies who took advantage of the fighting and resulting disorder to threaten people with weapons and steal from houses. Although most encounters were inconsequential, one man lost his life and several were wounded. Workers involved in fighting or support to the NRA also fell victim to stray bullets. The Shanghai General Labor Union reported 29 casualties for Western Shanghai, almost all of them on the front line in Zhabei. Seven eventually died from their wounds. Civilians were caught in the crossfire, although most victims actually died from being trapped in their houses set ablaze. In the Baoshan-Jukong road area, about 100 people were killed. This was the heaviest loss. Total civilian casualties amounted to some 150 people.
Although a municipal administration had been set up by the warlord ruler, it dissolved with the conquest by the Nationalist army. In between, a new municipal organization was established under the auspices of the revolutionary organizations with the clear purpose to create a fait accompli and preempt the takeover of the city by Jiang Jieshi’s forces. Yet again, this organization dissolved before the April 12 coup by Jiang Jieshi. When an official municipality was established in July 1927, the fighting in Zhabei was a by-gone event and its victims hardly a matter of concern. Mostly, they sought relief by organizing a Zhabei Federation of Fire Victims (Zhabei huozai ge hu lianhehui). Little is known about its activities and degree of success. It held its first meeting on 28 March to hear a report by its chairman. Only 400 families had joined, but the chairman attributed this to the scattering of families in the foreign settlements. Mostly, the victims had received help from the local charities, in particular the Zhabei Charity Association (Zhabei cishantuan). As an emergency measure, the Chamber of commerce and the Chinese Red Cross had sent 2,000 yuan. Later on, the federation wrote to a wide range of organizations, including the municipal government, the trade unions, the student federation, the Shanghai and county chambers of commerce, the local GMD headquarters, etc. to seek assistance. They also urged them to pressure the reluctant insurance companies to facilitate the reimbursement of damages for those who had such insurance.
The federation met again on 11 April, but little progress seems to have been made beyond reassuring words. Insurance companies considered the incident a matter of military concern (not a regular fire) and seemed reluctant to indemnify the victims. After further negotiations, however, an agreement was discussed between the insurance syndicate and the federation. Yet no concrete measure resulted from these contacts and the federation again called the Chamber of Commerce as well as the Shanghai and Baoshan county authorities to intervene on behalf of the 53 insured families. Out of 250 registered families, only 53 had insurance policies. The Chamber of commerce played its role of intermediary with the insurance companies to convince them they should assume their responsibilities. After a thorough survey, 55 families and enterprises received a compensation for their losses. For those without insurance, the chamber contributed a lump sum of 500 yuan for each family. The Zhabei Charity Association also issued 15 yuan per person to help people return to their home village or town. A few hundreds chose to leave. This was a classic mode of intervention in times of crisis, as we shall see below. The scale of the operation was limited, as well as the supply of temporary housing. Eventually, there remained about 100 people in the care of the association. They were given some money and urged to seek a job.
The 1927 incident was the very first instance of modern warfare in the city proper and more specifically in a neighborhood that would later become the major battle ground between Chinese and Japanese troops. The major parameters were set: fighting around the train station, complete disregard for the civilian population, absence of official support to the victims. The extent of casualties was limited. Again, actual records are missing, but the press reported on only a small numbers of killed or wounded residents. The concentration of fighting in one single location can explain the limited impact of the conflict. In the years that followed, the Chinese municipality quickly repaired the damage done to the strain station and railways. Private initiative took care of the reconstruction of destroyed houses. War scars disappeared from the surface of the city and, probably too, from people’s mind.
