By Calvin Cheng

In the Nationalist wartime capital of Chongqing, Luo Fuhui, a student, is angry. The year is 1942 and the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) has raged for over five years. Luo is livid at how the war has displaced millions of Chinese civilians and changed the fortunes of her family.[1] Her father’s business is devastated and money is short. Despite this and hardships—food shortages, inflation, and Japanese aerial bombings—she is proud to be contributing to the war effort by participating in propaganda activities. It is a different story in rural areas. A typical peasant living in Nationalist China would be faced with the burdens of increasing land rents, compulsory government taxes and grain requisitions, as well as conscription for military labor.[2] By 1944, the peasants’ livelihoods deteriorated to the extent that many of them in Hunan Province revolted when Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) troops retreated before a major Japanese offensive.[3] How can we explain these two different experiences of war mobilization under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist dictatorship? Furthermore, was the KMT totally corrupt and ineffective as Eastman argues, or are the revisionist historians correct that Nationalist mobilization was part of a “conservative revolution” that developed a Chinese patriotic consciousness?[4] A reading of Chiang’s speeches and the memoirs of Chongqing women shows an alternate view: mobilization was a powerful shaper of everyday life to people in the cities, but due to practical wartime and state limitations, the KMT would not apply the same schemes amongst the peasant population.

Historians have come to different conclusions about the KMT’s wartime mobilization. These differing views are not just academic—events such as the Cold War, and mainland China’s recent decision to include the KMT side of the Sino-Japanese War into its national heritage have influenced the direction of historiography.

The first historiographical approach is the “traditionalist” school, which assesses the KMT regime negatively. This school is exemplified by Lloyd Eastman in his 1984 study Seeds of Destruction. Eastman argued that the Nationalists ultimately lost support with people outside of the party by 1949 because they were extremely repressive and corrupt. Unlike the Communists, Chiang never comprehended the possibility of generating support for the KMT at the grassroots level.[5] The absence of a “modern” pluralist political system meant that the Nationalists were unable to gather support from peasants or non-KMT bourgeoisie.[6] Furthermore, peasants were heavily taxed and had most of their grain requisitioned by the KMT government, as well as being conscripted for military labor.[7] The KMT’s unwillingness to turn from a military regime to a pluralist party meant that once the Communists were making gains and victories after 1945, no one was willing to support the Nationalists.[8]

The Cold War was a dominating influence for Eastman; when the Nationalists settled down in Taiwan after 1949, the question of supporting the KMT against Communist China was an important American policy issue when Eastman conducted his research. For instance, the pro-KMT “China Lobby” held sway over the U.S. government’s Taiwan policy during the 1960s.[9] It is possible that Eastman wanted to counter pro-KMT partisans by explaining that the KMT was defeated because of its own problems rather than the U.S. “betraying” Chiang by pulling out military support. It is also possible that Eastman wanted to bring a historian’s voice to a question dominated by Cold War rhetoric. His bibliography is rich, with a mixture of U.S. and Taiwanese archival sources, wartime publications, and secondary sources—showing his mastery of the available source material. Another influence for traditionalists was the lack of access to sources in mainland China (PRC) due to the Cold War. With that in mind, Eastman’s Chinese primary sources are exclusively what the Nationalists managed to take with them after 1949.

The second approach—titled the “revisionist” school—emerged in the 1990s.[10] This school recognizes the KMT’s failures, but it also credits it with having contributed significantly towards a process of social modernization and the development of a Chinese national consciousness.[11] For example, Danke Li’s book on women in wartime Chongqing looks at how women reacted positively and negatively towards KMT propaganda. Federica Ferlanti argues that Nationalist mobilization was extensive amongst the population in Chengdu and Chongqing.[12] Brian Tsui makes the point that war mobilization should be viewed as part of a “conservative revolution” that was just as significant as the Chinese Communists’, and that the post-1949 regime inherited the trends set out by the Nationalists.[13] These historians generally agree that during the war, the KMT’s efforts to generate outside support for its cause marked a significant change in the way ordinary Chinese interacted with the state.

External events have also influenced the revisionist school. The PRC’s changing official history of the war is significant. Under the Mao period, the Nationalists were dismissed or characterized as corrupt warlords. By the 1990s, it became politically acceptable to take a positive view of the KMT and its participation in the war against the Japanese.[14] According to Arthur Waldron, this national “rediscovery” was intended by the PRC to create a legitimizing heritage that was based on patriotism over communist ideology.[15] The end of the Cold War dissipated much of the controversy the “Taiwan Issue” had in the U.S. Consequently, more Western historians could study the KMT beyond the Cold War context. Sources have become more accessible in this period as well. Archival documents from the pre-1949 era left on the mainland, and oral history from those who lived during the wartime period, were now open for foreign researchers to use.

Today, researchers can draw on primary sources in the U.S., Taiwan, and mainland China. Nonetheless, there is still merit in using older sources. In particular, a collection of Chiang’s wartime speeches published in 1969 provides clues why peasants were subject to a much different form of mobilization than people in the cities.

