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Wartime Shanghai Refugees: Chaos, Exclusion, and Indignity: Do Images Make up for the Absence of Memory?

Photography figures prominently among the visual sources that have
enriched the range of materials used by historians over the last decade.
Born with the industrial age, photography rapidly evolved from a prac-
tice geared toward individual portraiture or landscape by photo studios
or skilled amateurs to a major mode of communication in its own right.
An early association with the press magnified the role of photography.
By the turn of the twentieth century, photography was rapidly displacing
the previous modes of illustration in periodicals.1 Yet the growing impact
of photography was also related to its use on the battlefield. War, and es-
pecially World War I, gave a major impetus to the rise of photography as
the primary medium to report “reality” from the front lines back home.
Armies set up photographic services to cover their ongoing conflicts. Indi-
vidual periodicals would also send reporter-photographers into the field,
to be joined soon by press agencies specializing in providing photographs
of major events all over the planet. Used for propaganda to boost morale
as much as for information, photographs thus became a central element of
the emerging mass media.2
1 Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu, “Du dessin de presse à la photographie (1878–1914):
Histoire d’une mutation technique et culturelle,” Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine
39 (January–March 1992): 10.
2 Therese Blondet-Bisch, “Aperçu historique de la pratique photographique durant la
Grande guerre,” Historiens et Geographes 89, no. 364 (1998): 249–251; Laurent Veray, “Montrer
la guerre: La photographie et le cinématoraphe,” Guerre Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains
43, no. 171 (1993): 111–121.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees:
Chaos, Exclusion, and Indignity
Do Images Make up for the Absence of Memory?
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 13
War photography definitely ranks as the genre par excellence attempt-
ing to document in visual form for viewers far away from the front lines of
the battlefield—at least until World War II—one of the most brutal mani-
festations of man. As photography became more popular, along with the
emergence of professional press agencies, it recorded in increasing num-
ber the ravages of modern warfare on both soldiers and civilians. War
photography has become a “genre” in its own right, producing emblem-
atic images of modern conflicts.3 Altogether, however, this apparent abun-
dance must be balanced with various factors such as a focus on certain
aspects of war and neglect of others, the frequent absence of proper label-
ing, and, of course, important losses in the course of time. Nevertheless,
photography oers a wide field to be explored, even if it raises particular
challenges for historical research.
This chapter explores how historians can use photographs taken during
a particular war—the Sino-Japanese conflict in Shanghai in late 1937—as
a source to understand certain processes, especially the impact of war on
ordinary people, and as a way to both recount the events themselves and to
contribute to a reasoned memory of these events. The first part of the chap-
ter deals with the general issue of using photographs as a historical source
for the modern historian. In it, I argue that photography oers a privileged
medium that seemingly allows the historian to reach out toward the subject
matter while also taking him or her onto a largely undetermined field, on
account of both “knowing” the past and “telling” history. The second part
of the chapter presents a narrative of the experience of refugees in Shanghai
based on the use of photographs. There, I argue that photographs reveal
aspects that went o the written record and also allow a better understand-
ing of the tragic fate of the refugee population. Although only a limited
sample of images are presented with this text to visualize this perception
of the past, their illustrative function can hardly be dismissed. For this very
reason, I also propose on the Virtual Shanghai on-line platform parallel
narratives in the form of visual and map narratives, not to supplement the
textual narrative, but as alternative readings of the refugee experience.4
Reflections about the Use of Photography in History
“[The] meanings of photographs emerge from cultural experiences; they
are ideological reproductions of reality and viewed as realizations of an
objective truth. They are also a source of multiple collective memories
and therefore components of history as a creative process.”5 This quo-
3 See the remarkable documentary film by Christian Frei, War Photographer (Switzerland,
2001), 96 minutes; available at
4 See the Virtual Shanghai Project at
5 Bonnie Brennen and Hanno Hardt, eds., Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography
14 Christian Henriot
tation somehow sums up the dilemma of historians when dealing with
nontextual records. Images, visual materials, and so forth are not, of
course, something new on the academic planet. Even among historians,
images have provided a rich staple to feed historical inquiry. For the most
part, however, this has been the realm of either historians of precontem-
porary periods (from ancient to modern history) or, quite naturally, art
historians.6 Beyond this specific realm that already oers a lot of insight,
methods, and practice in the use of visual materials, the “visual” has taken
up a new dimension with the development of “visual studies” around the
concept of “visual culture.” Visual studies actually draw on a wide array
of disciplines and present various ways into the study of visual sources.7
I shall not discuss this field here: First, it is beyond my competence.
Second, a large part of the theories, concepts, and even methods are not
necessarily relevant for the purpose of a social historian. I have found it
very illuminating to peruse many of the works produced on visual cul-
ture, especially given my own interest in using the two “faces of the coin”
any visual source oers. However, my analysis here will be limited to one
kind of visual material: photographs. Photographs have been used quite
often in books, sometimes to identify—visually—a particular figure or a
particular place. More often than not, photographs appear as an illustra-
tive companion to text, never or rarely disjointed from the broad narrative
presented, but yet often not very close to an actual reference in the text,
and, above all, they are seldom used as a source of information for the
narrative itself.8 What we are left with, in most cases, is the use of photo-
graphs as illustrations, as images meant to convey a “sense of things past”
by providing a tiny visual window into that past.
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 7.
6 For a solid introduction, see Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical
Evidence (London: Reaktion, 2001). This volume is part of a fascinating series titled “Pictur-
ing History” that the publisher, Reaktion, started in 1995. Despite the progress made toward
using visual sources, a recent volume still observed the limited involvement of modern his-
torians with visual documents (Paul Gerhard, ed., Visual History: Ein Studienbuch [Göttingen:
Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2006], 11–18).
7 One will find solid references in Nicholas Mirzoe, ed., The Visual Culture Reader (Lon-
don: Routledge, 2002); Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, eds., Visual Culture: The Reader (London:
Sage, 1999); Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual
Materials (London: Sage, 2001); John A. Walker and Sara Chaplin, Visual Culture: An Introduc-
tion (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 1997; and Stuart Hall, ed., Representation:
Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage, 2003).
8 Some historians have made serious use of photography, although mostly in papers. See
Peter Hamilton, “Representing the Social: France and Frenchness in Post-War Humanist
Photography,” in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart
Hall (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 75–150; Terence Ranger, “Colonialism, Consciousness,
and the Camera,” Past and Present 171 (2001): 203–215.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 15
One can definitely go beyond this level and take photographs seriously
as a source in themselves: a type of source, however, that raises new chal-
lenges. When using photographs, historians are caught in a tension—the
source/narrative tension. Images can catch the eye of an audience and cre-
ate a sense of proximity that is engaging and therefore eective: “In that
sense, photographs also serve the imagination of historians and feed their
creative instincts.”9 They also confront historians with temptations about
their various possible uses:
— To see the past ¤ as a source, as if photography could relate
to us a concrete view of “how things were”
— To illustrate the past ¤ as a mere adjunct to a textual narrative,
though in most cases the narrative could
do without the images (e.g., portraiture)
— To visualize the past ¤ to reconstruct a visual perception of the
past and to show it to the reader (from
“systematic sample” to “visual narrative”)
This is, of course, a crude and probably incomplete view of how histo-
rians use photographs in their work, but this representation is meant to
place a certain emphasis on the major ways in which, I believe, we can ex-
ploit photographs as historians. Probably, for some time to come, the use
of photographs as illustrations will remain the dominant use. These im-
ages do not distort the historical narrative, and they enliven the long text
through which most of us entertain our readers and train our students.
We should also note here that photographs have been used as the core
material of a “history of.” Yet it is usually in the form of albums where,
conversely, text is reduced to a minimum or altogether absent. There is
rarely any attempt to construct a signifying narrative through the selected
photographs beyond a chronological or topical line.10
To come back to the possible uses of photographs, my interest lies pri-
marily in the two “nonillustrative” functions, namely, “to see the past”
and “to visualize the past.” When a photograph comes into the hands of
a serious historian—serious enough to give it some credit as a legitimate
source—it entails an immediate set of questions to which, in many cases,
there will be only partial answers:
9 Brennen and Hardt, Picturing the Past, 7.
10 Jorge Lewinski, comp., The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the
Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980). In the case of Shanghai, there are several
such books under various names: Zhenchang Tang et al., trans., Shanghai’s Journey to Prosper-
ity, 1842–1949 (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1996; originally published as Lu Yunzhang,
ed., Jinshi Shanghai fanhua lu); Shi Meiding ৆ṙᅮ, ed., Zhui yi: Jindai Shanghai tushi 䗑ដ䖥
ҷϞ⍋೒৆ [Remembrance: An illustrated history of modern Shanghai] (Shanghai: Shanghai
guji chubanshe, 1996).
