Journey to a War

W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood

Auden and Isherwood, two famous Englishmen of letters in the 1930s, visited China in 1938 in one of the country's most confused moments. The Japanese were advancing on all fronts, but the rest of the world simply stood by and watched. It would take Pearl Harbor to kick them out of their lethargy. The foreign settlements in Shanghai, always an anomaly, became even more so -- surrounded by Japanese, but still under foreign (western) control. A & I describe Shanghai at that moment in Chapter 10 of their book, Journey to a War, reproduced below.


Shanghai. May 25-June 12

Seen from the river, towering above their couchant guardian warships, the semi-skyscrapers of the Bund present, impressively, the facade of a great city. But it is only a facade. The spirit which dumped them upon this unhealthy mud-bank, thousands of miles from their kind, has been too purely and brutally competitive. The biggest animals have pushed their way down to the brink of the water; behind them is a sordid and shabby mob of smaller buildings. Nowhere a fine avenue, a spacious park, an imposing central square. Nowhere anything civic at all.

Nevertheless the tired or lustful business man will find here everything to gratify his desires. You can buy an electric razor, or a French dinner, or a well-cut suit. You can dance at the Tower Restaurant on the roof of the Cathay Hotel, and gossip with Freddy Kaufmann, its charming manager, about the European aristocracy or pre-Hitler Berlin. You can attend race-meetings, baseball games, football matches. You can see the latest American films. If you want girls, or boys, you can have them, at all prices, in the bath-houses and the brothels. If you want opium you can smoke it in the best company, served on a tray, like afternoon tea. Good wine is difficult to obtain in this climate, but there is enough whisky and gin to float a fleet of battleships. The jeweller and the antique-dealer await your orders, and their charges will make you imagine yourself back on Fifth Avenue or in Bond Street. Finally, if you ever repent, there are churches and chapels of all denominations.

We ourselves have alighted on one of the topmost branches of the social tree: we are staying at the British Ambassador's private villa in the French Concession. This villa is the property of an important shipping firm. It is known as their Number One House. Cream-coloured and eminently proconsular, with cool solid Corinthian porticoes, it stands calmly in a big garden of shaven lawns and Empire Exhibition flower-beds. Everything is in perfect working-order and modelled to scale. There is a limousine full of petrol in the garage, complete with a real live chauffeur, wearing white cotton gloves. There are Settlement police to guard the front gate, correctly equipped down to the last detail. There are Chinese servants who can say 'Your Excellency', and bow from the waist. On special occasions they wear coats of lemon-coloured silk. All the doors open and shut, the telephone rings, and the bath-taps turn on and off.

The Ambassador and Lady Kerr are, like ourselves, perfect strangers in this life-size doll's house. It will continue to function years after we are all dead. Nevertheless, they play up splendidly -returning the salutes of the guards at the gate, changing their clothes at the right hours, accepting the food and the service with fine nonchalance. It is only occasionally that one takes them unawares, resting for a moment in the lemon and cream drawing-room amidst the vases and lacquered screens, between tea with the Dutch Ambassador and dinner with the Naval Attach~, and realizes that they are an ordinary married couple, tired and not always in the best of health, who rely profoundly upon each other's intuitions and moods. Lady Kerr reads detective stories. Sir Archibald owns thirty-two pipes. They are the only objects in this vast museum which seem really and intimately to belong to him.

It is the Ambassador's turn to give an official garden party. The preparations are elaborate. They require the co-operation of the ladies of the British colony, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Embassy staff. Invitations are sent out. The drinks and the cold buffet are organized. The portico is decorated with flags. Bowing deeply, the doll-butlers usher in their national enemies, the bandylegged, hissing Japanese generals. Everybody is present, including the journalists. Next morning, the local newspapers will carry photographs of the most distinguished guests. Out on the lawn the Scottish pipers play their airs.