When the KMT had to retreat to Chongqing, it left its developed political and economic areas in the lower Yangzi River to the Japanese.[16] Although the Nationalists were not defeated, they were in a perilous strategic situation. If Chongqing fell to the Japanese or an internal revolt, would the KMT still be able to continue the war? As a soldier, Chiang must have understood that waging a modern war like the struggle against Japan required a stable rear area, which meant that his key power bastions—the army, refugees, and urban population—had to have their needs satisfied if the KMT was to avoid collapse. As Peter Holquist explained, modern wars like World War I (1914-18) institutionalized a “national security state” where the government would intervene heavily in managing and shaping normal peoples’ lives.[17] By extension, wartime states recognized that home front stability mattered as much as battlefield victories. Thus, Chiang’s own “national security state” pragmatically gave preferential treatment his key bastions to keep his internal areas stable.

There are a number of examples of this in Chiang’s speeches. In a 1941 speech, Chiang absolutely dismisses the idea of a non-KMT authority in Nationalist territory, equating it with the Japanese puppet regimes in Nanjing and Manchuria.[18] He underlines this point by mentioning a KMT army unit that retreated without authorization. In Chiang’s words, that insubordination was “putting a weapon into the hands of the enemy and imperiling the nation in the gravest manner.”[19] A speech on finance upholds the need that the army to be fed with food requisitions from rural areas. Failure to do so would not only be a criminal act, but also be working against the war and national survival itself.[20] Finally, in a 1942 speech, Chiang stated, “The hardships of the […] men at the front should be considered the standard by which to judge all civil life.”[21]

While Chiang was unwilling to say outright that certain groups were more important to the Nationalists, these selections demonstrate his clear sense of wartime priorities. Eastman was right that Chiang was repressive towards the peasants and non-KMT politics, but it is possible to consider those actions within the context that the KMT needed to provide a stable rear area after suffering significant military setbacks. With the loss of China’s east coast during the early period of the war, the KMT was expelled from its pre-war base areas, and it had to provide relief to refugees that followed them during the retreat.[22] The military, too had to be taken into account. After all, the Nationalist army was the main force fought the Japanese on the battlefield.[23] China was fighting a war where the battlefield and the rear areas linked together to form a single entity. The peasants could be abused, but if the army, the refugees, or the people in the capital rebelled, Chiang’s war effort might have unraveled from within. By pursuing selective mobilization, Chiang could stabilize the rear areas that were vital to his regime and at the same time, reinforce his political authority amongst the wartime urban population.

The speeches also highlight a unique situation in China compared to other wartime regimes: Chiang’s state-building visions were incomplete when the war began.[24] A 1944 speech titled “Success in War and Revolution” shows how this incomplete state still persisted: “our country is still going through a period of revolution,” Chiang admits.[25] In 1940, he told educators that national reconstruction would be a postwar, rather than a wartime goal.[26] In “Of Man and Material,” he insisted that mobilization ought to be carried out by educated people who knew the meanings and consequences of the war itself.[27] Even earlier, Chiang said that “only a […] system adapted to the strains of war is serviceable in this new age.”[28] These selections strongly suggest that Chiang was aware of the limitations of his pre-war state-building efforts, and by extension, he could not simply tell peasants to love the country and contribute selflessly to the war effort.

The KMT’s limited authority in the countryside were practical limiters to “total” war mobilization.[29] For example, the Nationalists inherited an inefficient tax system that originated from the middle of the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1912).[30] Long-term corruption by middle-ranking officials meant that it was common to see cases where landless individuals were heavily taxed and large land holdings were tax-exempt.[31] The Nationalist government was unable to implement a new taxation system due to wartime financial constraints.[32] If state building and resources were limited, then why go through the trouble of winning over a group that had no real connections with the central government when the war itself was a more pressing matter?

One of the most important aims in the Nationalists’ war mobilization in Chongqing was to introduce the average person to a life that would contribute to the war effort. In the memoirs compiled in Danke Li’s Echoes of Chongqing, this process was reflected in the penetration of mobilization-related activities into citizens’ daily lives, regardless if they were a student or a skilled professional. As Frederica Ferlanti notes, by linking everyday behavior with the war, the Nationalists blended wartime participation with strengthening patriotism and loyalty to the KMT.[33] For example, Zhu Shuqin’s sixth-grade class was staffed with war refugee teachers, whose school assignments included reading war newspapers, and essays on why China had to fight Japan. Later, she also participated in propaganda speeches and plays that “energized” her and further developed her hatred for the Japanese enemy.[34] Zhao Zhinan also participated in war mobilization because the propaganda songs she sang were inseparable from entertainment.[35] Chang Longyu, a financial analyst, joined a company where each employee was encouraged to contribute to the war effort by working hard. As she remembered, “we were all convinced […] that industry and science could save China and our work actually contributed to China’s victory over Japan.”[36] Even those who were indifferent to the war had their lives shaped by mobilization. For example, Gong Xue was afraid to cook in the evening, as the fire could have guided Japanese bombers, or she could have been accused of being an enemy spy.[37] Zeng Yongqing thought that traitors were helping the Japanese to bomb Chongqing so accurately.[38] Both women’s memories tell us that even though they did not support the war effort, they too were integrated in war mobilization because they believed in a Japanese enemy that had the potential to destroy their livelihoods. Thus, urban dwellers experienced a war mobilization that was different from the countryside, one that was closer to Chiang’s visions for a KMT-based national unity.[39]