16 Christian Henriot
—By whom?
—What for?
Before even looking into the content of the photograph itself, this is
what a historian should ask about a photograph. These are, after all, the
same kinds of questions we raise about written sources, except that both
for historical reasons (photographs have not been collected and pro-
cessed in the same systematic way as textual records) and for reasons
related to the nature of photography (it comes as a fixed and unique im-
age), historians cannot rely on the same set of methods they were trained
into using.
Photography arrives as a cluster of built-in contradictions. It appears
to oer a slice of “true reality,” of a moment that did exist—the camera
recorded it—and yet what we see depends on the conditions under which
the photograph was taken. Moreover, a photograph does not come as a set
of items one can examine and deconstruct in the same way we examine a
text (from its source, its language, its support, etc.). A photograph is one
and a whole. This is not to say there are no specific tools to “deconstruct” a
photograph, but the purpose a historian has in mind only partly overlaps
with the approach of a photograph as a piece of art.
A frequent diculty in using photographs lies in their lack of proper
identification. Photographs were not considered a significant source in
themselves (rather, an “eye on the past” that may be used for exhibitions)
and did not receive until very recently the kind of systematic recording
process libraries and archives have applied to textual records. In many
cases, photographs arrived from various places, were put into boxes in
bulk—sometimes left for decades—and then sorted out at a time when
there was nobody left that could provide information about them. Pho-
tographs were also taken as an adjunct to reportages: “photographs
were used to position targets of depiction within a larger story of Nazi
atrocity,”11 for example. This holds true for other “stories.” This diculty
is compounded by the fact that many pictures, especially after the popu-
larization of the camera in the early twentieth century, were produced by
all kinds of individuals, not just professionals. In my own experience with
Shanghai historical photographs, most were taken by “Mr. Anonymous.”
11 Barbie Zelizer, “From the Image of Record to the Image of Memory: Holocaust
Photography, Then and Now,” in Brennen and Hardt, Picturing the Past, 105.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 17
We are left, therefore, with a very rich visual material, but very few indi-
cations about its nature, source, conditions of production, purpose, and
One way to get around this problem is to work on a specific collection
of photographs produced either by an individual photographer or by an
institution or a press agency or newspaper. Depending on the degree of
rigor of the photographer, the historian may have good knowledge of the
circumstances under which the photographs were produced. Yet, a whole
array of diculties remains. First, the photographer may not have left a
proper or detailed record of what, when, and where regarding the pic-
tures. One can be in Beijing (but anywhere in Beijing) at any time between
1933 and 1946 and be shown unidentified places, artifacts, people, and so
forth.12 The other situation with well-identified photographers is that most
of them were or are professional photographers. There are, of course, nu-
merous examples of quasi-professional “amateur” photographing, espe-
cially in the nineteenth century (e.g., diplomats, missionaries, etc.), mean-
ing there is probably an intermediate category between sheer amateurs
and professionals (e.g., Sidney D. Gamble or Father Joseph de Reviers; see
later). On the whole, however, the development of amateur photography
in the twentieth century entailed the production of much less focused and
“coherent” works. This also means we are left with a large constellation of
disjointed images.
Professional photography, therefore, may appear as a more secure
ground to work on for the historian, and yet this is an illusion because it
implies that picture taking was highly conditioned by the purpose pho-
tographers had, a major one being to make a living, by selling their pic-
tures either to a certain audience or to magazines. Professional picture
taking results from an equation that integrates personal inclination (and
subjectivity), purpose (sale, publication), intended audience, and exter-
nal conditions (social context, technological constraints). Skilled amateurs
may have had greater leeway, as their photographs’ immediate purpose
and targeted audience could be quite vague, but the subjectivity was there
too. In other words, what one gains in better background knowledge, one
loses on the side of “spontaneity.”
Before moving toward the photograph itself, there is another point
that deserves our attention. Photographs were produced in increasing
numbers between the moment of their invention and the middle of the
twentieth century. In fact, when the camera started to become a consumer
12 This refers to the Hedda Morrison collection on which Feng Yi is working for her Ph.D.
The entire collection is available on-line at -yen
18 Christian Henriot
good after WWI, millions of photographs were taken by individuals, stu-
dios, press agencies and newspapers, institutions, and so forth. And yet,
most of these pictures were lost, as happens with all historical records,
but probably more in the case of photographs, leaving an advantage to
those produced by institutions and press-related organs. Our “vision of
the past” requires corrective lenses to make up for this imbalance between
“public” (including here newspapers) and “private.” In other words, if
photographs are slices of the past, the stack of slices we have has been
thinned from an original tower of images. In the case of China, this issue
is compounded by additional obstacles related to the historical circum-
stances the country went through—war, institutional instability, lack of
preservation—and, as far as the People’s Republic of China is concerned,
utmost diculties in accessing original collections.
What this comes to, eventually, is the realization that photographs
will never match the range and depth of issues that textual records, es-
pecially archives, are able to cover. Despite the variety of circumstances
under which photographs were produced, at least until WWII, photo-
graphs were never produced in the same way as written documents by
government agencies—say, by a Bureau of Social Aairs or a Ministry of
the Interior. Photography was a mere accessory to administration, busi-
ness management, and the like. There was never anything close to the
systematic production of written documents in the case of photography. A
major consequence is the loss of the kind of traceability a historian is able
to recover through textual records.
Photographs will forever be just shots into the past. Individual shots,
shots in series, shots in sequence, shots by a single photographer, shots
that oer more or less density and granularity on a place, on an event,
or on people. But they are shots that bring to the surface a closer sense
of experience (what it was like), shots that bring to light aspects of the
past that the textual documents failed to record or pushed back into the
shade. A unique quality of photography is its immediacy. Its conditions
of production dier quite radically from that of textual records. On the
one hand, any text is always the result of construction by its author, be
it a technical report on road repair, a survey on the use of drugs, a police
account of a crime, or the like. Such elaborations may go through various
preliminary stages, use dierent techniques (data collection, interviews,
etc.), and involve dierent “hands” before a text is written. There is much
less distance—both temporal and spatial—between a photographer and
what he sees than between an author and what she narrates.
Alternately, and without underestimating the cognitive dimension of
picture taking—I am aware, as noted previously, that the photographer
does make choices, that his or her images are not a guarantee of more
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 19
“objectivity”—the time for its elaboration is limited, especially in stressful
situations like war. The photographer can hardly change what is in front
of the camera. What we gain in photography’s more immediacy and more
direct “contact” with the past than textual sources, however, we also lose
in terms of depth. The historian gets a framed still image of a split-second
moment of the past at location X. And digging into the surface of a single
photograph definitely raises a new challenge, as more often than not we
end up on the other—blank—side of the photograph. Once in a while, a
little help will come in the form of scribbled words on the back, but this
may be misleading, even in the case of photographs by professional pho-
tographers.13 In fact, as I argue later, the blank side is entirely up to the
historian. This is his or her own work ground.
A photograph is like a coin: it has two faces. On one side is what I see, the
image that oers itself to view and interpretation. The other face is more
metaphorical. I do not mean here any annotation or whatever may appear
on the verso of the photograph (though this should not be discounted).
The other side is what I know about the photograph (what, when, where,
by whom, etc.). Having all the relevant data is a considerable advantage
for interpreting what the photograph shows, what the photograph tells
us. Yet it is not the whole story.14
For the historian, to read a photograph is a challenge to his or her habits.
At a preliminary level, a photograph will be read as a whole. It will convey
an immediate message or meaning, which is not something that comes
through the reading of words that progressively build into a sentence
and eventually produce a meaning. A photograph comes as a “bundle” of
meaning(s). One sees a photograph before “reading” it. Our eyes are not
mere cameras recording mechanically what comes within their range of
vision. They are connected to a mind that will add “reading” to “viewing,”
including injecting meaning into the image, projecting questions about it,
and moving toward more systematic deciphering. The range is wide, from
a simple view like a portrait to complex scenes (groups, streets, landscape,
etc.). There are many ways to “deconstruct” a photograph depending on
13 Photographers interpret what they see. Sometimes they misread for lack of knowl-
edge of what stands before their camera. Some also overinterpret what they see and assign
a meaning to a scene that may not be there. See Sam Tata, Shanghai, 1949: The End of an Era
(New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1989); Jack Birns, Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on
the Eve of Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
14 This section owes much to an illuminating book by George Didi-Huberman, Images in
Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
The book examines the case of four photographs taken by a Sonderkommando inside a Nazi
concentration camp. These four photographs feed a very elaborate discussion on the use of
photography in history.