Everything goes off like clockwork. It is a beautifully-contrived charade, the perfect image of another kind of life-projected, at considerable expense, from its source on the opposite side of the earth. Such functions, no doubt, are well worth the money they cost, for here and there, amidst the regulation small-talk, a serious word is exchanged, a delicate but pointed hint is dropped. This afternoon certain minute but important readjustments have been made in the exquisite balance of international relationships. At any rate, thank goodness, it hasn't rained.

But gaily as the charade-players laugh, and loudly as they chatter, they cannot altogether ignore those other, most undiplomatic sounds which reach us, at intervals, from beyond the garden trees. Somewhere out in the suburbs, machine-guns are rattling. You can hear them all day long. Everybody in the Settlement knows what they mean-the Chinese guerrilla units are still active here in the enemy's stronghold. But if you are so tactless as to call the attention of the Japanese officers to these noises they will reply that you are mistaken-it is only their own troops at firing-practice.

The International Settlement and the French Concession form an island, an oasis in the midst of the stark, frightful wilderness which was once the Chinese city. Your car crosses the Soochow Creek: on one side are streets and houses, swarming with life; on the other is a cratered and barren moon-landscape, intersected by empty, cleanswept roads. Here and there a Japanese sentry stands on guard, or a party of soldiers hunts among the ruins for scrap-iron. Further out, the buildings are not so badly damaged, but every Chinese or foreigu property has been looted-and no kind of wild animal could have made half the mess. At Medhurst College, once a mission-school in the Ling-Ping Road, books and pictures have been torn up, electric-light buibs smashed, wash-basins wrecked. On the fringes of the city civilians are still living; one hears many stories of their ill-treatment at the hands of the Japanese. Out driving one day we noticed two soldiers with drawn bayonets prodding at a crowd of women and children. We stopped. Here, we thought, was a chance of witnessing an atrocity at first hand. Then we saw a third soldier, holding a basket. The Japanese, in their own inimitably ungracious way, were distributing food.

Like formidable, excluded watchdogs, the real masters of Shanghai inhabit the dark, deserted Japanese Concession, or roam the lunar wilderness of Chapei, looking hungrily in upon the lighted populous international town. On Garden Bridge their surly sentries force every Chinese foot-passenger to raise his hat in salute. Incidents are of weekly occurrence: a foreign lady is insulted, an innocent naturalist is arrested as a spy. Representations are made 'through the proper channels'; apologies are gravely offered and accepted.

Inside the Settlement, too, an underground, deadly political struggle is going on. The Japanese never cease their intrigues to form a puppet-government which is, one day, to rule China under their orders. Blackmail and bribes coerce or tempt a few prominent Chinese to negotiate with the enemy, but the would-be traitors seldom live long enough to be of much use to their new masters, for patriotic terrorists are always on the alert. Going into the Cathay Hotel one morning for a cup of coffee, we found a little crowd round the entrance gazing at a pool of blood. A Chinese business man, notorious for his pro-Japanese sympathies, had been leaving the building when he was fired at by gunmen: his White Russian bodyguard had shot back, and a battle followed, in which several people were killed. The business man himself had been badly wounded in the throat. Next time, most probably, he won't escape alive.

The perimeter of the international town is guarded by a mixed force of foreign troops. The defence sector allotted to the Seaforth Highlanders runs north from Soochow Creek to the railway station; going round their pillboxes and sentry-posts one gets some idea of the extraordinary position in which the British troops found themselves last winter during the attack on Shanghai. The direct line of advance lay through the international zone, and neither the Japanese nor the Chinese would believe that the British weren't going to let the enemy cross it to turn their flank. So they opened fire on each other across the corners of the defence sector, and the British soldiers, right in the line of the shooting, were often unable to leave their pill-boxes for twenty-four hours at a stretch. The walls of all the posts are dented with bullet-marks.