What was it like to live in a wartime dictatorship? Given China’s social structure during the Sino-Japanese War, it depended. The traditionalist historians are right that the peasants felt abused and alienated by the Nationalist authorities when they piled on taxes, grain requisitions, and compulsory labor, but it should not necessarily be viewed exclusively as a symptom of a corrupt and repressive KMT. Chiang may have been driven by an effort at tackling internal problems that mattered to him, as he had to wage a modern war with a regime that was still pursuing national reconstruction. Yet to those who lived in the major cities like Chongqing, war mobilization took control of daily life to the extent that its most enthusiastic participants believed that their participation would lead to victory over Japan, while the pessimistic could at least imagine the Japanese as a concrete enemy. In writing about war relief in Chongqing, Frederica Ferlanti tells her readers to reconsider the Nationalists’ response to war.[40] One way we could reconsider war mobilization is that it represented a series of pragmatic decisions the KMT made when it waged China’s first modern war. The Chinese Communists prevailed over the Nationalists in 1949 in large part because they won over the countryside—the exact opposite of the KMT’s strategy—but during the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang was perhaps more interested in fighting the Japanese with the means he already controlled, which were the regular army, the party bureaucracy, and the urban and refugee population in Chongqing. At the very least, Chiang’s dictatorship was able to emulate stronger wartime states to a degree that enabled it survive against an enemy vastly superior in industrial strength and wartime unity.

[1] Danke Li, Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 54.

[2] Lloyd Eastman, Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937-1949 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), 49-65.

[3] Eastman, 69.

[4] Brian Kai Hin Tsui, “China’s Forgotten Revolution: Radical Conservatism in Action, 1927-1949” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013), 164.

[5] Eastman, 218.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7] Ibid., 57-65.

[8] Ibid. 3.

[9] Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 513.

[10] Rana Mitter, “Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II, 1937-1941,” Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 2 (2011): 246.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Federica Ferlanti, “The New Life Movement at War: Wartime Mobilisation and State Control in Chongqing and Chengdu, 1938-1942,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 2, no. 11 (2012): 187.

[13] Tsui, 280.

[14] Carol Gluck, Rana Mitter, and Charles K. Armstrong, “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives,” The Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 3 (2015): 534-535.

[15] Arthur Waldron, “China’s New Remembering of World War II: The Case of Zhang Zizhong,” Modern Asian Studies 30, no. 4 (1996): 977.

[16] Tsui, 123.

[17] Peter Holquist, “”Information Is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work”: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context,” The Journal of Modern History 69, no. 3 (1997): 444.

[18] Chinese Ministry of Information, The Collected Wartime Messages of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek 1937-1945 (New York: The John Day Company: 1969), 568.

[19] Ibid., 568-569.

[20] Ibid., 599.

[21] Ibid., 708.

[22] Tsui, 30.

[23] Eastman, 130.

[24] Ibid., 190.

[25] Chinese Ministry of Information, 800.

[26] Ibid., 384.

[27] Ibid., 686.

[28] Ibid., 561.

[29] Tsui, 158.

[30] Yuji Sasagawa, “Characteristics of and Changes in Wartime Mobilization in China: A Comparison of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War,” Journal of Modern Chinese History 9, no. 1 (2015): 70.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 71.

[33] Ferlanti, 192.

[34] Li, 41.

[35] Ibid., 66.

[36] Ibid., 119.

[37] Ibid., 108

[38] Ibid., 112.

[39] Tsui, 124.

[40] Ferlanti, 210.




Eastman, Lloyd. Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937-1949. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.

Ferlanti, Federica. “The New Life Movement at War: Wartime Mobilisation and State Control in Chongqing and Chengdu, 1938-1942.” European Journal of East Asian Studies 2, no. 11 (2012): 187-212.

Gluck, Carol, Rana Mitter, and Charles K. Armstrong, “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives.” The Journal of Asian Studies 74, no. 3 (2015): 531-537.

Holquist, Peter. “’Information Is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work’: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context.” The Journal of Modern History 69, no. 3 (1997): 415-450.

Li, Danke. Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Ministry of Information, Republic of China. The Collected Wartime Messages of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek 1937-1945. New York: The John Day Company, 1969.

Mitter, Rana. “Classifying Citizens in Nationalist China during World War II.” Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 2 (2011): 243-275.

Sasagawa, Yuji. “Characteristics of and Changes in Wartime Mobilization in China: A Comparison of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War.” Journal of Modern Chinese History 9, no. 1 (2015): 66-94.

Taylor, Jay. The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Tsui, Brian Kai Hin. “China’s Forgotten Revolution: Radical Conservatism in Action, 1927-1949.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2013.

Waldron, Arthur. “China’s New Remembering of World War II: The Case of Zhang Zizhong.” Modern Asian Studies 30, no. 4 (1996): 945-978.