R. Keith Schoppa


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

Cover Interview of February 23, 2012


The foremost goal of the book is to give readers a profound understanding of the world of Chinese refugees at this time and place.  Its focus on one province provides one solid context for the upsetting trauma of displacement, where everything seemed to be in flux in a world turned upside-down.  How do the Chinese react when all ties to their key cultural and social foundations are severed or severely tested?

Historians have spent considerable time discussing the emergence and role of nationalism in modern China.  Certainly among certain groups—students, political and economic elites in certain sites, especially cities—nationalism was developing from the early twentieth century on.  One analysis (now almost fifty years old) posited that nationalism was born among the north China peasantry during the war when Japan attacked and occupied China.  My study, however, shows that there was precious little overt nationalism or patriotic fervor.  Instead, as war came, individuals and families—whether they fled or not—desperately strove to spread a protective mantle over themselves, saving themselves, their families, and their native places.  The local, not the national, became the focus.

The war was a “localizing” phenomenon.  Even refugee accounts (like that of intellectual Feng Zikai) are remarkable for their lack of nationalistic rhetoric.  One diarist, as another example, did not say about the Japanese, “The devils brutally occupied China or my country”; instead he said repeatedly, “The devils brutally occupied my native place.”

Most of the refugees seemed to think that the Chinese army was as much a threat to the Chinese people as the Japanese army, commandeering its own soldiers, taking advantage in many ways of the Chinese populace, setting up roadblocks to steal from refugees—even storming into people’s homes to make their own meals.

This study suggests that among the masses, national feeling was incipient, at best.  I suggest that for the masses, nationalism would not fully emerge until the 1980s and 1990s, when national pride could finally overcome the foreign and domestic humiliations that had been suffered for decades.

I would hope the reader would see, as one scholar put it, “Displacement is not just about loss of place, but also about the struggle to make a place in the world, where meaningful actions and shared understanding is possible.”

On the whole, the institutions that fled more successfully made new temporary places in the world (sometimes with immense difficulties) than did individual or family refugees.  The foremost tragedy for many refugees as individuals or in families was, as in the case of Feng Zikai, that they returned to their native place only to find their homes completely destroyed by bombs or by another in Japan’s arsenal of war tactics, arson.  Feng, experiencing the cultural bereavement that so many refugees had to deal with, noted on his return to his native town in 1946, “For the past decade my memories of my native place had sustained my wanderer’s dream, but the town I now encountered had nothing to do with the homeland I once held so dear.  What I saw made me realize that it is far better to savor the dream of what once was.”  The war brought to these people permanent displacement.