The Shanghai fighting culminated in the rearguard action fought by the 'Doomed Battalion', which was occupying the Chinese Mint Godown, to the west of the Thibet Road bridge. The British General, Telfer-Smollett, saw that if the Chinese persisted in holding the Godown some of the Japanese shells were certain to explode across the creek, in Soochow Road and beyond, so he urged their evacuation. The Chinese commander replied that he could evacuate only under direct orders from the Generalissimo himself. Madame Chiang was first approached. 'No,' she said, 'they must die that China may live.' But General Telfer-Smollett persisted, and the Generalissimo at length agreed that the battalion should be withdrawn. The Japanese were also willing, for the Mint Go down commanded their flank, and its resistance was holding up their advance.

A night was fixed for the withdrawal of the Chinese troops into the International Concession. The telephone lines to the Godown and to the Japanese headquarters had not been broken, so Telfer-Smollett was able to keep in constant communication with both sides. At the last moment the Japanese rang up to say that they refused to guarantee the safe passage of the battalion: they were angry because the Chinese had continued to fire all through the afternoon and had inflicted serious losses. So they trained their machine-guns and searchlights down the Thibet road, which the evacuating troops would have to cross to reach the international zone. At the end of the road, beside the bridge, stood a British pill-box, directly in the line of fire.

General Telfer-Smollett came, with his staff, to superintend the withdrawal personally. He was taking cover behind the Bank of China Godown on the opposite side of the road, and here he received the Chinese, as they dashed across into safety. The Japanese fired all their machineguns at once: the Chinese got their chance of escape while the guns were being reloaded. Eventually the entire battalion was able to withdraw, bringing its weapons and ammunition, with the loss of only seven men. Some people will tell you that the British troops in their pill-box, tired of being shot at, returned the Japanese fire, and even put a machine-gun out of action. This is officially denied. Anyhow, the Japanese, in the darkness and confusion, could hardly be certain where the bullets were coming from. The battalion, in accordance with a previous agreement, was interned in the International Settlement and will remain there until the end of the war.

Here we were, sitting down to lunch with four Japanese civilians in the dining-room of the Shanghai Club. This lunch had been arranged for us by a prominent British business man-and, of course, we agreed in advance, we should do nothing to embarrass or compromise our host. We would both be very tactful indeed. To make any reference, however indirect, to the war would, we felt, be positively indecent.

Fortified by a drink at the Long Bar (needless to say, it proved to be far shorter than we had expected) we advanced to meet our fellow-guests. The four Japanese were all distinguished personages - a consular official, a business man, a banker, and a railway director. The consular official was smooth-faced, and looked rather Chinese; the others gave us the collective impression of being stumpy, dark brown, bespectacled, moustached, grinning and very neat.

The Japanese, evidently, did not share our scruples: 'You have been travelling in China?' asked one of them, straight away. 'How interesting. . . . I hope you had no inconvenience?' 'Only from your aeroplanes,' I replied, forgetting our resolutions. The Japanese laughed heartily: this was a great joke. 'But surely', they persisted, 'you must have found the transport and living conditions very primitive, very inefficient?' 'On the contrary,' we assured them, 'extremely efficient. Kindness and politeness everywhere. Everybody was charming.' 'Oh yes,' the consular official agreed in an indulgent tone, 'the Chinese are certainly charming. Such nice people. What a pity....' 'Yes, what a pity!' the others chimed in: 'This war could so easily have been avoided. Our demands were very reasonable. In the past we were always able to negotiate these problems amicably. The statesmen of the old school - you could deal with them, they understood the art of compromise. But these younger men, they're dreadfully hotheaded. Most unfortunate-' 'You know,' continued the consular official, 'we really love the Chinese. That is the nice thing about this war. There is no bitterness. We in Japan feel absolutely no bitterness towards the Chinese People.' This was really a little too much. The last remnants of our prearranged politeness disappeared. It was hardly surprising, we retorted, with some heat, that the Japanese didn't feel bitter. Why should they? Had they ever had their towns burnt and their women raped? Had they ever been bombed? Our four gentlemen had no answer ready. They merely blinked. They didn't appear in the least offended, however. Then one of them said: 'That is certainly a most interesting point of view.'

