Gender, Nationalism, and Social Mobilization in China’s War of Resistance, 1937-45


A review of The Making of National Women: Gender, Nationalism and Social Mobilization in China’s Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, 1937-45 by Dewen Zhang.

Joining forces with burgeoning scholarship on the social and cultural history of the eight-year long War of Resistance that thoroughly changed China, this dissertation focuses on the work that women performed across the country to mobilize civilian and military resistance. The Making of National Women asserts that wartime women’s activism marked the “emergence of the patriotic female subject” (p. iii) since it gave women the opportunity to put their politics into action on behalf of a cause much larger than themselves. Covering women’s work as propagandists, nurses, front line service providers, and caretakers of war orphans, Zhang illustrates that women took pride in their work on behalf of the nation in a manner that demonstrated a new political consciousness. At the same time, the exigencies of the war forced women to abandon the earlier and more radical reform goals of individual emancipation and self-fulfillment of the May Fourth generation, and demanded that women subjugate their social reforms to the work of the national collective.

Chapter 1 explains the work of women who volunteered to serve in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a group rapidly organized by two well-known women authors and intellectuals of 1927 Northern Expedition fame, Xie Bingying and Hu Lanqi. This chapter posits “revolutionary femininity” as an alternative to the conservative model of the “good wife and wise mother” who was to obtain an education not for self-fulfillment but rather to become the self-sacrificing backbone of a healthy family and strong nation. Despite the fact that Xie and Hu understood their activism as a means of freeing women from social strictures, Zhang argues that the conditions of war tailored this activism toward the needs of the state in new ways. Evidence of both women’s emancipation from traditional gender roles and the circumscribing of women’s activism within the confines of the state appeared in contemporary press reports about the Auxiliary Corps which abounded in virtually every women’s journal.

Chapter 2 argues that nursing became an extension of women’s “natural duties” as home-based caretakers during the war. Yet even as nursing affirmed traditional gender roles, as a profession it offered women a new form of public visibility and new source of recognition, thereby challenging the exclusion of women from public service and dangerous tasks such as military nursing. Military nurses both voluntary and paid increased the prestige of the nursing profession through their visibility, connections to overseas funders (principally the Rockefeller Foundation’s China Medical Board), and involvement in the Nurses’ Association of China, which had its first Chinese President in 1936. Several alumni of the Peking Union Medical College Nursing School played important roles in this period, most notably Zhou Meiyu who directed nurses’ training for the Chinese Red Cross Medical Relief Corps, the primary arm of military field nursing.

Chapter 3 opens with the very moving reunion of Wu Jufang, President of the Guangdong Children’s Homes and Schools, and the now gray-haired men and women who had once been under her care. Wu’s network of seven schools housed approximately twenty thousand “warphans,” orphans of the War of Resistance. A memoir of Wu’s work serves as Zhang’s key source for analyzing patriotic motherhood and the ways in which women linked their wartime activism to national priorities. Significantly, Zhang asserts that the political plurality of women’s activism offers another way to understand the Second United Front as a true alliance across social classes and groups, rather than a realpolitik decision of military commanders. Here Zhang draws on Eugenia Lean’s analysis of late Qing politics forging a discursive link between the people (now articulated with the new Sino-Japanese loanword shehui, “society”) and the nation (also as an emerging political unit) to argue that women emerged as a distinct group able to articulate their space within this relationship during the War of Resistance (Eugenia Lean, Public Passions: The Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China, University of California Press 2007). This chapter also draws on the work of Andrew Jones and Limin Bai on the cultural and political meanings of childhood in twentieth-century China.

Chapter 4 explains the crucial role of women’s activism in solidifying and expanding the Communist-controlled areas around Yan’an during the War of Resistance. Arguing that the support of local women “became indispensable to Communist survival in these areas” (p. 134) because of guerrillas’ need for villagers’ support, and that women’s activism led to a “redefinition of being a woman in peasant families and villages” (p. 136), Zhang offers an important historiographical contribution that has the power to change received history of the Communist Party. This chapter underscores the importance of such a contribution given the Party’s history of abandoning women comrades during the Long March and in the narration of its own history (pp. 143-44).

Chapter 5 furthers this analysis by utilizing oral histories to examine how peasant women in north China engaged in communist activism, and how Party ideology transferred women from one form of patriarchal authority (that of the family clan) to another (that of the male-led Party). Here Zhang utilizes the most recent work of Gail Hershatter (The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) to assert that women experienced communist organizing and campaigns differently during the War of Resistance as well as the Civil War and post-1949 campaigns. Activists embedded political indoctrination into literacy and hygiene classes to attract women to the fold, though the absence of men from farming fields meant that women had to perform more agricultural labor than in the pre-war years, and their very central work of supporting the Red Army often went uncompensated.

Zhang’s dissertation joins recent scholarship on the social conditions of the War of Resistance, including Diana Lary’s The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937-1945, Li Danke’s Women in Wartime Chongqing, and John R. Watt’s Saving Lives in Wartime China: How Medical Reformers Built Modern Healthcare Systems amid War and Epidemics, 1928-1949. However, its singular focus on women is unique. Despite a wealth of scholarship on women’s experiences of and contributions to WWII in Europe and the U.S., this same subject is largely a lacuna in Chinese historical studies.

Therefore once Zhang’s work is published in book form it will serve to anchor further explorations of the multiple and profound changes wrought on Chinese gender roles during the War of Resistance against Japan in both Nationalist and Communist areas. Her dissertation repeatedly calls attention to the ways in which gender analysis has been sorely lacking and promises to change what we know about important events and periods in Chinese history.

Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
Department of History
Duke University

Primary Sources
Second Historical Archive of China, Nanjing
Rockefeller Archive Center, Tarrytown NY
American Bureau for Medical Aid to China archives, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Nübing liezhuan 女兵列传
Xie Bingying wenji 谢冰莹文集

Dissertation Information
Stony Brook University. 2013. 215pp. Primary Advisor: Iona Man-Cheong.

 Image: Cover of the  Young Companion (Vol. 139, Feb. 1939)

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