Youth Literature on the Sino-Japanese War, China & US


A review of ”‘Friends and Foes on the Battlefield’: A Study of Chinese and U.S. Youth Literature about the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945),” by Chen Minjie.

Youth literature is a powerful form of inter-generational storytelling, whereby one generation can pass along experiences of traumatic events to younger generations born into considerably different circumstances. In this capacity, youth literature also functions as a conduit of national myth-making and social reproduction, transforming a diverse multiplicity of individual lives into the recognizable types and tropes of desirable historical narratives. In her ambitious and insightful dissertation on the seventy-year role of youth literature in shaping postwar Chinese understanding of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Minjie Chen interrogates the nation’s authorization of who gets to tell the war story in two ways. First, as indicated in the subtitle of the dissertation, Chen uses a comparative framework to analyze the different ways youth literature in China and the United States has (or has not) offered ethnic Chinese youth a narrative connection to Chinese experiences of World War II. Second, Chen provocatively challenges the hegemony of male, conflict-centered youth literature in China by producing an oral history of the wartime experiences of women in Yunhe 云和, Zhejiang, demonstrating how a different trajectory for youth literature in China may have looked through the authorship of marginalized and excluded voices. The dissertation utilizes a variety of methodologies to show how youth literature (including lianhuanhua 连环画, or “popular pictorial reading material”) has over the course of seventy years contributed to both historical memories and amnesia surrounding the Second Sino-Japanese War that retain political, economic, and social significance today.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the overall research project. Beginning with an anecdote about a conflict surrounding the Chinese translation of Neil Gaiman’s children’s fantasy novel The Graveyard Book, Chen illustrates how youth literature continues to bring attention to the fact that “physical wounds and psychological trauma resulting from Sino-Japanese military conflicts remain raw and sensitive in contemporary Chinese society” (p. 3). For Chen, this outrage in the present moment is rooted in the history of Japanese atrocities in China during WW2 and the postwar Japanese state’s refusal to recognize and offer reparations for those atrocities. However, questions remain about how such a visceral outrage could be expressed by generations of Chinese who had no direct experience or memory of the war, which questions launch Chen’s research into the history of youth literature in the chapters that follow.

In Chapter 2, Chen provides an extensive history of youth literature in China, meanwhile challenging the conventional boundaries of the category by also including a parallel history of lianhuanhua, or popular texts that extensively link word and image. Building on the prior scholarship of Mary Ann Farquhar and Wang Quan-gen, Chen provides an account of youth literature in China that is concise but complex. She impressively traces the development of the genre (if it can be called that) through its major writers, journals, and works while remaining attentive to the way in which social and political contexts played a major role in shaping the contours of what youth literature could or should be. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Chen uses an almost identical periodization for both youth literature and lianhuanhua (1919-49, 1949-66, 1966-76, 1976-89, 1990-present), suturing the continuities and discontinuities of these categories of cultural production to the century’s most significant political transformations.

Of course, such a move is not particularly surprising as periodization, but it is insightful and significant in how Chen uses it to bridge the chasm between a reified conception of youth literature and the denigrated and neglected lianhuanhua. For Chen, there is an intimate relationship between youth literature and lianhuanhua as information sources for youth, and “to continue to disregard LHH [lianhuanhua] would miss an important part of the reading history of Chinese youth” (p. 60). The significance of Chen’s point is hammered home in a footnote: “When I first discussed my research project with a renowned Chinese scholar in youth literature studies, the professor was almost indignant that I considered LHH as children’s literature. Five minutes into my explanation of the purpose of my study, the scholar, then in his fifties, told me that he grew up reading LHH voraciously, having rented them from book stands” (p. 59, n. 1).

Chapter 3 is in many ways the core chapter of the dissertation, as it presents an analysis of lianhuanhua and youth literature about the Second Sino-Japanese War published in China between 1937 and 2007. After a detailed explanation of methods used in selecting and categorizing a data set of 360 lianhuanhua titles and 22 titles of youth fiction, Chen effectively combines a quantitative analysis of the broad trends across the data set with closer, literary readings of particular texts. This approach seems to be resonant with Franco Moretti’s recent call for a practice of “distant reading,” although Chen does not mention Moretti as a theoretical interlocutor. Chen’s general analysis reveals patterns regarding authorship, geographical setting, subject matter, political membership of main characters, gender, and portrayal of military combat; the texts were overwhelmingly written by male Communist Party members and portray men fighting for the Communists against the Japanese in North China in the early-1940s. They tend to vilify Nationalists, downplay Japanese atrocities and Chinese suffering (while offering up a more vague, stereotypical image of ruthless Japanese), and celebrate the heroism of Communist soldiers. Particularly compelling about this analysis, however, is not simply the conclusions reached, but how these trends are manifest in the various individual texts to which Chen turns throughout the chapter. Looking more closely at particular cases in her larger analysis, Chen breathes life into the literary texts and demonstrates how these works contribute to the creation of these patterns, rather than simply functioning as formulaic derivations.