They wanted to know about the morale in Hankow. Was there much enthusiasm? Enormous enthusiasm, we replied. What chances were there of a negotiated peace? None, we declared, with spiteful relish-Chiang would continue to resist, if necessary, to the borders of Thibet. The Japanese shook their heads sadly, and drew in their breath with a sharp disappointed hiss. It was a pity... a great pity. . . . And then-as we had been expecting - out came the Bolshevik Bogey. Japan was really fighting on China's side-to save her from herself, to protect her from the red menace. 'And from Western trade competition,' we might have added, but it wasn't necessary. For, at this moment, through the dining-room window which overlooked the river, the gun-turrets of H.M.S. Birmingham slid quietly into view, moving upstream. In this city the visual statements of power-politics are more brutal than any words. The Japanese had followed the direction of our eyes. Lunch ended in a moment of thoughtful and slightly embarrassed silence.

Mr. Rewi Alley is a factory inspector and official of the Public Works Department-a stocky New Zealander with light cropped ginger hair and a short rugged nose. For seven years he has been working to improve conditions in the hundreds of Chinese factories around Ilotigkewand now everything is wrecked. The Japanese have destroyed seventy per cent of China's industry. Some of the luckier concerns have been able to crowd into the International Settlement, and reopen there. Most of these factories are very small-two or three rooms crammed with machinery and operatives. The majority of the operatives are young boys who have been bought from their parents outright for twenty dollars: they work from twelve to fourteen hours a day. Their only wages are their food, and a sleeping-space in a loft above the work-room. There are no precautions whatever against accident or injury to health. In the accumulator factories, half the children have already the blue line in their gums which is a symptom of lead-poisoning. Few of them will survive longer than a year or eighteen months. In scissors factories you can see arms and legs developing chromium-holes. There are silk-winding mills so full of steam that the fingers of the mill-girls are white with fungus growths. If the children slacken in their work the overseers often plunge their elbows into the boiling water as a punishment. There is a cotton mill where the dust in the air makes T.B. almost a certainty. Alley has had its owner into court three times but he has always managed to square the judge. Accidents are invariably found to be due to the carelessness of the workers involved. There is no compensation and no insurance.

Before the war industrial conditions, though still very bad, were slowly improving. Now the destruction of so much plant has created enormous supplies of surplus labour. (In the silk factory, for example, women's wages have fallen from thirty to twenty cents a day.) The Japanese, in Alley's opinion, will exploit the Shanghai workers even more brutally than the Chinese owners have exploited them in the past. They will flood the markets with cheap goods and so gradually lower working-class standards of living all over the world.

If you tire of inspecting one kind of misery there are plenty of others. Refugee camps, for instance-triple tiers of shelves under a straw roof. These hovels would disgrace the dirtiest Chinese village. On each shelf lives, cooks, eats, and sleeps an entire family. A single hut will hold about five hundred people. There is often only one source of water-supply for a whole camp, a fire-hose main in the street: the queue to it reaches into dozens all day long.

Since the Japanese occupation of the outer city, the International Settlement has been dangerously overcrowded. There is no restriction on sub-letting: the minimum sleep-ing-space on a floor may cost one dollar sixty cents a month. When the British wished to clear a single street a hundred yards long for defensive purposes they were told that this would mean evicting fourteen thousand people. Under present conditions Alley estimates that forty thousand refugee children must die during the next twelve months from under-nourishment and epidemics. Cholera has started in Shanghai already.