20 Christian Henriot
one’s perspective and focus. Further, there are tools in visual studies that
historians can draw on to guide their steps at this level.
The other face of the coin is as important as its “positive” side, espe-
cially when one deals with photographs that are accompanied by little or
no information. In fact, any “reading” of a photograph is made at the point
of intersection between “what I see” and “what I know.”15 This holds true
of other sources, but with images, especially when they come with little
background data, one can only rely on preexisting “knowledge” to read
a photograph and give it proper meaning. “What I know” includes both
knowledge on the photograph itself and knowledge outside of the photo-
graph. Knowledge on the photograph refers to all data covered by the usu-
al set of questions spelled out previously (what, when, where, etc.), while
knowledge outside the photograph means everything one knows about
the broader context of the photograph (which may be as wide as “this is
in China”). It includes any knowledge that will condition the reading of a
photograph. This is what I metaphorically call the other face of the coin, the
“blank” side of the photograph, the ground on which the historian works.
My own approach as a historian is based on a very simple method.
When reading a photograph I start with a systematic itemization of what
it shows (and what it does not show). This is meant to “objectify” as much
as possible what I see and keep a distance from any information or knowl-
edge I may have about the image. The second consideration is to attempt
to pick out any detail that would contribute to a proper identification and
interpretation of the scene under scrutiny. A photograph should never be
taken lightly. Details are what may help eliminate options and therefore
narrow down the topic, time frame, location, and the like shown on the
photograph. Even when the view is obvious—for example, a picture of the
Bund—one may be able to date a picture from the buildings shown and
not shown (they changed over time) or the size of the trees (provided one
knows what kinds of trees and when they were planted). In other words,
a rigorous ethnographic and/or archaeological reading is a preliminary
and most necessary step for the interpretation of a photograph. This will
produce a complete record of identified and unidentified items and layers
displayed on a photograph.
It is on the basis of this “ethnographic report” that the historian can
move to his or her own workplace because the task at hand will work in
two directions. The elements of information available on the photograph
as well as the prior knowledge of the historian will change the contrast,
sharpen the edge, highlight parts left in the dark, or illuminate shadows.
Conversely, the “ethnographic report” will serve to challenge or test prior
knowledge as well as indicate directions for further research on visible but
15 Again, here, I draw my inspiration from Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 21
unascertained or unidentified aspects or items displayed on the photo-
graph (type of tree, date of plantation, date of building erection, car mod-
el, etc.). In many cases, this attempt will prove fruitless and hit a wall. Yet
for any picture to be used as a source, these are the steps to be taken if one
does not want to be caught using a “wrong” image. Of course, when an
image database exists, this work is made easier thanks to the possibilities
of comparison among images that deal with the same topic.
From the perspective of using photographs as a source, the historian
will meet with basically three types of picture taking:
1. Posed or staged photographs: Despite the similarity, the two modes are
not quite the same. Posed photographs were mandatory in the early stag-
es of photography when the time of exposition was counted in periods
of up to 15 minutes. A photographer could take a picture of a “real-life”
situation, but that real-life situation had to be created on purpose with
all participants frozen in immobility for the sake of picture taking. The
other kind of photograph to be found in the nineteenth century is staged
photography. This is a subtle shift from posed photography, but it entails a
fundamental change of perspective. In a staged photograph, the photogra-
pher “creates” a situation—for example, pictures of prisoners in cangues,
a picture of a capital execution—that is not real. It is reinvented, reenacted
for the purpose of picture taking. The issue with such photographs is that
they may well faithfully tell a “true story” that was impossible to docu-
ment in a real-life situation.
2. Targeted photographs: The second major category of photographs is
that produced by professional photographers after the transition to cam-
eras allowing instant shots. It is a major category because it can be as-
sumed to have survived better the challenge of time and to provide a
wealth of visual documentation to the historian. It is also significant for its
quality—professional picture taking—and its relevance: professional pho-
tographers, especially those working for press agencies or newspapers,
were expected to cover “events.” In using such photographs, the historian
is confronted by two major issues: the first one is that of identification, and
the second one is the nature of professional photography. Whereas famous
photographers and their productions are easy to trace with complete bib-
liographies (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, etc.), the lesser known
ones—most photographers employed in the press—are often impossible
to identify and to relate to specific pictures. Yet all professional photogra-
phers share the same approach: they take what sells, or potentially so, or
what their employer expects to sell. This is a target-driven practice of pho-
tography that carves out thin slices of time meant to represent far more
than what they actually show.
3. Random photographs: I include under this category all the pictures tak-
en by nonprofessionals, most of them for a personal purpose (by travelers,
22 Christian Henriot
sojourners, local residents, etc.) rather than for a broader audience. The
range covers also “enlightened amateurs” like Sydney D. Gamble—who
had a long practice of photography that he used as part of his mission-
ary activities in China, but before all as a personal hobby—or missionary-
photographers like Leone Nani or the Jesuit father Joseph de Reviers, or
even diplomat-photographers like Auguste François.16 A large part of the
stock, however, comes from people who took pictures “on the fly” rather
than with a specific frame of mind, ordinary people—especially foreign-
ers—whose eyes were caught by an aspect of life in China. While most of
these pictures fail to present much historical interest or are of poor quality,
many provide a “fresh” and less mediated look at what was taken by the
For all three categories, the point needs to be raised about the distinc-
tion between Chinese and foreigners. Obviously, a large part of our stock
of images, especially for earlier periods, is made up of pictures taken by
foreign visitors or residents, some of them first-timers in China. This pro-
cess was renewed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
even if the circulation of images brought home various layers of “prior
knowledge” to the people bound to travel to China. The Chinese/foreign-
er distinction is also important to keep in mind when thinking about what
is shown of China. It can be expected that foreigners looked dierently at
Chinese society than natives did as they reacted to things they perceived
as surprising, alien, unusual, and the like. What we may be lacking here
are collections of photographs by individual and identified Chinese pho-
tographers to tell us how they “saw” their own society.17
What this comes down to is the extreme variety of visual documents
photography has left us from China before World War II. Apart from issues
16 John Hersey, Sidney D. Gamble, and Jonathan D. Spence, Sidney D. Gamble’s China
(Washington, D.C.: Alvin Rosenbaum Projects, 1989); Nancy Jervis, ed., China between Revo-
lutions: Photographs by Sidney D. Gamble, 1917–1927 (New York: Sidney D. Gamble Founda-
tion for China Studies, 1989); Nancy L. Johnson and Leonard Sherp, eds., Sidney D. Gamble’s
China, 1917–1932: Photographs of the Land and Its People (Washington, D.C.: Alvin Rosenbaum
Projects, 1988); Clara Bulfoni and Anna Pozzi, Lost China: The Photographs of Leone Nani
(Milan: Skira, 2004); Christine Cornet, Paysans de l’eau (Aix-en-Provence: Actes Sud/Bleu
de Chine, 2004); and Dominique Liaboeuf and Jorge Svartzman, L’Oeil du Consul: Auguste
François en Chine (1896–1904) (Paris: Editions du Chêne, 1989).
17 Works on individual Chinese photographers are rare, though one can glean some data
in the newly published general histories of photography in China. Shana Brown has started
to explore the work of photographer Sha Fei during the Sino-Japanese War. See Shana Brown,
“Sha Fei, the Jin-Cha-Ji Pictorial, and the Documentary Style of Chinese Wartime Photojour-
nalism,” in this volume. See also Ma Yunzeng 侀䘟๲ et al., eds., Zhongguo sheying shi Ё೟᫱
ᕅ৆, 1840–1937 [A history of photography in China] (Beijing: Zhongguo sheying chubanshe,
1987); Chen Shen䱇⬇et al., eds., Zhongguo sheying shi, 1840–1937 [History of photography in
China, 1840–1937] (Taipei: Sheyingjia chubanshe, 1990).
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 23
of quality, they all look alike—black-and-white shots of reality—but they
were produced by very dierent types of “picture-takers” with dierent
perspectives. These images oer very tempting material that seems to ma-
terialize before our eyes the ever illusive past the historian is so desperate
to grasp in all its dimensions. This material, however, can also prove very
illusive and must never be taken as an image of the past. It is an image from
the past, a document that requires a dicult exercise in reading through
the two sides of the image—what it shows and why and how it is showing
its subject. A single image can take one in several directions.
