China, Women on the Home Front in World War II

The experience of women in China during World War II. China’s long wartime experience was punctuated by extremely violent attacks against civilians, including women, by Japanese military forces. The brutality of Japanese troops deepened Chinese women’s nationalism and fueled their demands for personal, political, and civil rights and for representation. Vast numbers of women enrolled in a variety of auxiliary assistance and armed resistance movements led by independent warlords and sects as well as by the much larger Chinese Communist and Nationalist Parties.

China’s experience of World War II is variously dated from 1931, when Japanese forces occupied Manchuria, or from 1937, when Japan’s troops seized control of the principal cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing (Nanking). Popular anti-Japanese sentiments predate these main-force military incursions, however, and as early as 1927, Chinese women were instrumental in the success of long-running anti-Japanese consumer boycotts.

Japan’s creation of a puppet government in Manchuria in 1932 was followed in 1935 by military operations in northern China, and in 1937 Japan embarked upon an all-out invasion of eastern China. The Japanese advance forced the Nationalist government under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) to abandon its capital at Nanjing in late 1937 in favor of Chongqing (Chungking) in remote Sichuan province. As early as Japan’s July 1937 attack on Beijing, small networks of women in coastal Chinese cities began organizing to provide nursing and food services to Chinese Nationalist troops. During the battle for Shanghai in September and October 1937, some 2,000 women residents of the city enrolled in emergency nursing courses. Other women who supported the rival Chinese Communist Party (CCP) joined its small guerrilla detachments as propagandists or communications specialists; a handful also acted as spies, providing information on both Japanese and Nationalist troop movements to Communist leaders in China’s interior.

In Japanese-occupied areas, China’s relatively new personal and civil rights laws were abandoned in favor of martial law—or of no law at all. The often anarchic conditions that accompanied the advance of Japanese troops placed women at high risk for kidnapping, rape, and murder. Japanese servicemen were trained to view the Chinese as subhuman, and Chinese women were particularly reviled. Virtually as a matter of course, at least before 1938, Japanese troops systematically captured, raped, and often killed as many Chinese women as they found in their paths. In Chinese Communist-run areas, especially in northern China, Japan’s troops employed particularly brutal "pacification" methods to quell and control civilian populations, including widespread use of rape as a weapon of intimidation. The most well known of the many attacks on civilian Chinese women occurred in the former capital of Nanjing in late December 1937, when tens of thousands of civilians were viciously raped and killed, in an episode known as the rape of Nanjing. Estimates of the total number of casualties vary widely, with some Western and Chinese Communist sources suggesting as many as 400,000 Chinese civilian and military victims; Japanese sources offer considerably lower figures (Masaaki 2000, 70-71).

Whatever the actual scale of the brutalities at Nanjing, the incidents gained international notoriety and profoundly accelerated the political mobilization of Chinese women against the Japanese invaders. As a result, in 1938, the Nationalist Chinese government made its first major effort to attract women’s support by convening a conference to establish a Women’s Advisory Committee. This committee centralized control over many wartime initiatives, including providing food for Nationalist troops, aiding wounded soldiers, and raising funds for orphanages. The committee’s funds and scope were limited, however. Well-organized female Communists, including party leader Deng Yingchao, turned the committee’s efforts toward recruiting rural women as auxiliaries for the Communists’ armed guerrilla forces. The Nationalists, fearing that social disturbances might accompany the growth of feminism, soon returned to endorsing conservative positions on women’s issues, particularly on the proper roles for women in the anti-Japanese resistance. In 1941, the Nationalists issued directives instructing women to have more children and to limit their concerns to family issues, leaving politics and the prosecution of the war to men.

The Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, actively sought to mobilize women throughout the war, especially peasants in the rural areas of China’s interior provinces. Several pro-Communist, women-only paramilitary organizations were formed under Communist leadership to promote women’s self-defense activities against the invading Japanese. These included the Hunan War Service Corps, the Yunnan Women’s Battlefield Service Unit, the Guangxi Province Women’s Brigade, and the Northwest Women’s Battlefield Group, the last of which was headed by female propaganda expert and feminist leader Ding Ling.

Women's Defense Corps training at Canton, China, 1938.

Women’s Defense Corps training at Canton, China, 1938.

Even the Communists, however, did not always fully address the security concerns of those peasant women directly confronted by the unpredictable actions of Japanese troops. In October 1941, an armed revolt against local Communist authorities occurred in Shanxi province, led by a sect known as the Li Gua Dao (Salvationist Sect of the Goddess from the Southern Sea). At least 10 percent of this millennial group’s members were women, who joined chiefly because the sect’s emphasis on mutual self-defense seemed to offer protection against Japanese troops who had moved through the area several times during 1940-1941 (Goodman 1997). Local Communist militia units quelled the uprising, but party cadres investigated the cult’s popular appeal, especially to women. Local policies were changed to provide more resources to the Communists’ own Women’s National Salvation Association, an organization that supported paramilitary training for women and the formation of anti-Japanese resistance cells in the villages under Communist control.

The Japanese military itself was also affected by the international scandal over the rape of Nanjing. The indiscipline of its troops caused tremendous embarrassment to the Japanese Imperial Army’s officer corps. To prevent a recurrence, Japanese leaders decided in 1938 to expand the existing system of officially sponsored brothels, known colloquially as comfort stations, to occupied mainland China. At these stations, Japanese soldiers were given sexual access to women. The number of women involved remains uncertain. An official report on Japan’s 21st Army stationed in Guangzhou (Canton) indicated that some 1,000 women were made available to that unit’s 40,000 men. In the Shanghai area, the so-called comfort women received army rations and worked under the direct supervision of Japanese military officials. Some of the comfort women were Japanese and Korean, but many were Chinese, recruited or kidnapped from poor families. Special discriminatory practices, including lower pay or no pay at all, were the rule for Chinese comfort women.

Chinese women’s resistance to the Japanese occupiers was an important theme in public discussion, popular literature, and films. After the fall of Shanghai, Japanese troops occupied only part of the city until 1942, allowing many elements of the city’s prewar public culture to flourish, including filmmaking. One of this period’s most popular movies, Hua Mulan Joins the Army (1939), portrayed a traditional Chinese story about a young woman who, disguised as a man, takes her father’s place in China’s conscript army to fight a foreign invasion force. The self-assured star of the film, Chen Yun-shang, infused the role with defiant patriotism and her portrayal of a female warrior became a symbolic heroine for China’s wartime female filmgoers.

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