Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Women, War, Domesticity: Shanghai Literature and Popular Culture of the 1940s

Building on Chang-tai Hung’s War and Popular Culture, Nicole Huang examines the literary culture of Shanghai during World War II.  Her time frame is carefully chosen to examine only works published during what she considers the true duration of the war in the Pacific – from December 1941 through 1945.  The reason for this is that before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Shanghai existed as a virtual island surrounded by blockading Japanese forces, which allowed the literary culture to develop unchallenged themes of Chinese nationalism in support of the war against Japanese aggression.  Once Japan took the city after bombing Pearl Harbor, Shanghai’s writers had to contend with censorship and a competing Japanese use of popular culture.

Huang develops two primary themes.  First, she argues, the literary efforts of women in Shanghai were not focused primarily on promoting patriotism and national struggle against Japan in the same way that authors operating outside areas of Japanese control were.  Official censorship in Shanghai precluded such an effort.  Instead, Huang’s sample of female authors presents the reality of surviving in the city, methods of coping with scarcity and occupation in a subversive manner even in organs that belonged to Japan’s propaganda apparatus.  War is the backdrop of the themes of resistance to both the occupiers and their traditional roles n Chinese society.

Second, Huang asserts that the traditional theoretical models used to examine reaction to occupation are ineffective instruments for examining how real people react.  The prototypical construction found in French scholarship on World War II relies on a three-category framework, in which all civilians are collaborators, partisans, or passive onlookers prevents historians from examining the subtle details of how individuals act.  Similarly, Huang argues that events in Shanghai and elsewhere, like Vichy France, must be placed into historical context in order to understand them.  The efforts of women writing in occupied Shanghai are only understandable in the context of early Chinese reform movements, which focused on the role of women as a means of challenging the traditional social order.  In Vichy France, she argues that official efforts to restrict women should be seen in the context of conservative backlash against the liberal policies of 1930s France.  In effect, Huang is arguing for a more nuanced and contextual approach to history.

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