A Visual Narrative of the Fate of Refugees in Shanghai, 1937–1938
In the preceding section, I discussed the upstream side of using photo-
graphs for the historian. With photographs as a source, the historian may
build his approach on a triptych—see/experience/know—both for him-
self (what I see, what I experience, what I know from the photograph)
and about the object of the photograph (the object I see, the experience
I observe, the knowledge I gain about the object). On that basis, he may
also want to share his view/experience/knowledge with his reader(s) not
just by writing about or from the photograph, but also by showing it to
the audience. This entails a new challenge, as the use of the photograph
downstream will be based on a confusion of usually separate operations
in the historical narrative: the written narrative on the one hand, and the
original documents on the other hand.
A photograph will by its very nature encapsulate both aspects: it seems
to provide a guarantee of authenticity (an original document), while it is
also meant to convey a message within the general historical narrative.
In such a use, the historian is confronted by the set of issues scholars in
visual studies have pointed out, especially the fact that the historian has
no control over how the images she has selected will be read. In fact, she
has a certain degree of control through the use of captions (and text if the
photograph is discussed in text). This control may even be pushed toward
manipulation. The issue is made even more complicated if one uses im-
ages that have become “standards” or even “icons,” as it will be dicult to
detach them from the set of predefined meanings with which they came.
An image, in its illustrative function, is often used to let the reader “see”
an object of history. The “know/experience” functions are less prominent
in this case.18 On the other side, the choice of the picture will definitely
increase the arbitrary and subjective dimension of how the past is shown.
18 I do not take into account here the “poetic” function of photography, by which I mean
the purely artistic dimension of certain types of pictures (still life, nude, etc.) that may never
serve as “sources” for the historian.
24 Christian Henriot
It is an end-of-the-line selection made out of what history has left of what
the original photographer had decided to take. In other words, by using
an image as an illustration, we increase by a very large factor what the
picture is showing to take it as the (true) representation of a much larger
historical moment. This does not pose a problem, since the image is here
only as a supplement to the text and since the image makes a limited in-
tervention into the narrative. It does not diminish the need for a careful
selection based on a thorough critical review of the original image. Many
of us have worked along these lines with photographs, usually with a lim-
ited number due to publishing costs, but more extensively in conference
Some authors have attempted to limit the use of words when using
pictures, though these are rare cases.19 More often than not, pictures come
with a lot of words. In working on the history of Shanghai, and more spe-
cifically on “war refugees,” I have been struggling with these various is-
sues of which I have tried to present a brief sketch in the preceding sec-
tion. Such an experiment is made possible thanks to Internet technologies.
While the use of print technology remains an option, considerations of
cost generally rule it out. But more to the point, Internet tools allow elabo-
rate combinations and articulation of source documents, of text with im-
ages, of sets of images. One can weave these various elements into alterna-
tive narratives that may oer a more complete account or reach out more
directly to the reader. Undoubtedly, the use of photographs comes with
problems, challenges, and risks. Even with the best intentions and schol-
arly credentials, the display of images may cause unexpected protests.20
A central issue in taking visual documents as sources to produce a
narrative is whether this narrative will actually be “image-driven” or
“text-driven.” By training and inclination, many historians—including
myself—may tend to reproduce their textual narratives even when using
images with an attempt to cover all aspects, from start to end. Another
shortcoming is the temptation to flood the audience with as many pic-
tures as possible following a logical—almost clinical—description of the
19 John Berger et al., Ways of Seeing (New York: Viking Press, 1973). This book was based
on a TV series. It contains seven essays, three of which are photo-essays that present images
without any text. They mix paintings and photographs around a single theme. This is one of
the first essays to say something through images, though this is not conceived as a historical
approach. The authors attempt to show how images take dierent meanings depending on
how they are used and how they are seen.
20 One such example is the polemical debate over the use of a set of postcards on the
MIT-based “Visualizing Cultures” ( Web site after Chinese students
protested against these images and used the Internet to denounce, and even threaten, its
authors. That it was a Web site carefully developed by scholars with outstanding credentials
did not prevent the polemics that arose from the misrepresentation of the actual images out
of their proper context.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 25
phenomenon at stake. As I mentioned previously, no single photograph
and not even any extensive series of photographs will ever be able to rep-
resent more than the limited time frame of shooting. The multiplication of
pictures is less important than their degree of relevance to a given topic. A
carefully selected picture, or set of pictures, may prove more meaningful
for the purpose of writing a narrative or providing evidence for a point.
There is in fact no reason to consider that an image cannot—or should
not—be used in the same way as textual documents.
It is not uncommon for a historian to retrieve information from a docu-
ment that relates to a specific object at a very specific time and to either
project that information onto a larger period or to insert that information
into an interpretative framework that goes beyond the actual meaning of
the original piece of information. Interpretation is what gives meaning
to our bits of data, and imagination is often necessary to bridge the gaps
left by the historical documentation. What I want to suggest here is that
we should not refrain from applying this to photographs when it comes
to constructing a narrative entirely or partly based on them. This process
may be more delicate with photographs than with textual records as the
original textual source usually fades away and melts into the narrative
produced by the historian. When using images, the image will still be there
to be seen by the reader “as it was.” This creates a dierent configuration
for the production of a historical narrative, as the historian somehow loses
a part of his autonomy in how that narrative will be read. The range be-
tween “image-driven” and “text-driven” will therefore remain very open.
The title of this paper refers to the use of photographs as a “substitute
to memory.” This will perhaps sound overtly ambitious. It means step-
ping onto delicate ground, that of the use (and misuse or manipulation) of
images to “create” a missing memory or to alter existing memories. What
happened in Shanghai in the summer and fall of 1937, but also throughout
the war for some segments of the population, was an immensely trau-
matic event. War always is. And previous experiences hardly helped as
war came in new ways to dierent people. This Shanghai experience of
1937 was recounted in various narratives, a few of them right after the
war, most of them in ocial narratives set in the master narrative of the
patriotic war of resistance. It would be interesting to follow the track of
commemorative publications after 1949 that served to build a memory
of the war in Shanghai. My sense at this point is that apart from newspa-
pers articles on anniversary dates, there was little contribution until the
early 1980s, when disputes arose over the revision of history textbooks
in Japan.21 Within this very specific framework, texts and photographs
21 I should also emphasize that history education in China has been highly ideological
and at times doctrinaire until very recently. See Alisa Jones, “Changing the Past To Serve the
26 Christian Henriot
were mobilized to expose the evils of Japanese occupation and instill a re-
written memory of the war among Shanghai residents (and more broadly
among the Chinese people). As many acknowledge, this was less about
renewed historical inquiry than an ideological exercise in building a case
about Japanese brutality. As far as the use of photographs was concerned,
it followed the same pattern, leaving aside entire parts of the war experi-
ence, especially that of ordinary people. This is where my interest lies.
The issue of refugees looms very large in the history of Shanghai.22 One
could even say that Shanghai’s destiny was conditioned by the waves of
refugees that sought a haven in its foreign-powers-protected settlements
from the middle of the nineteenth century onward. I shall not discuss
this here. My concern is with the refugees of the Sino-Japanese incidents
in the city from 1931 to 1932 and in 1937. These were unusual refugees,
especially in 1937. They diered greatly from almost all their predeces-
sors over eighty years. Actually, the word “refugees” is quite misleading
here. Of course, this is about people who suddenly lost their home and
found themselves thrown into the streets. Yet, these were also Shanghai
residents, not outsiders, and not impoverished peasants seeking refuge
in the city. What we deal with here are people who lived in the very city
where circumstances placed them in a desperate situation, but still a city
they knew well, a city where they used to work, a city where they had
connections (relatives, friends), a city where they had networks to rely on
(native-place associations), and a city where many were able to find ways
out of their desperate situation.
This is not to brush away the extreme hardships most of these Shang-
hai residents experienced. The Japanese assault was a very traumatic mo-
ment. Even if the vast majority saved their life, many lost almost every-
thing. They had to rebuild from scratch. Nevertheless, it is essential to
factor in this aspect as it goes a long way to explain why the flooding of
“refugees” in the settlements did not turn into a humanitarian disaster,
why eventually only a small portion of them ended up in refugee camps,
and how the complete breakdown of the city was averted. Observers of
the time all agreed that about a million people sought refuge in the foreign
settlements. It is also admitted that the native-place associations were able
to evacuate about a third of this population. And last, all statistics show
that the total number of refugees in camps at any one time never went
beyond 120,000 people, while an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 lived in the
Present: History Education in Mainland China,” in Edward Vickers and Alisa Jones, eds.,
History Education and National Identity in East Asia (New York: Routledge, 2005), 65–100.