Then there is the problem of the rickshaw-coolies. Their standard of life is hardly better than that of the refugees themselves. The profession is recruited chiefly from the country boys who leave their homes and come to Shanghai because they have been told that it is a 'gold- and silver-making place'. The number of rickshaws in the International Settlement is limited to ten thousand. You can buy a rickshaw for fifty to seventy dollars. Then you must register it. The registration-plate costs, officially, five dollars. But these plates, being limited in number and absolutely essential, change hands many times, always at a profit. They have been known to fetch five hundred dollars apiece. The rickshaw-owner hires out his machines to the coolies at the rate of seventy cents a day. (Often a rickshaw is operated by two coolies working on alternate days.) The war has hit the rickshaw trade severely. The midnight curfew has reduced the number of business hours, and the Japanese occupation has restricted the area of traffic-for no rickshaw can now pass the limits of the international zone. The coolie may expect a profit of from thirty to sixty cents: this, if he is sharing his rickshaw, must keep him alive for two days. Often he is unlucky; his registration-plate or his pawn-tickets are stolen or he gets into trouble with the police over some traffic regulation and is fined. Having no reserves it is nearly impossible for him to make good these losses. So he sinks further and further into debt. As one coolie told a Chinese worker who was taking us round the slums: 'Our life seems to be fastened down with live hooks.'

During the past few years, however, something has been done to help the coolies. Four rickshaw-pullers' mutual aid centres have been started in Shanghai. At these centres they can rest, drink tea, have a bath and get medical attention. They are run by the Municipal Council. Each coolie pays five cents a day for his membership. He gives the money to his rickshaw-owner, from whom the Council collects it.

Tucked away in unobtrusive corners, unnoticed and almost forgotten, are the crippled remains of the soldiers who fought to defend Shanghai. We have visited one such hospital with Alley: all its patients have lost an arm or a leg. They are being taught simple trades - soap-making, stocking-knitting, or the manufacture of crude artificial limbs; but the chief doctor, a missionary, doesn't approve of education and tries to get them sent away before they can learn much. Most of them, if they recover, have no future but begging. All day long the unfortunate patients are pestered by Chinese evangelists, who lecture them, lay hands upon them, and try to persuade them to sing hymns. Without much success, however. The other day, we are told, the patients went on strike and tore up all their Bibles.

The soldiers were astonishingly cheerful, and all anxious to be photographed. One boy was a remarkable artist. He drew portraits and caricatures. He had fought in the 'Doomed Battalion'. His younger brother, he told us, had been eaten alive in Shan-si Province by a wolf.

The hospital authorities have circulated a questionnaire among the patients to discover their reasons for joining the army. The results are as follows:

Economic reasons
Economic reasons + admiration of military career
Patriotism
Family difficulties
Conscription
Homeless
Wish to suppress local bandits
Deceived by promises of reward
Vanity
36
26
23
23
16
9
7
1
1

Alley is convinced that China cannot hope to win this war unless she develops an industrial co-operative movement in the interior of the country. During the past thirty years Chinese industry has been concentrated in the coastal area, but the coast towns and the big river ports are now all occupied or threatened by the Japanese. Sooner or later, all China's industrial plant will fall into the enemy's hands unless it is removed in time to the inner provinces.

Japan is planning the economic colonization of China, nothing less. Already she has published schemes for the building of new canals, railways, cotton and silk mills. In Hongkew and the other occupied districts of Shanghai she is reopening her factories. Of the 130,000 operatives now employed in Shanghai ninety per cent are working for the Japanese.

The flight into the international zone is no solution of China's economic problems. Even if the Chinese in the Settlement retain some measure of political freedom their operations can only strengthen the Shanghai area as an economic base for the Japanese war-machine. Their communications with the interior are becoming increasingly difficult and may soon be cut off altogether. And yet, during the first four months of 1938, over 400 new Chinese factories were established in the western district of the Settlement, while less than fifty industrialists moved their plants elsewhere.

The Chinese Government, as Alley points out, has had great success in developing the agricultural co-operative movement - consumers, marketing, and credit co-operatives. It has thereby strengthened the rural purchasing power. In addition to this the local market has been automatically protected as a result of the blockade enforced by war conditions on the import of foreign goods.