But Chen pursues her analysis deeper than these surface revelations. She is interested in examining how the patterns change over the course of seven decades, which attention to change brings greater nuance to what may have otherwise have seemed to be a homogeneous mass of war stories, and also gives rise to moments where the reader can see Chen confronted by unexpected results. For example, Chen states:

My most unexpected finding is that, in half of the stories published during the 1980s and alluding to war crimes, the victims are Japanese military and civilians (5 titles), as well as ethnic Chinese people from outside mainland China (2 titles). A common pattern emerges from stories that portray Japanese victims: victims and their families turn out to be the ‘good’ Japanese in this war and are likely to become helpers and Chinese allies in fighting the Japanese army (p. 137).

In addition to this observation, Chen notes that there is a notable drop in coverage of Japanese war crimes in lianhuanhua and youth literature of the 1980s. In explaining possible reasons for these trends, Chen proposes three factors strongly related to political and industrial context: “a lack of secondary sources about Japanese war crimes for LHH creators who grew up in postwar China, continual political barriers to historical research and to the production of secondary sources, and the decline of the LHH industry after 1985” (p. 142). The dissertation invites the reader to speculate as to the reasons underlying this change, and one cannot help but wonder what role the experience of the Cultural Revolution may have had. This period also is the beginning of a marked change in the portrayal of Nationalist participation in WW2, and opens the door to a possible reconsideration of how the Second Sino-Japanese War serves as a trope through which writers may comment on their own moment through the representation of history.

A second way in which Minjie Chen pushes beyond the broad patterns of representation and narrativization of the Second Sino-Japanese War in China is to interrogate the archive and inquire into the structural absences that make dominant types and tropes possible. It is in this spirit that Chen embarks on perhaps the most ambitious project of the dissertation: an oral history of women in Zhejiang who lived through the war. As Chen frames the move, Chapter 4 “moves from publicly available cultural artifacts to examine a private information source about World War II—family oral narrative—through a case study of three families in Yunhe County, Zhejiang Province, which was the target of the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Offensive, 1942, and Japanese biological warfare attacks” (p. 189). The project of this chapter could itself be a dissertation, and it is to Chen’s great credit that she is able to keep it within the schematic of the project. A native of Yunhe, Chen openly acknowledges her family connection to the five women she interviewed. It is, after all, the archive of local, family storytelling that lianhuanhua and youth literature suppress in their production of historical narratives, and women and ethnic minorities are particular victims of this form of archival domination that Michel Troulliot has famously titled Silencing the Past. It is not easy to draw a single conclusion from the women’s narratives reported in this chapter, nor does the content of the women’s various narratives contrast simply with the general trends described in the previous chapter. However, there is an affective power to reading the chapter that suggests an entirely different possible trajectory for the inter-generational transmission of wartime experiences from those dominant narratives in lianhuanhua and youth literature. This is true not only in the open discussion of Japanese biological warfare and starvation under the Communist regime, but perhaps even more so in rumor as a mode of knowledge, facticity and detail of personal events, and intimate transmission of narratives to private audiences.

In Chapter 5, Minjie Chen shifts her focus to an examination of ethnic Chinese wartime experience as depicted in the youth literature of the United States. As Chen describes, the “purpose of this chapter is to discover how publication patterns correlate with the political and cultural context of a racialized American society” (p. 236). After tracing a history of representations of WW2 in American youth literature, Chen notes a major problem with the small number of texts she was able to find through her search: “The first thing noticeable about this search result is that little has been told about ethnic Chinese experience during World War II in American juvenile fiction, particularly when we interpret the 31 titles, produced over a span of 70 years in the context of the much celebrated body of American youth literature about World War II” (p. 254). Chen attributes this to a combination of Cold War censorship and racialized American society, and it intriguingly mirrors her previous discussion of Chinese youth literature in that both Americans and Chinese have largely written one another out of their national youth literature. Perhaps the great irony is that this production of what Chen terms “historical amnesia” in both American and Chinese youth literature is accompanied by the almost complete absence of any treatment of Japanese war atrocities in either country’s books for children. In America, this seems to be facilitated by the exclusion of Chinese-American authors of youth literature concerning WW2, as well as the intimate postwar relationship between Japan and the United States, which kept documents concerning Japanese biological warfare classified for decades. This led to a situation in which the Cold War “manipulated Chinese American youth literature, which avoided the ‘wrong’ topics, the Sino-Japanese War being one of them, and instead established the postwar routine of celebrating Chinese cultural customs and heritage in American youth literature” (p. 275).

A summary of the concluding chapter of the dissertation might be combined with an assessment of its potential impact. Coming out of a library and information science program, Chen makes a powerful statement about the relationship of her research and her field in the concluding chapter: “Until the day teachers and librarians who collect, review, recommend, and teach youth literature stop perceiving the war experience of some groups as significant ‘mainstream’ stories for all mankind, and of other groups of stories as serving their self-interest only, there cannot be said to be a real understanding of the role of multicultural youth literature for young people” (p. 280). Minjie Chen’s dissertation moves beyond an account and criticism of youth literature to question the archive itself and suggest possible ways in which scholars might approach questions of the representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War differently. Her flexibility and combination of various methodologies in pursuing this research project provides a lesson for historians and literary scholars alike.

Stephen Poland
East Asian Languages & Literatures
Yale University

Primary Sources

National Library of China
Shanghai Library
Shanghai Children’s Library
Yunhe County Public Library
Interviews with Women in Yunhe, Zhejiang

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 312 pp. Primary Advisor: Betsy Hearne.

Image: San Mao Joins the Army [三毛从军记]. Chinese Pamphlet Digitization Project.

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