22 For an alternate view based solely on the textual record, see my paper “Shanghai and
the Experience of War: The Fate of Refugees,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 2
(2006): 217–248.
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 27
streets. Even if we take into account the fact that there were successive
waves of refugees (from Zhabei-Hongkou, then Nanshi, then the Western
extra-settlement roads area, plus a certain number of peasants from neigh-
boring villages), even if we take into account the turnover in the refugee
camps, which would certainly push up the figure, it is obvious that one
way or another, close to half a million residents-turned-refugees managed
to stay in the city and survive outside of public charity support—in oth-
ers words, by their own means and probably with the help of relatives,
friends, tongxiang, and so on. The demography of the city was completely
transformed (see maps 1 and 2).
Among Shanghai residents, people took dierent paths on their way
to becoming “refugees.” In fact, the place of residence itself, for instance,
was part of the story. From an economic perspective, most of the people
who lived in the war-stricken districts belonged to the xiao shimin (petty
urbanite) category. It is not a very precise sociological category, but it best
encapsulates that population. Many refugees were below that level, such
as workers, coolies, rickshaw pullers, and the like. Very few were above
that level. The most auent usually lived in the foreign settlements, and
those who did not had left early. We shall hardly see them in our photo-
graphs. We also know that some specific communities were concentrated
in the northern areas, such as the Cantonese. They were probably among
the best “connected” when it came to support by mutual-help networks.
They show up in our photographs, though they are not distinguishable
from the refuge-seeking residents. One would not expect to find them left
over on the streets, when they could find lodging through connections.
These are just a few clues to reading our photographs. This is part of the
“blank side” I discussed before.
Here I shall address the issue of refugees, from the initial moment of
their departure amid war and chaos to the physical extinction of specific
groups, and by highlighting what I try to convey as salient aspects of the
refugee experience in Shanghai. This section is constructed around four
sequences of photographs, each focusing on one aspect:
1. Time: flight amid chaos
2. Space: segmentation and exclusion
3. Space: living on the street
4. Time: death and cremation
1. Time: Flight amid Chaos
War started on 13 August 1937 in Shanghai, but the movement of popu-
lation actually started well before and, as far as Zhabei, Hongkou, and
even Yangshupu are concerned, was almost complete by the time fighting
28 Christian Henriot
eventually began (map 2). The displacement of population was not pre-
pared or planned in any way, neither on the side of residents, nor on the
side of the authorities. There was nothing the Chinese authorities could
do as almost all their resources beyond some organizational capacity were
focused on the war, not the residents-turned-refugees. The Shanghai Mu-
nicipal Council and the French authorities had no valid reason or pretext
to stop the flow, as it happened before the beginning of hostilities. The
population simply anticipated what was about to happen. That anticipa-
tion was based on past experience and the concentration of troops in their
vicinity (map 3), but it was also nurtured by groups that had an interest in
such a move. Although this is dicult to document, the press reported on
“scare-mongers” who were going door to door to advise the local residents
to move at once. There seems to have been some sort of complicity among
such provocateurs, moving companies, and real estate agencies. These
companies took advantage of the threat of war to increase their profits.23
23 North China Herald, 11 August 1937.
Map 1: Population density in Shanghai before August 1937. (From the Virtual
Shanghai Project, Virtual Shanghai map repository.)
Map 2: Population density in Shanghai after August 1937. (From Virtual
Shanghai Project, map repository.)
Map 3: Initial position of Chinese and Japanese troops in August 1937. (From
Virtual Shanghai Project, map repository.)
30 Christian Henriot
We have various reports on the displacement of residents from Zhabei
and Hongkou. What the photographic record tells us is not so much how
many but how and who. It also gives clues about the social background of
the refugees and how they would be able to sustain the experience of the
war. That the movement was massive is quite clear from the well-known
picture of the Garden Bridge (fig. 1). It is not dated, although it does pertain
to August 1937. This bridge was the main avenue through which Zhabei,
Hongkou, and Yangshupu residents could move into the International Set-
tlement. It was also the most favorable spot, since the Bund and its garden
oered enough space to accommodate the large influx of population. But
residents also used all the other bridges. Those bridges posed more dicul-
ties due to their narrowness, which caused trac jams, even blocking all
passage; they were far more dangerous, for people and goods alike (fig. 2).
These images convey a sense of panic and chaos (fig. 3). People left in
a rush, scared to be caught in a war situation as they had been five years
Figure 1: Shanghai
refugees crossing
over Garden Bridge
to the Bund. (From
the Virtual Shanghai
Project, image ID 833
[origin unknown].)
Figure 2: The flow of refugees on Markham Bridge. (From Four Months of War:
A Pen and Picture Record of the Hostilities between Japan and China in and around
Shanghai from August 9th till December 20th, 1937, from the Press of the “North China
Daily News” [Shanghai: North China Daily News and Herald, 1937].)
Figure 3: Mass displacement of Shanghai residents during the August 1937
Japanese attack. (From Virtual Shanghai, image ID 2249 [origin unknown].)
32 Christian Henriot
earlier. The statistics of the Shanghai Municipal Police confirm the extent
of that frenzy (fig. 4). Between 26 July and 5 August, fifty thousand people
were estimated to have left Zhabei.24 On 24 August, the police counted
up to two thousand people per hour crossing along Jessfield Road on the
western border.25 In the French Concession, there was a more limited in-
flow since fighting was expected to happen in the northern districts. Yet
several thousand Nanshi residents found their way into the concession
before the authorities locked the gates and started to build defenses all
around their territory (fig. 5). The North China Herald repeatedly used the
term “hordes” to refer to the refugees, even if the newspaper expressed
some sympathy toward the fate of the residents of the war-threatened
districts.26 These pictures testify to the massive nature of the movement
of population that happened in August 1937. They can also explain why
24 North China Herald, 11 August 1937.
25 North China Daily News, 24 August 1937.
26 North China Herald, 17 November 1937.
Figure 4: Overcrowded
street. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image
ID2416 [origin
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 33
many people would lose things or even kin (children, old people) on the
Residents made use of all possible ways to leave the war-threatened
districts. While bridges oered the most obvious passage, Soochow Creek
constituted another channel, especially for those who had decided to
leave Shanghai altogether. As figure 6 shows, given the load on each boat,
it was very likely only the first step toward further migration back into the
countryside or more simply landing upstream in the International Settle-
ment. The picture was taken from the southern bank of Soochow Creek.
I have counted thirty-five people on the boat in the forefront. This is an
incomplete count, since neither the passengers in front of and on the other
side of the boat are visible, nor all those who are inside. The capacity of
these boats was pushed to the limit. It is also quite clear that there was
not much in terms of personal belongings, even if one can see passengers
sitting on top of things piled up on the back of the boat. Yet the ratio be-
tween passengers and belongings is obviously low. At various points in
time, Pudong residents also sought refuge in the International Settlement.
Every time there was a lull in battle, they would cross the river and land
on the Bund.27
27 North China Herald, 25 August 1937; 17 November 1937.
Figure 5: Nanshi refugees moving into the French Concession. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 979 [origin unknown].)
34 Christian Henriot
Most people actually left their homes with very little. There are vari-
ous ways to interpret what the pictures show to us. Residents may have
thought there was only a temporary risk to their lives, locked their houses
and left with only a few things, hoping to return home once the crisis was
over. Some may have left in a hurry—this was probably true of most—
and only gathered what they considered as valuable, or necessary, or sim-
ply moveable if they could not aord the cost of a transporter. One can
also argue that many, perhaps most, actually had few items to carry with
them. In all the pictures that we have, there are very few large vehicles like
trucks. Figure 7 shows a truck filled to its maximum with a man seated
on one side of the windshield, holding a small suitcase. There were few
trucks available, and to most residents the cost was beyond their means.
In fact, most families had few items to take with them and made use of
simple means of transportation.