1932: military conflict and civilian violence
Five years later, however, war flared up again in Zhabei. The Manchurian crisis – the invasion of Manchuria by the Guandong Army in September 1931 – generated a powerful outcry in China and a strident call to boycott Japanese goods throughout the country. Mostly, however, the nationalist movement developed in cities. In Shanghai, student organizations, merchants associations, and trade unions mobilized to protest Japanese encroachment in the Northeast. Anti-Japanese feelings ran high in the city. The Chinese national government overcame its previous division and regrouped to face Japanese military threat. Yet it also strove to deflect Chinese public animosity, especially in Shanghai, and to prevent new incidents and a possible extension of the conflict. The Japanese diplomatic and military representatives, however, exerted strong pressures on the municipal administration to actually curtail the anti-Japanese movement and demonstrations. They even demanded the dissolution of the local branch of the National Salvation Association. Although the mayor eventually bent to all demands, the Japanese military decided to use force to impose the departure of Chinese regiments from Shanghai.
On 28 January 1932, the Japanese army launched a powerful attack on Nationalist forces. Officially, the attack was justified by the need to protect the Japanese civilian community – many had actually been shipped back to Japan – and to obtain a demilitarization of Shanghai in a radius of 30 km around the city. While Japanese officials had anticipated a quick Blitzkrieg, the conflict lasted 28 days with repeated waves of frontal attack on both sides. The Cantonese troops stationed in and around the city fought back with fierce determination and little regard for the consequences on the local population. The civilian population was literally trapped in a war zone. Fighting affected mostly Zhabei where the Chinese had concentrated their troops. The Japanese used their gunboats and the Yangshupu area – officially a neutral territory of the International Settlement – to carry out their operations. Zhabei was subject to heavy shelling, including the use of aerial bombing. As in 1927, the train station and the railway lines became a central stake as the Chinese used it to bring in supply and move armored trains around. The raised roadbed of the railway solidified the main battle front in the very heart of Zhabei. The train station was turned into a genuine fortress and soon became the symbol of Chinese resistance.
The population was caught by surprise and locked into a conflict that brought enormous devastation. Post-conflict reports indicated that 180,816 families (814,084 people) resided in the areas directly affected by war. The Chinese civilian population could not count on any official protection. In Hongkou and Yangshupu, both parts of the International Settlement, the Shanghai Municipal Council had withdrawn its policemen and firemen for fear of exposing them to fighting. It also sealed off the central districts, south of the Soochow Creek, by installing checkpoints and barbed wire on the bridges leading into the International settlement. The Japanese Navy was formally in charge of the whole sector, according to the defense plan that attributed Sector D (Hongkou and Yangshupu) to Japanese troops in case of Chinese aggression. Yet in 1932, these exceptional conditions were exploited to the extreme by the Japanese military to carry out its military operations in Chinese territory, namely Zhabei. In the absence of SMC regular officials, the Japanese Navy entrusted peacekeeping to Japanese civilians wearing armbands. These vigilante-like groups took over authority and behaved arbitrarily with no restraint. Calling themselves ronin, they served as auxiliaries to the Japanese army, to regulate traffic, search houses and guide Japanese soldiers through the maze of Zhabei streets. They became notorious for their violence and brutal treatment of the Chinese civilian population (beatings, rapes, executions). When they suspected the presence of Chinese snipers, these Japanese militiamen, many of them reservists of the Japanese army, torched the buildings where they were allegedly hiding.
The ronin reservists rounded up Chinese civilians suspected of resisting the Japanese. Yet the sheer number of those arrested – by the hundreds – is an obvious proof of the arbitrary character of these arrests. On one occasion, 150 civilians were summarily shot, while their companions were enrolled into forced labor for the Japanese army. As war escalated and spread to the neighboring areas, frightened peasants attempted to seek refuge in the city, through Hongkou. Many were simply gunned down. Protests by foreign consuls forced the Japanese consul to rein in the use of ronin reservists and to turn their functions to regular troops once an area was stabilized. The degree of violence exercised against the Chinese population by the unruly ronin reservists and Japanese soldiery shocked the Western community. Few had expected such behavior from a country perceived as a quasi model of organization, modernity and adherence to Western standards of diplomacy. Yet violence prevailed as attested by direct testimonies by foreign residents. While these acts of brutality could easily be blamed on some nationalist extremists, Japanese civilian involvement went well beyond such individuals. The Japanese Residents’ Association (Shanhai Kyoryūmindan) had been very vocal against the Chinese boycott and had called forcefully for a military intervention. Even before the conflict, some of them had been seen into direct action against anti-Japanese demonstrators or in punishing expeditions against shops that displayed anti-Japanese posters. The Japanese community, therefore, included a wide and belligerent segment ready to take action against what they perceived as Chinese aggression. It provided a ready-made group of auxiliaries that came under the command of the Japanese military and mostly followed its instructions.
