Introduced and annotated by Calvin Cheng

This is a chapter from Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China, a 2009 collection of memoirs transcribed and edited by historian Danke Li. The author wrote the book to highlight the everyday experiences of ordinary Chongqing women during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45)—a neglected subject in Chinese narratives and English-language historiography.[1] The stories that make up the book are edited from interviews conducted by the author in Chongqing between 1999 and 2007 with women who had lived during the war. It is important to note that at the time of these interviews, the mainland Chinese government began to acknowledge and celebrate the Nationalist side of the war as an acceptable part of their national history.[2]

China was in a poor military situation during the early years of the war. The Nationalist government’s (KMT) troops were unable to halt the Japanese Army, nor could they prevent the Japanese from capturing major Chinese cities like Wuhan and Nanjing. By late 1937, Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT leader, evacuated his government from Nanjing to Chongqing, which became China’s new wartime capital.[3] Refugees also followed the government’s retreat, and many of them were resettled in Chongqing.[4] Soon, the city became a hub for KMT-affiliated mobilization groups to generate support for the war effort.[5]

The chapter focuses on Yang Xianzhi, an Anhui native who fled to Wuhan and later to Chongqing as a refugee. Yang joined a wartime cadre training program in order to resume her education. She graduated and was assigned as a teacher in Wartime Child Welfare Protection Association (ZZEB) homes for refugee children, a position she worked in until the end of the war.

Reading Yang’s memoirs is important for understanding daily life under a dictatorship: her refugee background, the hardships she experienced, and her training in a war mobilization organization motivated her to contribute towards the war effort. Some caution must be exercised with memoirs, however. This source is a product of selective memory, with certain events highlighted over others. Yang’s patriotic sentiments were not shared by everyone who lived in a ZZEB home.[6] She has nothing to say about those who might not have been enthusiastic in participating in the KMT’s mobilization campaigns, nor does she mention any negative aspects of the ZZEB.[7] Nevertheless, the memoir does show how a dictatorship is able to involve itself in everyday life at a very personal level. As we see in the memoir, people who were displaced and suffered due to the war could find solace by participating in mobilization organizations and adopting the KMT’s nationalist views. We also see children mobilized through education, as ZZEB pupils learnt from textbooks in which the lessons were thematically associated with the war. Thus, Yang’s memories show how one person’s daily life was shaped not just by the war, but also by the ways in which the KMT involved regular citizens in their state-building process through organizations like the ZZEB.


Click here to see annotations of Yang Xianzhi’s memories about wartime mobilization



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.

——— “The New Life Movement in Jiangxi Province, 1934-1938.” Modern Asian Studies 44, no. 5 (2010): 961-1000.

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

Mitter, Rana. Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.


[1] Danke Li, Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 3-4.

[2] Ibid, 179.

[3] Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 150.

[4] Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 175.

[5] 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), 193.

[6] Li, 72-73.

[7] Ibid.