The most common mode of transportation for goods seem to have been
handcarts or wheelbarrows and, of course, rickshaws. Figure 4 provides a
good sense of the density of the move and of the disorderly nature of the
flight; the incredible mix of modes of transportation and, of course, the
limited “material capital” the residents possessed appear in figure 3. It is
Figure 6: Zhabei residents crossing Soochow Creek to safety in the International
Settlement. (From North China Herald, 15 September 1937.)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 35
obvious that even on a Chinese wheelbarrow or handcart, one could not
pile up heavy items (fig. 8). In fact, residents on the move gave the prior-
ity to valuables, clothing, bedding (especially bamboo mats), kitchenware,
and the like (fig. 9). Figure 9 is fairly representative of what a worker fam-
ily would have had or would have be able to take along. It came down to
Figure 7: Refugees from the
northern districts on a truck.
(From Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 15134 [Karl
Kengelbacher; 1895–1981].)
Figure 8: Shanghai residents
preparing their move into
the foreign settlements.
(From Four Months of War.)
Figure 9: A group of Zhabei
residents about to move into
the foreign settlements. (From
George C. Bruce, Shanghai’s
Undeclared War: An Illustrated
Factual Recording of the
Shanghai Hostilities [Shanghai:
Mercury Press, (1937)].)
36 Christian Henriot
the bare minimum for camping, but this was not about camping. This was
about surviving with small children and older people under the open sky
on vacant land or in street alleys. Whatever the means of transportation,
these people had little to move along with them. They stacked a few pieces
of furniture on a small raft that took them across the river.
For the vast majority of refugees, the escape was made on foot. By
groups, by families, or alone, these residents marched toward the foreign
settlements with little more than they were able to carry. Whatever they
possessed and left behind at home, what photographs show us are people
with small “bundles,” such as a woman with her child (fig. 10) or a son
with his elderly mother (fig. 11). The peasants traveled with what they
were able to take on a carrying pole. There is no need to stretch our imagi-
nation to guess that they carried only clothing and very basic necessities.
The poorest among the poor stayed behind until they were literally ex-
pelled under orders of the Japanese Navy before the assault on Yangshu-
pu. On 8 September, 4,500 Yangshupu residents were taken by truck to the
International Settlement while another 1,500 walked their way to safety. In
some cases, they had to be removed by force: “they were mostly poor peo-
ple, carrying a single bundle, and apprehension was painted in the faces of
most.... [F]rom straw hut settlement and obscure alleyways they emerged
by the hundred.... [T]here were many who had to be coaxed to get out.”28
Those who possessed more than the essential had no guarantee to pre-
serve their possessions. The density of trac oered opportunities for
thieves or even regular rickshaw pullers to turn to thievery. Those who
had many belongings and goods had to have them carried away on sever-
al carts or rickshaws. It was very dicult, however, to make sure that such
a “convoy” would hold together. Either voluntarily or under the pressure
28 North China Herald, 8 September 1937.
Figure 10 (right):
Refugee mother
with child running
away. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image
ID 2411 [origin
Figure 11 (far right):
Refugees in the
street. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image
ID 2415 [origin
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 37
of trac, the pullers would split and lose track of each other and then
disappear altogether, even when they had been told the final destination.
More than one resident had this bitter experience.
2. Space: Segmentation and Exclusion
Shanghai was not one city. It was several cities on the same territory. The
existence of two foreign settlements—the International Settlement proper
and the French Concession—as well as that of the “external road areas” to
the north (“North Hongkou”) and the west of the International Settlement
beyond its ocial boundaries—defied any attempt to make Shanghai a
single urban space. Shanghai was fragmented (map 4). In peacetime, this
fragmentation was probably not very obvious. It was visible, undoubtedly,
at the very least by such concrete elements as street names, the presence of
Sikh or Vietnamese policemen, and so on. Shanghai residents were used to
living with that reality. The fragmentation of space created unequal condi-
tions and opportunities for Shanghai residents. If we think away from our
assessment of the foreign settlements as a “political space” that facilitated
the emergence of all kinds of phenomena and processes we lump together
as “modernization” and try to look at it from the perspective of everyday
life, how then would the everyday life of a regular shimin look like? And
how would it look like in a time of crisis like 1937?
Quite clearly, past experiences had taught Shanghai residents that the
city was not theirs in toto or that parts of the city—specifically, the foreign
settlements—could become enclosed enclaves designed to oer protection
to their own inhabitants, especially foreigners. Foreign authorities were
equally prepared to leave out the residents of the Chinese-administered
districts and even to stem any inflow of population. The natural layout of
the city was favorable to the establishment of access points. On the north
bank of Soochow Creek, a first line of defense ran along Boundary Road,
with an iron railing that would be reinforced in times of crisis. Only the
Yangshupu District was fully indefensible, but it was not the main living
quarter of foreigners (though its Chinese population was close to half a mil-
lion). The strongest line of defense was Soochow Creek itself. It separated
the central districts of the International Settlement from Chinese territory. It
was easy—and standard procedure—to block access to bridges to prevent
the population from crossing over. In the French Concession, too, iron gates
had been installed on every street leading into Chinese territory, at least all
along the former walled city. The concession was also naturally protected
by Xuhui Creek on its southern flank. In times of emergency, all streets
on the northern bank were blocked with barbed wire, sandbags, and even
hard walls. Last, in 1937 (but also in 1927), the access routes on the western
border of the settlements were also blocked by checkpoints (fig. 12).
38 Christian Henriot
Spatial order had to be maintained at all times. When refugees started
to pour into the International Settlement, the authorities there were ada-
mant about keeping some areas clear, especially in the evening. It made
little sense under the circumstances, but the police had instructions to
clean the Bund where refugees had congregated and to push them into
the back streets. The North China Herald praised the Shanghai Municipal
Police for its ability to enforce such orders despite the work overload the
situation had created. The paper even published a picture showing people
who had been compelled to settle in a small street for the night.29 The fol-
lowing morning, the Bund would be occupied again. Such pictures as well
as some later ones also show the diculty of living outside: August, as is
well known, is not a favorable period to stay outside in Shanghai. Tem-
perature is high during the daytime, but very often rain comes along with
typhoons. The year 1937 was no exception.
The central issue, however, is that Shanghainese lived in a city within
which entire sections would shut down and make the inhabitants of the
29 North China Herald, 25 August 1937.
Map 4: The territories of Shanghai. (From Virtual Shanghai Project, map
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 39
neighboring districts genuine outsiders. What pictures help us realize is
that exclusion was embedded in the spatial fragmentation of the city. The
population took its full measure in times of social unrest or war. From pho-
tographs, the regular iron gates in the French Concession look quite strong
and capable of resisting the pressure of desperate crowds (figs. 13 and 14).
Figure 12: Barbed wire
chicane on a bridge
leading into the French
Concession. (From
Archives of the French
Ministry of Foreign Aairs
[Paris], image A000618.)
Figure 13: Iron gate and
defense installation in the
French Concession. (From
Archives of the French
Ministry of Foreign Aairs
[Paris], image A000573.)
Figure 14: Iron gate in the
French Concession. (From
Archives of the French
Ministry of Foreign Aairs
[Paris], Image A000580.)
40 Christian Henriot
Undoubtedly so, as other images show (figs. 15 and 16). People would
mass behind the gates, hoping to get through or to get food when a distri-
bution took place. The International Settlement also had its own iron gates,
even if they were less systematically used than in the French Concession
(figs. 17 and 18).30
In 1937, the French Concession took exceptional measures to insulate
itself from a possible invasion by refuge-seeking Chinese (figs. 19 and 20).
Apart from the permanent gates, it actually built a wall all along its south-
ern border in the hope of defeating attempts to jump into the concession.
The North China Herald reported in detail about this defense eort:
30 Shanghai town plan and defences 1939, file 5367, WO 106, U.K. National Archives.
Figure 15: Refugees
massed behind
the Porte du Nord
iron gate (French
Concession). (From
Four Months ofWar.)
Figure 16: Refugees
blocked behind an iron
gate. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 2254
[origin unknown].)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 41
With hundreds of miles of barbed wire strung round its perimeter, sup-
ported by machine-gun emplacements and dozens of supplementary de-
fences, the French Concession, true to tradition, stands ready to repulse
any who dare attempt to cross the border while carrying arms. From the
corner of Zikawei Road and Avenue Haig, extending to the south, the
barbed wire entanglement fronts Zikawei creek, the banks of which are
so steep and the slime so thick, that it is doubtful even the most agile
could obtain a handhold.... At the Route Ghisi and Avenue Dubail in-
tersection the block houses again command all avenues while the bridge
heads have been closed and triple, even quintuple quantities of barbed
wire defy approach. Supporting these defences are sandbag redoubts,
the machine-gun covering three directions of approach. The Concession
may become a walled city...along that portion of the Zikawei creek, which
has been filled in, particularly in the neighborhood of the Power Plant,
Figure 17: British
soldiers on guard
along the border in
the western district.