Civilian involvement into the conflict was actually very high and unusual. It had to do, on the Chinese side, with the vigorous nationalist sentiment in a city mobilized for months against the Japanese invasion. It also had to do with a very practical consideration: war had stopped economic activity in the war-affected areas. Tens of thousands of workers and coolies were available and actually large numbers volunteered to carry supplies and dig trenches for the Chinese troops. Within days of the beginning of the conflict, 4,000 workers and 500 students had joined in combat or logistical support. Besides the destruction wrought upon the buildings by bombs, the ground was crisscrossed by trenches dug deeper and deeper. Their military value notwithstanding, it turned Zhabei into a fully devastated area. Another reason for civilian involvement in direct combat was the protection afforded to Japanese troops by the foreign settlements. The Chinese high command had received instructions not to penetrate into these areas so as to avoid a military confrontation with Western troops. While Chinese soldiers strictly abode with this rule, both military and civilian snipers slipped into Japanese-occupied zones, in Zhabei, Hongkou or Yangshupu, and continuously harassed Japanese soldiers. The Green Gang under Du Yuesheng sent snipers, generously paid, to join the fray (while others from the same Green gang cooperated with the Japanese in maintaining order or frightening the Chinese population).
During the conflict, the Japanese made use of the whole range of available modern weaponry. Annoyed and even infuriated by the stubborn Chinese resistance, they deployed heavy armament and subjected the central sectors of Zhabei to intense bombing by land batteries, naval guns and airplane bombs. This was without any contest the most intense bombing ever dropped on a city in history. For Shanghai, nothing had ever come close to this degree of military violence. Failing to break the military backbone of the Chinese troops, the Japanese command had brought 100 military aircraft in February to crush their defense line. By the end of the same month, it had concentrated more than 200 planes, one half of the whole national air force. The Chinese never had a chance in the sky, but the high number of planes is a testimony to the degree of violence brought upon the city and, as I argue, on Zhabei. The buildings, or what remained of them, were repeatedly plowed up by a heavy “rolling” pattern of bombardment. The Japanese used incendiary bombs that caused huge firestorms. When the Chinese troops withdrew from Zhabei, they also started a fire to hide their movement behind a screen of smoke. The 1932 conflict certainly served as an invaluable training and experimental ground for the Japanese army. It had the opportunity to test new weaponry, especially artillery, and experiment with aerial photography as a source of military intelligence. Although they learned their lesson the hard way, the Japanese military officials made an extensive study of the 1932 conflict that no doubt served them in the 1937 confrontation.