The peasants of the interior are therefore able to buy manufactured articles as never before. But there is little or nothing to buy. The enormously reduced Chinese industrial production is quite unable to meet this increased demand. What is now urgently needed is the reorganization of industry on the same basis as the successfully reorganized agriculture. China requires 30,000 industrial co-operatives.

The planners of the industrial co-operative movement propose the establishment of three 'zones of economic defence'. First, the big static units - the heavy industries, equipped with elaborate machinery and employing many workers. These will be engaged chiefly in making munitions. Because of their size they cannot easily be moved, so they should be located far out of reach of the enemy, in the extreme western provinces. Secondly, the medium-sized units, situated between the front and the rear. These should be semi-mobile, and equipped with machine-tools. Thirdly, the 'guerrilla' units. These co-operatives should use only light, easily portable tools. Their function would be to provide articles of immediate necessity to the military forces.

Since the Japanese army strikes only along easy lines of communication-a highroad, a railway, or a river - it should be possible for the 'guerrilla' units to operate around and even behind the enemy's positions. If the Japanese have occupied a large town, Chinese industrial co-operatives could still function in the neighbouring villages, providing manufactured articles necessary for the farming population. They would thus prevent areas adjacent to the Japanese garrisons from becoming economically colonized by Japanese goods. Their value, as centres of patriotic propaganda, would therefore be enormous.

Industrial co-operatives would also solve the refugee problem. They could absorb thousands of homeless and workless peasants, and divert the millions of dollars now being spent on refugee camps in the occupied areas, where destitute Chinese are merely kept alive until such time as the Japanese wish to exploit their labour power.

The difficulties in carrying out this scheme are, of course, immense. Chinese industry can only be transplanted and decentralized with the fullest co-operation of the industrialists and the workers themselves. The Chinese are no fonder of moving than anybody else. Many will have to leave their homes and even their families behind them, and set off on a roundabout journey to distant parts of the country, where their native dialect is unintelligible, and where they feel themselves as isolated as an Italian farmer in Wales. In many cases the Government will have to carry out its projects by force: plant, tools, and the means of transport will have to be commandeered. The propaganda-drive for industrial migration will have to be redoubled. Above all, money will be needed - money for transport, money for compensation, money to buy portable machinery, Delco-plants, and charcoal-burning engines. The organizers of the movement plan to appeal to the League of Nations, and to the labour parties of friendly foreign States, for technical and financial aid. We only hope that they won't be disappointed by the results.

In this city - conquered, yet unoccupied by its conquerors - the mechanism of the old life is still ticking, but seems doomed to stop, like a watch dropped in the desert. In this city the gulf between society's two halves is too grossly wide for any bridge. There can be no compromise here. And we ourselves though we wear out our shoes walking the slums, though we take notes, though we are genuinely shocked and indignant, belong, unescapably, to the other world. We return, always, to Number One House for lunch.

In our world, there are the garden-parties and the nightclubs, the hot baths and the cocktails, the singsong girls and the Ambassador's cook. In our world, European business men write to the local newspapers, complaining that the Chinese are cruel to pigs, and saying that the refugees should be turned out of the Settlement because they are beginning to smell. In our world 'the only decent Japanese' (as all the British agree in describing him) defends the wholesale bombing of Canton on the ground that it is more humane than a military occupation of the city. In our world, an Englishman quite seriously suggests that the Japanese should be asked to drive the Chinese farmers from a plot of land enclosing a grave-mound which spoils the appearance of the garden.

And the well-meaning tourist, the liberal and humanitarian intellectual, can only wring his hands over all this and exclaim: 'Oh dear, things are so awful here - so complicated. One doesn't know where to start.'

'I know where I should start,' says Mr. Alley, with a ferocious snort. 'They were starting quite nicely in 1927.'


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