(From Bruce, Shanghai’s
Undeclared War.)
Figure 18: Gate no. 5
in the International
Settlement. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 2258
[origin unknown].)
42 Christian Henriot
engineers are constructing a brick wall, which faces Nantao. The con-
struction... is proceeding at the rate of 50 yards a day.... Further toward
the business area the iron-picket gates, reinforced in front by barbed wire
and behind by sandbags, are closed, ingress and egress permitted at pre-
scribed points only.31
As we can see, the French Concession was turned into a fortified camp,
and the police severely restricted access to it. Yet this did not deter Chinese
from trying their luck (see fig. 21), but it definitely prevented a massive
inflow. Admission was severely regulated and curtailed for most residents
in Chinese-administered territory.
On all sides, the access to the foreign settlements was strictly con-
trolled, though not necessarily prohibited. Yet the more time passed, the
less the authorities were inclined toward admitting refuge-seeking indi-
viduals and families and subjected them to search of their belongings (fig.
22). For the latecomers who showed up on the western borders, admis-
sion was conditioned upon bringing in a sucient food supply to sustain
31 North China Herald, 8 September 1937.
Figure 19: Refugees marching
into the French Concession.
(From Virtual Shanghai, image
ID 2256 [origin unknown].)
Figure 20: Refugees entering
the French Concession from
Nanshi. (From Concession
Française de Changhai—Service
de Police—Rapport annuel
1937 [Shanghai,1938].)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 43
themselves.32 The authorities of the foreign settlements definitely tried to
keep a balance between their inclination to protect the population within
their boundaries and opening up their gates to the city’s other residents
threatened by war. Nevertheless, the very existence of such protected ar-
eas was a magnet for Chinese residents from neighboring districts in times
of war. Shanghai became a city where one could be faced with a heavy set
of gates and checkpoints on both sides of the street (fig. 23).
32 North China Herald, 23 August 1937. Producing two basketfuls of foodstus per person
was enough to be admitted into the International Settlement.
Figure 21: Refugees jumping
over the defense wall of the
French Concession. (From
Virtual Shanghai, image ID
868 [originunknown].)
Figure 22: Military checkpoint in
the International Settlement. (From
Virtual Shanghai, image ID 216—
Raymond Vibien Family Album.)
Figure 23: A view of military
defenses along the Boulevard des
Deux Républiques. (From Archives
of the French Ministry of Foreign
Aairs [Paris], Image A000536.)
44 Christian Henriot
3. Space: Living on the Street
Probably the vast majority of the Shanghai residents who sought refuge
in the International Settlement or the French Concession spent a few
nights in the open air. We know that many eventually found a place to
stay thanks to friends and relatives. Evacuation was also organized, but
no more than 350,000 people actually left in late 1937 and early 1938, while
the outward flow was partly compensated by new arrivals from neigh-
boring villages. A substantial part of the homeless were received in all
kinds of shelters and camps. Yet, the total number of camp inmates in the
International Settlement reached at most 97,000 sometime in December
1937.33 Of course, we need to take into account the turnover in the camps
for a more accurate assessment of the total population of refugees there.
Nevertheless, a very large group of people obviously did not find their
way into camps or proper shelters. They settled in the streets, in the back
alleys (lilong), on vacant land, or in any place where they eventually lived
in misery. In the International Settlement, the Shanghai Municipal Police
estimated the refugees’ number between 75,000 and 100,000 in December
1937, but these numbers were only for the remaining “pockets” of street
refugees.34 I do not have any figure for the French Concession.
People set up their quarters wherever they could, including on the
pavement of major thoroughfares. They had moved into an urbanized
area where vacant land was scarce, except in the western parts of the
33 Note, Public Health Department, December 1937, U15-1-1032, Shanghai Municipal
34 Shanghai Launches Red Cross Drive, special supplement of the China Weekly Review, 4
December 1937, p. 1.
Figure 24: Refugees newly arrived in
the International Settlement. (From
North China Herald, 15 September
Figure 25: Settling down on a street
corner. (From Virtual Shanghai, image
ID 2224 [origin unknown].)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 45
settlements. After they arrived in the foreign settlements, they dropped
their bundles and buckets and probably started to figure out what to do
next (figs. 24 and 25). Most arrived with only the few basic items that would
allow them to settle down almost anywhere, but for a short period. Many
images are quite telling. People were lost. They were also often tired from
a long and stressful trek, probably afraid to be turned down at the entrance
of the settlements, and simply traumatized to have left or lost their home,
job, and so forth. People were perhaps tired after days and nights spent in
such conditions. It is a delicate task to interpret such emotions from photo-
graphs. There is a risk of overinterpretation, but my guess is that many if
not most refugees must have felt a sense of loss. There was little they could
do, especially if they belonged to the less organized groups in the city, the
groups that could not turn to the more or less powerful native-place asso-
ciations to help them through their ordeal (figs. 26–28).
We must be careful when interpreting the situation on the sole basis of
photographs. Yet, these images do show people who had nowhere to go,
who set up temporary quarters in a back street where they could aord
only very rudimentary comfort and relative protection from trac, public
view, or simply the weather. But sometimes, they just stayed where they
were, on the pavement of a public thoroughfare, for all to see, oblivious
Figure 26 (above left): A refugee
family with its meager belongings.
(From Virtual Shanghai, image
ID 2413 [origin unknown].)
Figure 27 (above): A group of refugees
in the street. (From Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 2417 [origin unknown].)
Figure 28 (left): A group of refugees
in the street. (From North China
Herald, 15September 1937.
46 Christian Henriot
to the ongoing activity around them and the gaze of puzzled passersby
(figs. 29–31).
Many images show babies and young children. They are almost ev-
erywhere in our pictures. Written sources do not account accurately for
births in Shanghai. In fact, as I argue later, many simply did not live long
enough to be recorded in any way. Children were the most vulnerable
ones among the refugee population. Living on the street with little or no
resources left them with little hope of survival despite any eorts by their
parents. A picture of a young mother feeding her baby is just one case of a
woman who is quite evidently in a state of complete poverty herself and
may not have been able to breast-feed her child suciently (fig. 32). This
single picture, however, gives us a measure of the immense diculties
and suering the less privileged residents of Shanghai went through with
their forced departure from home. Although high infant mortality was a
general phenomenon in urban areas in the Republican era, war had espe-
cially devastating eects on the children of these poorer classes.
4. Time: Death and Cremation
War was a time of death. Death for those who were involved in military
combat. Death for civilians caught in the middle of bombing, shelling,
and fire. But also death for the displaced people made more vulnerable to
Figure 29 (above): Refugees sleeping
in the street. (From Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 2420 [origin unknown].)
Figure 30 (above right): Refugees at a
street corner. (From Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 2226 [origin unknown].)
Figure 31 (right): Refugees sleeping
in the street. (From Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 2419 [origin unknown].)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 47
disease, even benign illnesses that eventually killed weakened and under-
nourished bodies. This aspect is hardly documented in public documents
like newspapers or reports by charity organizations. It can be retrieved by
the historian digging up statistics from forgotten archives. These figures,
however, may not convey the full extent of the tragedy that was taking
place in Shanghai at any time, but which the war situation pushed to un-
believable heights.35 In this section, I present a set of disjointed pictures
and, on the basis of this, make several assumptions that, I believe, do re-
flect what actually happened in Shanghai in 1937 and 1938.
My focus is on the fate of the refugees who failed to find a proper place
to survive the time of hostilities. Of course, even among those who man-
aged to get into camps, death struck steadily at higher rates than usual.
It is also true that even in peacetime, the poorest groups in the popula-
tion would, out of necessity, simply abandon their dead—adults and chil-
dren—on vacant land, on the street, almost anywhere, in flimsy cons,
bamboo matting, or just their clothes. In other words, there was an ongo-
ing process of people, mostly infants, dying in the Shanghai streets and
then being left in those streets during the late imperial and Republican
periods. During wartime, however, the number of such hardship deaths
multiplied several times, and most likely these deaths occurred among the
refugees left living on the streets. I shall try to document this through im-
ages at the same time as I draw my information from these images.
There are, of course, few pictures of abandoned bodies. Only the au-
thorities made it their policy to take snapshots of dead adults for the
35 Christian Henriot, “‘Invisible Deaths, Silent Deaths’: ‘Bodies without Masters’ in Re-
publican Shanghai,” Journal of Social History 43, no. 2 (Winter 2009): 408–437.