This second and more drastic instance of military was far more devastating than the 1927 conflict. More than 100 lilong (lane) and thousands of houses were destroyed. Among factories, the damage was huge with 896 destroyed facilities. Of the 77 silk factories, only 27 remained after the fighting. A survey by the Bureau of Social Affairs showed that altogether Zhabei had lost 4,204 shops and 841 workshops, but schools, temples, associations, etc. also lost heavily. Caught unaware, the population was literally trapped in the combat zone. Escape was difficult with all access to the International Settlement closed. Thousands of residents managed to flee with the help of volunteers that drove trucks hired by native-place associations. About 75,000 people were rescued through these risky expeditions. On 12 February, a short truce also allowed residents to leave the war zone. The war-free areas of the city – except the foreign settlements – received the overflow of population in hastily set up refugee camps. Altogether, 135,000 went through these camps. Yet, due to the cost and difficulty to maintain such a large population that came on top of the refugees from the previous 1931 Yangzi flood, the relief committee organized the evacuation of large number of refugees back to their home town or village. More than 137,000 were shipped away from Shanghai by boat or train. The official number of casualties among civilians was limited, at least by official count: 1,739 dead, 719 wounded, 985 missing – but many residents, hundreds and even thousands, went missing. The Bankers’ Weekly claimed 6,080 dead, 2,000 wounded from the war. Another 10,400 were recorded as “missing”. Of those some simply left the area and never came back, but many died in the hands of the Japanese military and their civilian henchmen. Zhabei came out of the conflict badly shaken, materially and psychologically.
The conflict left about 4,000 killed and 7,700 wounded among Chinese troops (for an estimated force of 63,000), well above Japanese casualties with less than a thousand killed and 8,600 wounded (out of a total of 47,000). In both cases, however, figures vary very much, despite various studies by military historians to come up with reasonable estimates. Another indication is the number of corpses collected and buried by Chinese charities after the conflict. The total amounted to around 7,000 bodies, including civilians and soldiers. These various figures do not match, but they do convey very clearly that the short-lived conflict was extremely violent and costly in material terms and human lives. On the Japanese side, however, the toll paid “to teach a lesson” to the Chinese also proved very costly, far more than the military invasion of Manchuria. While the Japanese army learned its lessons, stubbornness and misconceived strategy would make the 1937 conflict even more costly to the Chinese army.
The municipal government lost considerable resources both during and after the conflict, which limited its capacity to help the population and initiate reconstruction. The municipality established a committee for the reconstruction of the Shanghai-Wusong war zones (Song-Hu zhanqu shanhou weiyuanhui 淞滬戰區善後委員會) made up of all the directors of municipal bureaus as well as the most influential members of Shanghai’s business and financial circles. Basically, the authorities concentrated their effort on public facilities. They strove to prevent the area from being turned into a slum area. The police was instructed to take steps to prevent the erection of thatched huts. The Bureau of Social Affairs initially drew up a three-year reconstruction plan, assessed at $5,000,000 that focused on the swift construction of people’s dwellings, the rehabilitation of the rural zones, and the financing of social assistance through the people’s credit institutions. This plan, however, was rejected in favor of a scheme from the Bureau of Public Works that shifted most investments to the Civic center in Jiangwan, with the hope that the connections established between the Civic center and Zhabei would help the latter to take off again.
Fundamentally, the municipal government just gave up the idea of rebuilding Zhabei at government expense and decided to let private initiative take the responsibility for it. It reduced tax rates and even suspended taxation for a period of time to help merchants and craftsmen to recover from their losses. As in 1927, there was much haggling about insurance cover, but in any case only 4,200 families had subscribed a policy. Zhabei remained a badly shattered area. Some years later, tourists would still be taken to the area to witness the havoc wrought by the Japanese army. Nevertheless, Zhabei recovered from its wounds. According to the 1936 Shanghai Yearbook, 574 workshops were registered in the area (one third of the pre-war total). People came back or were replaced by new migrants, even if it failed to reach the pre-conflict level in most neighborhoods. Slums were on the rise, despite all efforts by the municipality. One fifth of the residents lived in such areas. By and large, however, Zhabei became again the humming and thriving small-industry and commercial quarter spread around the train and bus stations. The train station itself underwent its second reconstruction, without knowing its new lease of life would not last more than five years.
