R. Keith Schoppa


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

Cover Interview of February 22, 2012

The wide angle

One of the most desperate decisions people in any culture must make in the wake of war, ethnic cleansing, epidemic, or famine is to flee their homes and become refugees.  Yet hundreds of thousands of people choose that option (or are forced to) almost every year, as has been recently evident in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.  The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees noted in June 2006 that the numbers of uprooted peoples living in “refugee-like situations” in their home countries totaled 20.8 million, an increase of 1.3 million over 2005.

The refugee crisis is an ongoing tragedy that continually calls for policy decisions on how to provide life-sustaining assistance most effectively.  Anthropologist Anthony Oliver Smith calls forced migration and resettlement “totalizing phenomena” that are always painful and almost inevitably produce a sense of powerlessness and alienation. Refugees have lost their world and their social identity.  My book relates to these realities of displacement.

But the book is also posited on the idea that there are no “generic” refugees.  Rather, the decisions of the displaced—whether to flee, where to go, and how long to stay away from native place—are rooted in their own cultural and social realities.  It follows that in dealing with the lives of the displaced, their social and cultural undergirdings must be considered before policies to deal with them are instituted.

My professional path to this book was my interest in localities, their historical actors, and the workings of Chinese society and culture.  And two of my previous books led the way.

Xiang Lake—Nine Centuries of Chinese Life (republished as Song Full of Tears) analyzed the communities around a lake (which functioned as an irrigation reservoir) from the early twelfth century to the mid-1980s.  It focused on lake culture and social relationships of elites and non-elites and on the ongoing struggle over the centuries between wealthy developers and farmers dependent on the lake for their crops.

I wrote Blood Road: The Mystery of Shen Dingyi in Revolutionary China as a murder mystery, trying to solve Shen’s 1928 assassination, which was never solved.  The process of writing this book plunged me into questions of identity, social connections, and contingencies—all of which are crucial issues in the lives of the displaced.

In the recent past, I developed an interest in the Sino-Japanese War, having dealt with many war-related issues in a course that I teach on the America’s Vietnam War (called the “American War” in Vietnam).  All of these realities in my own research and teaching led me to this study of those displaced in various ways by war.