Figure 32: Refugee mother
feeding her baby in the
street. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 2418
[origin unknown].)
48 Christian Henriot
purpose of identification. They also checked whether the death was from
natural causes or from an act of violence. These records have left us with
thousands of identification pictures of little use for the historian. News-
papers generally skipped the topic of abandoned corpses altogether un-
less it became an annoying problem for residents, especially foreign resi-
dents. Photographs were less likely to be published than articles. In other
words, these dead would rarely show up in print. However, an image of
the body of a dead baby was published in the North China Daily News after
it remained uncollected for several days right at the entrance of a major
building in the International Settlement (fig. 33). The quality of the image
is average, but one can see the head of the baby, the type of matting in
which small children were usually wrapped, and the location where the
body was left.36
Such abandoned corpses or cons—corpses or cons “without mas-
ter” (⛵Џሡ储) in administrative parlance—were counted by the thou-
sands, then by the tens of thousands (map 5a–b).
Such corpses were picked up by two organizations, the Shanghai Public
Benevolent Cemetery (Pushan shanzhuang ᱂୘ቅ㥞), mostly in the Inter-
national Settlement, and the Tongren fuyuantang ৠҕ䓨ܗූ, mainly in
the French Concession. Both organizations emerged in 1912 and 1913 with
this exclusive purpose, but the Shanghai Public Benevolent Cemetery was
by far the leading operation in Shanghai.37 The organization maintained a
sta of “body collectors” that patrolled the streets of Shanghai from dawn
36 “Is It There Still?,” North China Daily News, 11 January 1939.
37 By 1947, the Shanghai Public Benevolent Cemetery had collected 720,000 bodies and
cons (“Pushan shanzhuang boyin mukan tekan ᱂୘ቅ㥞᪁䷇ࢳᇀ⡍ߞ” [Special fundrais-
ing issue of the Shanghai Public Benevolent Cemetery], 26 July 1947).
Figure 33: Abandoned corpse
of a baby. (From North China
Daily News, 11January 1939.)
Map 5: The distribution of exposed corpses: (a) French Concession;
(b)International Settlement. (From Virtual Shanghai Project, map repository.)
50 Christian Henriot
to night to pick up bodies in areas known to be disposal spots, or under
instructions from the authorities, or following a resident’s call. They also
picked up the dead without resources or relatives in hospitals, at other
charity organizations, and so on. Their main activity, however, was se-
curing corpses left in the open air in the streets of Shanghai. They used
various tools, but the most common one was a handcart such as the one
shown in figure 34. The scene is taking place in the French Concession in
daytime. The body collectors are easily recognizable by their “uniform”
with ৠҕ䓨ܗූ printed on the back. In this picture, given the eort the
collectors seem to be making, the corpse must be that of an adult. Never-
theless, all statistics show that the vast majority of abandoned corpses—85
percent on average—were those of infants and small children.
Figure 35 is a picture of a collector of the Tongren fuyuantang taken not
in 1937 or 1938, but in 1947. I use it because it shows a reality that makes
no dierence with wartime. The only obvious dierence is the use of a
pedicab instead of a handcart. Pedicabs were introduced in the early 1940s
in Shanghai. The photographer in this case, Jack Birns, misread what he
was shooting. He labeled his photograph “A bicycle cart delivers a child’s
corpse to a temporary morgue.”38 He missed the fact that this was a col-
lector from the Tongren fuyuantang doing his regular job of picking up
bodies and delivering them to one of the organization’s stations for encof-
fining, not a temporary morgue. Despite the temporal shift, this image, I
argue, does help us to see and know what it was like to live in Shanghai in
38 Birns, Assignment Shanghai, 38.
Figure 34: Collecting a dead body in a street
of the French Concession. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 1079 [origin unknown].)
Figure 35: A body collector of
the Tongren fuyuantang. (From
Birns, Assignment Shanghai.)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 51
1937 and 1938, when such bodies were collected by the tens of thousands.
The second major duty of the Tongren fuyuantang was to provide cons
and perform appropriate rites before burial. As can be seen in figure 36,
considerations of cost—as true in the civil war period when Shanghai re-
ceived a new wave of refugees as during the Sino-Japanese War—caused
the Tongren fuyuantang to put several infant bodies together in one con.
Again, the original caption is misleading: “Children’s corpses in a collec-
tive con await cremation on Christmas Eve.”39 I doubt that the bodies of
indigents were cremated in the late 1940s.
Once the cons were ready, they were transported to their place of
burial. In normal times, the bodies collected by the Tongren fuyuantang
were buried in one of its thirteen cemeteries located in Pudong. With the
war, however, these areas remained out of reach until the end of 1938.
Although the authorities provided vacant land in the western outskirts
of the settlements in Chinese territory, the number of people dying in the
streets went beyond what these plots of land could accommodate. Faced
with the issue of having to “host” the cons of all the dead who could
aord the cost of storage in a private or a guild repository—eventually
more than one hundred thousand were stored in the International Settle-
ment—the authorities of both settlements decided to require cremation
of all abandoned corpses, the protest of the charity organizations not-
withstanding.40 Cons were transported to two or three dierent places
39 Birns, Assignment Shanghai, 39.
40 Christian Henriot, “Scythe and Sojourning in Wartime Shanghai,” Karunungan: A
Journal of Philosophy 27 (September 2007): 117–148.
Figure 36: Children’s
corpses collected and
enconed by the Tongren
fuyuantang. (From Birns,
Assignment Shanghai.)
Figure 37: Cons
of bodies collected
in the street. (From
Virtual Shanghai,
image ID 15451
[origin unknown].)
Figure 38: Preparation
for the cremation of
cons. (From Virtual
Shanghai, image ID 643
[origin unknown].)
Figure 39: Cremation
of dead refugee
children. (From
Shanghai Municipal
Archives, H1-25-4-20.)
Wartime Shanghai Refugees 53
in western Shanghai where they were piled up on a stack of wood and set
afire with gasoline. This was performed under the surveillance of ocial
representatives of the Shanghai Municipal Council or French Municipal
Council (figs. 37–40).
These pictures tell us these were the cons of indigent people. It also
confirms, by the cons’ size, that most contained the bodies of infants and
small children. Adult cons are few and stocked underneath the smaller
cons. The process took a few hours, as various stacks of cons were
piled side-by-side and left to burn until there were only ashes left. This is
a rare instance of photodocumenting an otherwise quiet and almost invis-
ible process.
Concluding Remarks
This chapter has addressed the issue of using photographs both as a source
and as a medium to build a historical narrative. While the chapter is driven
both by text and by images, I believe photographs are a significant part of
its construction. There would be no point in excluding elements that can
inform us on the issue of refugees and to pretend to elaborate an “image-
only” kind of narrative. What the Internet oers is precisely the possibility
to combine various types of documents in one text but also to juxtapose
dierent forms of narrative. This chapter incorporates individual images
as well as individual maps that serve to provide visual support to the
arguments made in the text. Images are not mere illustrations, as I start
from the images, especially the photographs, to build an argument. I have
been drawing on their content to understand how the process of becoming
homeless unfolded in the particular context of the Shanghai of 1937 and
1938 and what some of the consequences of this displacement were. I also
hope to have shown that photographs can take us closer to aspects of life
Figure 40: The End.
(From Anne-Frédérique
Glaise, “L’évolution
sanitaire et médicale de
la Concession française
de Shanghai entre 1850
et 1950” [Ph.D. diss.,
Lyon 2 University, 2005].)
54 Christian Henriot
than other forms of record, which may have overlooked or missed them
The experience of war was not just an accidental event for certain areas
of Shanghai. It was in fact an integral part of living in districts such as Zha-
bei or Hongkou. The end of the Sino-Japanese War did not mean the end
of such migration within and outside of the city. Whereas current ocial
history celebrates the liberation of Shanghai in 1949 and the warm wel-
come the People’s Liberation Army received, independent photographic
records have documented the departure en masse and by any means of
the local population. These images are reminiscent of those presented in
this chapter. War is such a terrible threat that many people would simply
try to avoid it by fleeing to other places. The year 1937 certainly repre-
sents the most momentous episode in this experience. The photographs
included here have displayed how much chaos, uncertainty, and suering
the war brought. They also materialize quite vividly the social inequali-
ties associated with the political divisions within the city. The traditionally
densely inhabited districts at the periphery of the foreign settlements were
home to a population with limited resources who could hardly survive
without outside help. If they happened to fall out of the protective net of
kinship or native-place networks, their future was bleak and that of their
children bound to be short.
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