The 1932 conflict does not figure prominently in the collective memory, despite its violence and its destructive impact on the population. “Shanghai” was not affected beyond the stoppage of transportation for the duration of the conflict. In spite of the clear warning that the city could be exposed at any time to modern warfare – Zhabei was indeed the first urban area to make the sad experience of a mix of modern military warfare and civilian violence – the city leaders chose to ignore the risks involved in the prevailing Sino-Japanese tensions. Although commemorative volumes were published, mostly to celebrate the bravery of the armies involved in fighting back the enemy, the whole event was pushed aside purposely and, from the government’s perspective, better left forgotten. Even cinematographic production veered away from the topic, not for lack of interest and will to capture the event, but because official pressures managed to push back this violent conflict into oblivion and amnesia. Chinese officials laid a memorial for the soldiers killed during the conflict, though with little activity after its installation. While commemorative ceremonies were held each year until January 1937, none were held in this location. Assemblies took place in the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, in party headquarters and in the Civic Center, some with the offering of a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier in Jiangwan. There was no mention in the news report of the fate of the civilian victims.
1937: final disaster
The second Sino-Japanese conflict in the summer of 1937 was the disastrous and final blow to Zhabei’s destiny. Yet the civilian population did not suffer so much from direct fighting and bombing as in 1932. Forewarned by the ongoing conflict in the north, a local incident involving Japanese marines and Japanese reinforcements to Shanghai, the Zhabei residents lost no time to leave the area well before the start of the conflict. Experience had taught them they were easy pawns in a conflict that dawned on them. The Zhabei-Hongkou area, and even Yangshupu lost almost all their population. When a ceasefire was established on 1 September, only 6,000 frightened residents were rescued from Yangshupu. Everywhere else, people had fled to safer grounds and crowded in the foreign settlements. Zhabei then just became a battle ground. The duration and extend of the conflict was far worse than in 1932. It lasted for three full months, with most of it taking place in the Zhabei area. The nature of the weaponry had further improved since 1932 and made the fighting much more destructive. Zhabei was the target of 136 attacks, 48 shellings and 98 aerial bombings. The Japanese troops set the entire neighborhood on fire to press the Chinese army out of the area and likewise the Chinese torched houses to hide their own retreat. Zhabei burned for three whole days in late October. At the end of the 80 days of fighting, Zhabei was basically razed to the ground. Close to 95% of all constructions were destroyed.
While material destruction was almost complete, there were few direct casualties among civilians. As noted above, the population had evacuated the area en masse before the first bullets were exchanged. The rest escaped in the first days of fighting. Civilian casualties resulted from accidental bombings in the heart of the foreign settlements. On two occasions—“Bloody Saturday” on 14 August and again on 23 August – Chinese planes accidentally dropped bombs on major commercial areas, killing thousands in seconds. Aside from the victims of fighting in Zhabei and peasants killed in their villages around Shanghai, these two incidents represented the highest toll of civilian casualties during the whole war. It does not mean that no lives were lost. Tens of thousands actually died, mostly infants and children, from malnutrition, diseases, and sheer poverty. In 1938 alone, charity organizations picked up more than 60,000 exposed bodies and abandoned coffins in the streets of Shanghai. On the military side, three months of bitter fighting left 250,000 casualties out of 700,000 engaged for the Chinese army and 40,000 casualties out of the 300,000 Japanese engaged.
By the end of the war, Zhabei was a ghost city. The area remained closed to the Chinese until spring 1938, but even after its reopening, few families returned. Mostly Zhabei was taken over by refugees, many of them from Subei. Yet population increased to 54,600 people in January 1938, a far cry from its original 700,000 pre-war residents. The area was used for refugee camps, while former residents or new comers simply settled among the ruins in makeshift huts. There were only 6 middle schools and 43 primary schools. Municipal authorities had little funds and failed to restore the area to its previous situation, even for the basic facilities. In 1939, aerial photographs by the Japanese army show an entirely empty area. By 1940, little progress has been made as a detailed military map shows. For the most part, the area was represented with “grass” as its major symbol. Of the 590 lilong extent in 1927, 388 had been destroyed. Only six new ones were built during the war. Zhabei was unable to recuperate from its war losses. Absent or ineffectual municipal administration until 1939 failed to bring any kind of resources. Yet even after the establishment of a more stable municipality under Chen Gongbo, the authorities lacked the financial capability to launch a reconstruction program. By 1942, it was back to 220,742, including 25,000 Japanese residents.
