R. Keith Schoppa


On his book In a Sea of Bitterness: Refugees during the Sino-Japanese War

Cover Interview of February 22, 2012

In a nutshell

In a Sea of Bitterness is a narrative-rich study of spatial and social displacement during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.

I describe an array of Chinese people and institutions that chose to leave their homes and home bases when the Japanese first attacked and then occupied those areas.  To give as much coverage to the range of displaced refugees and their experiences as possible, I have limited the spatial arena to Zhejiang Province, a coastal province on the East China Sea south of Shanghai.

The “range” of the displaced includes those who fled alone and with family members; these refugees fled their homes for varying distance and duration. Other displaced in the war were Chinese civilians kidnapped by the Japanese to serve in labor battalions.  Others displaced included those whose lives were drastically affected by the Chinese government’s scorched earth policies and those forced to flee cities when the Japanese conducted bacteriological warfare, dropping bubonic plague-infested material and giving rise to plague epidemics.  Displaced institutions included the provincial and county governments, schools (both private and public), businesses, and industries.

In addition, there are chapters detailing the general nature of displacement and the efforts of government and non-governmental organizations to deal with what was a refugee flight that became a tsunami.  Zhejiang is the smallest Chinese province, but five million long-distance refugees came to it or passed through it.

This is an examination of the social and cultural impacts of war, a war in which the Japanese used deliberate tactics of terror with the hope that it would demoralize the Chinese and lead to a rapid surrender.  Except for the chapter on Chinese commandeered for labor service by the Japanese army, my eye is completely on Chinese.  Why did they flee—in a culture that particularly emphasized “native place,” the traditional family home where ancestors had lived, died, and were buried and which had a tremendous cultural force in people’s lives?

Another key cultural aspect raised frightening questions for refugees or would-be refugees.  China was a “connection” driven and shaped society. When fleeing, the refugees had to leave these quintessential connections behind and go into territories where they had no connections.  What kinds of experiences did they face on their flights at the hands of the “Other,” their own countrymen? What unique problems and trials did displaced institutions face?  Throughout, I focus on Chinese citizens’ actions and reactions in the context of Chinese culture and social patterns as they experienced displacement.

I want the reader to be pulled into the nightmare world of the refugee by narratives, some based upon diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and official records.  I provide statistics of numbers of refugees and how much government aid was used to help remedy their plight.  But it their own stories and accounts that make the war come alive in all its disruption, ferocity, terror, and sadness.