R. Keith Schoppa


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

Cover Interview of February 22, 2012

A close-up

If a browsing reader picked up a copy of the book, I would hope that the Introduction entitled “The Thousand-Person Pit” would hook him or her.  An account of an atrocity at a small town near the provincial capital (Hangzhou), this short chapter in many ways previews some later chapters.  We see Japanese terror and Chinese responses through the eyes of one Chinese family.

If the browsing reader passed the Introduction, I would then hope that he or she would go to Chapter 3, “Veering into the Ravine.”  This is a fascinatingly detailed memoir by Feng Zikai, a renowned graphic artist, cartoonist, and essayist who went on his refugee trek with thirteen of his family and friends.  Feng’s account relates how refugees were treated (mostly mistreated and taken advantage of) by their fellow Chinese and how refugees became totally dependent for their decisions on rumors they heard as they trudged ahead—many of those rumors being false.

If the browser brushed past Chapter 3, I would urge him or her to go to Chapter 5, “The Kidnapping of Chinese Civilians,” the account of forced labor conscription by the Japanese army.  It details the experiences of two men (one really a high school student) whom the Japanese seized to do their bidding.  The chapter shows how not all Japanese were, in the phrase the Chinese used at the time, “foreign devils.”  The Japanese in this chapter cannot be stereotyped in such blanket fashion, even though the use of terror remained their constant weapon.

But if the browser also did not stop at Chapter 5, I would push him or her up to Chapter 7, “Playing Hide-and-Seek with the Enemy.”  This is basically the story of two county magistrates with their governments-in-exile situated in a third county—both of whom, in the process of becoming friends, had to dodge Japanese soldiers repeatedly.  Their narratives are some of the most fascinating in the book; one ends tragically, killed by Japanese soldiers.

There are two other chapters that I would like the browser to get to first, if he or she has passed all those I have mentioned.

Chapter 10, “Scorched Earth,” tackles the insanity of a terrorized government moved to destroy its own infrastructure (most built in the decade preceding the war) far beyond what was necessary to stop the Japanese.  And, in the end, it only slowed them down a bit—a   tragedy of the first order.

The last chapter, “Bubonic Bombs,” is the tragic story of how three counties were affected by the Japanese-dropped plague and, most importantly, how they reacted to the challenges of this war crime.  Their reactions and the developing policies depended in large part on how “modernized” they had become.