After 1945, the civil war brought more misfortune. Refugees streamed into the abandoned area. While the population stood at 216,900 in July 1945 (its 1920s level), it surged to 299,591 in 1946 and 548,400 in 1948. The massive influx of population, however, did not reflect a new prosperity. Zhabei became an enormous refugee camp for refugees from the Subei area. Migrants represented 93 to 97 percent of the population in 1950, with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. As housing had not yet been rebuilt, and because the new migrants came with few resources, they ended mostly in slums. In 1948, Zhabei was home to more than 120 slums with more than 100 families each. The slum population represented 42% of the total population of Zhabei in 1948, yet it consumed only four percent of electrical power distributed in the area. Despite official plans to restore the area and to redevelop it, none of the fund-starved projects ever materialized.
When it comes to war, the view from Shanghai is quite appalling. The city was not just a stake for conflicts that unraveled in its hinterland. War struck in its very heart. Yet war hardly figures in the common trope about the city, except perhaps for the last instance of fighting in 1937, though even in this case the military phase and its tragic consequences are given much less attention than the subsequent "lone island" (gudao) myth. The 1932 conflict, for its part, has been reduced to an "incident" in most historiographical renderings of the event, either for purposes of propaganda by the Japanese contender, or because its short duration did not warrant the use of "war" in both the reports of the time or later historical narratives. Even in contemporary Chinese publications, it is most often recalled as the "1.28 incident" （yi.erba shibian）or more appropriately "1.28 antijapanese war" (yi.erba songhu kangzhan) whereas in the immediate aftermath of the conflict the most commonly used expressions were the "Wusong-Shanghai War" (Song-Hu zhan) or the Wusong-Shanghai Bloody War" (Song-Hu xuezhan). The second violent attack five years later is part of the broader master narrative on the War of Resistance against Japan, and it either pales in view of subsequent instances of military violence (e.g. Nanking massacre), or is written off in favor of another dominant topos (e.g. gudao, the "lone island").
Yet war in Shanghai was real, even if using "Shanghai" tends to generalize an experience that was not felt in the same way throughout the city. The most striking pattern of military conflicts in Shanghai was their concentration on the Chinese-administered areas. In the 19th century, when the walled city represented the whole city, the rebellion by the Small Sword Society and its repression by the imperial armies in 1853-1855 left the city badly hurt. Most of its commercial area along the Huangpu River went in flames, while large tracks of buildings were destroyed within the wall. With the loss of importance of the walled city and the rise of a new neighborhood in the north, beyond Soochow Creek, war also moved north, skipping the foreign settlements, to strike repeatedly in Zhabei and Hongkou. War hit the city very hard, but in a much localized manner. The political fragmentation of Shanghai's urban territory was reflected in the lopsided distribution of military violence, with a disproportionate share concentrated in one area.
The foreign settlements formed real enclaves that were protected from the war that literally unraveled just across the river (Soochow Creek) and crushed thousands of lives. Without the privileges of extraterritoriality and the relative concern of Japanese troops not to get involved into a conflict with Western powers, there is little doubt that war would have affected the city more broadly, not just a single district. In 1937, the show took on a new dimension, with hundreds packed on the Bund to watch the scores of Chinese planes descending on the prized Izumo gunboat. People were mesmerized by the sounds of explosion and the huge splashes of water from the Huangpu River each time a bomb hit the surface. Until a plane missed and dropped a bomb on the crowd, killing more than 800 people in one stroke. War had finally descended on the highly protected foreign settlements. The representatives of the two settlements protested and vocally proclaimed their "neutrality". Indeed the settlements served as a haven – a dire haven nonetheless – for the hundreds of thousands of residents who had fled the war zone. The Chinese army showed restraint, indeed, as it chose to battle only in the Chinese-administered districts and refrained from launching operations through the foreign settlements.
