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Book Review: Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China by Danke Li

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Chongqing plays an important role in understanding the Second Sino-Japanese War, for it became not only the target of severe Japanese bombing, but many Chinese citizens from the eastern and northern parts of China migrated inward, that is, west, to escape Japanese-captured territory. Chongqing was the wartime capital during China’s war with Japan (1937–1945) and as a result of the increased population from other provinces, prices of food and other goods skyrocketed, making the lives of those living there quite difficult, but especially difficult when one is poor.

Danke Li’s Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China (University of Illinois Press) offers an insight into the memories of those who lived through different sorts of trials in the city. It is true that women were overlooked in favor of men. In one story, for example, a young woman is forced to give up her job and independence in exchange for an arranged marriage, with the thought that jobs are merely temporary, but a husband is for a lifetime.

These oral histories are not just worth examining for the historical context, but also as a study of memory itself.

The book begins with a nauseatingly PC platitude that “It is resistance, not war, that empowers women.” Is it really, or is it just luck, wealth, opportunity, or intelligence? Any and all of these things can help to empower anyone, not just women. Though the biggest divide in the lives of people throughout this era was not gender but wealth.

In one story, a rich woman who came from a powerful family mentions how the war barely even affected her life, that throughout the bombings and invasions, she continued to hold dancing and dinner parties. Likewise, those who were peasants had to struggle just to stay alive. Lacking food, medical care, sufficient housing, and undergoing the brunt of the Japanese bombings became too much for some. And those who were lucky enough to hold a job, often worked in factories with terrible conditions — enduring sometimes 12- hour days or more. Their hardships were so severe that, even the end of the war did not bring the end of their struggles. For some, life got worse.

Oral histories carry both an advantage and disadvantage. They are interesting in and of themselves in the way they are presented — in that they are recorded without any artistic flair and that which is being relayed is merely the facts as those with the experiences remember them. From a historical point of view, this has its benefits. From a reader’s enjoyment point of view however, as well as personal impact, the stories begin to blend into one another because of this lack of distinction in the way they are presented. Despite the differences in wealth, education, age and place of origin, from purely a reader’s perspective, all the voices sound the same. Here’s an example:

“Many times when the Japanese bombers were finally gone and I was on the way back to our home, I saw dead people’s body parts everywhere. Some of them were on the ground, and some of them were dangling from tree branches. Everywhere I turned I could see houses burning and people crying. I lived in constant fear day and night, worrying that we would be the next victims.”

 

There are many instances as the one listed above. Hence, examining the book as a whole does have an impact, but many of the individuals themselves don’t stick in memory. And while I understand that many women’s points of views went overlooked throughout the study of wars, merely just presenting these oral histories from only women is limiting.

After all, this gender separation only leads to more separation. It would have been interesting to hear what the men thought merely as a contrast, and to see if any of their opinions echoed what the women were saying. There is no doubt that the women from the poorest families endured the most hardships. Some, however, got to stay home with their children, while their husbands went out and endured the grueling factory work. If given a choice, I’d rather stay home myself.

Life was miserable for many during these years, not just women and not just children. It was bad for husbands, soldiers and anyone poor enough to have to scrounge for food and unfortunate enough to be below a Japanese bomber as it hits. Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China is a highly interesting and informative read, but my reason for wanting to review it resides not in the gender but in the people, the time and the place. How many Westerners are aware of the battles that went on in China — between the Nationalists and Communists, and then the brutality both groups underwent at the hand of the Japanese?

The last section has some interesting recollections with regard to the women’s involvement in political movements, though this is also the most detailed section — the excerpts are longer and more in depth than the excerpts involving merely their wartime struggles. I am not sure if this was a conscious choice, or just worked out that way, but I can say I enjoyed reading Echoes of Chongqing: Women in Wartime China and I learned not only something new, but also that there is more I plan to explore.

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