The most significant aspect of war in Shanghai – one that certainly makes a difference with the European experience – was the direct involvement, even if passively, of the civilian population and the high degree of violence and destruction is was subject to. Mostly, civilians were taken hostage, with little support or protection from their own authorities. War erupted unannounced in 1932 and left the local residents at the mercy of unrestrained violence and no support thereafter. In 1937, the population "voted with its feet" to escape a similar predictable fate in the hands of battling troops and found a limited degree of support through refugee camps and transportation back to the native place in the countryside. Yet, in both cases the scale of violence, and hence of material destruction was enormous. Housing and urban infrastructures were smashed to the ground, Zhabei was laid bare. There is hardly any case of city being subject to such a degree of destruction and forced repatriation of its population before W.W. II. The civilian population, however, was also involved in combat and logistical support to a degree unknown in the European experience, even during W.W. II. This was a far cry from the Vietnamese or Lao experiences as shown in Christopher Goscha's or Vatthana Pholsena's papers in this issue. Yet on both sides, Japanese and Chinese, civilians mobilized, gathered intelligence, carried weapons, dug trenches, etc. They were not mere passive observers or victims. Civilian direct participation in the war effort was probably a key feature of wars in modern East and Southeast Asia.
This preliminary study of military conflicts and civilian violence in Shanghai hopes to highlight the relevance of examining these phenomena not just from the broad angle of war in a given place, but to reflect upon the diversity of experiences in a single place. Shanghai, due to its particular political configuration, may offer an unusual perspective, as people could be literally slaughtered on one side of the city, while others went about their business almost "as usual" on the other side. A clear indication of this is the perspective of "war as a show" that resulted from the division of the city into Chinese-administered districts and foreign settlements. Such an observatory stance has its roots in the early conflicts that took place in the 1850s when foreign observers ran nearby the walled city to watch the imperial armies and the rebels fight each other, or just observed these "most amusing performances". The scale of warfare in 1937, made this posture both more comfortable and exciting. From the rooftops of high-rises, at a safe distance from actual fighting, Western (and Chinese) resident could watch the "war show" as bombs rained on Zhabei and gigantic fires erupted throughout the area as in 1932. Quite clearly, war meant very differentiated experiences over time and space in Shanghai.
Zhang Xiaochuan, “Zhanzheng yu jindai shanghai zhabei chengqu de yanbian” (War and the transformation of the Zhabei urban area in modern Shanghai), Suzhou keji xueyuan xuebao (Journal of the Suzhou Institute of Technology), No. 2, 2009, p. 82
Henriot, Christian, “La rupture GMD-PCC en 1927: suicide ou assassinat ?”, Cahiers d'études chinoises, Paris, INALCO, 1986, pp. 45-99
A Month of Reign of Terror in Shanghai. What the foreigners see, say and think from January 28, to February 27, 1932 (Shanghai, China Weekly Herald, 1932).
Anne Kerlan-Stephens, “‘The Enemy is Coming’: the 28th January 1932 attack on Shanghai in Chinese cinema” in Christian Henriot & Yeh Wen-hsin (eds.), Envisioning China: History in cinematic and photographic sights (Berkeley: Research Monographs of the IEAS, University of California, 2010 [forthcoming]).
Christian Henriot, “‘Invisible Deaths, Silent Deaths’. ‘Bodies Without Masters’ in Republican Shanghai”, Journal of Social History, Vol. 43, no. 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 408-437
Subei was a derogative term to designate the migrants from the Jiangbei area – northern Jiangsu – to Shanghai where mot ended in the most menial and less skilled jobs. On Subei people in Shanghai, see Emily Honig, Creating Chinese Ethnicity. Subei People in Shanghai, 1850-1980 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993).