Media War Over Shanghai (I)

The 1937 battle of Shanghai was waged not just in the city’s streets, but also in the pages of the world’s major papers. Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, offers his assessment of role played by the media in this article first carried by Nottingham University’s China Policy Institute Blog ( This is the first of two installments.

For three months during the fall of 1937, hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Japanese soldiers clashed in a titanic battle in and around Shanghai. China’s largest city was the scene of fierce street fighting, while the paddy fields outside the urban areas became reminiscent of the trenches of France and Flanders twenty years earlier. It was a drama that millions of newspaper readers at home and abroad followed with intense interest.

Nearly everywhere there was fighting, there were also journalists and photographers – not only Chinese and Japanese but also westerners. International public opinion was extremely important, and knowledge that the whole world was watching shaped the conduct of war on both sides. The battle for Shanghai was fought in the media as well as at the front. In that respect it was much more similar to later wars like Vietnam or Gulf War I and II than is generally recognized.

In strategic terms, the battle for Shanghai marked Nationalist China’s bid to move the centre of gravity in the war with Japan from the north Chinese plain to the densely populated and economically vital provinces at the mouth of the Yangtze further south. Why exactly China’s leader Chiang Kai-shek decided to do so is still a matter of debate. But there is little doubt that the presence of large foreign interests in Shanghai was significant. It may be that he, rather optimistically, hoped to achieve foreign involvement. It’s also possible that, more realistically, he was trying to build up sympathy abroad for the long run.[1]

Thinking in those terms made sense, since a foreign audience – a large one – had existed in Shanghai for nearly a century. Sizeable foreign communities had gradually evolved along the Huangpu River, tempted by the endless promise of commerce, and special arrangements had allowed them to set up two districts in the center of the city, the International Settlement and the French Concession. They were the archetypal western enclaves in Asia, small pieces of Europe transplanted to the banks of the Yangtze that lived according to their own laws in isolation from the rest of China.

The unique status of the foreign parts of Shanghai gave the entire battle its special flavor. Neither warring party wished to risk the international opprobrium that would have been the consequence if they had taken the war directly into territory inhabited by foreigners. In the early stages of the battle, when the Japanese defenders consisted of a few thousand marines squeezed into a narrow perimeter along the Huangpu River, the Chinese could possibly have dealt a decisive blow by attacking through the foreign areas, hitting the enemy’s flanks and rear – but they didn’t. Likewise for the Japanese, when they had the upper hand later on.

As a result only a small number of expatriates were killed during the three-month battle. Instead the foreign communities became charmed spectators in a theater of violence and destruction that was taking place all around them. An almost surreal state of affairs developed. “It was as though Verdun had happened on the Seine, in full view of a Right Bank Paris that was neutral,” wrote American correspondent Edgar Snow, “as though a Gettysburg were fought in Harlem, while the rest of Manhattan remained a non-belligerent observer.” [2]

It was within this context that foreign correspondents enjoyed nearly perfect conditions for covering one of the fiercest conflicts of the interwar years. They could visit one side of the front-line in the morning, the other side in the early afternoon, and go back to their comfortable hotels in the International Settlement well before deadline to finish their report without fear of being censored by anyone. The Japanese and the Chinese combatants also made sure that their respective daily briefings for the international press were helpfully spaced out, so that one-man bureaus could manage to attend both and not miss anything. At the same time, there was no denying that compared with average wars, this was a fairly comfortable one for the western correspondents. They could return from a busy day at the barricades or in the trenches to be pampered at five-star hotels, or watch nighttime shelling from the cool comfort of the rooftop bar.

Despite the relative luxury, it was a hectic time. Like today, Shanghai was a well-known city in 1937, with an air of exotic adventure, and the world wanted to be informed about what happened to it. Major newspapers like The New York Times, The Manchester Guardian and Le Figaro carried frequent front-page stories from the Far Eastern battlefield. Newspaper readers followed the battle with a 24-hour delay at most, and not least the plight of the civilian population struck a chord. It was only a few months after terror from the air had rained on the town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, and the world community was gradually waking up to the terrible possibilities of modern warfare.

(To be continued)

[1]Taylor, Jay. Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China. Cambridge MA: Belknap, pp. 147-148; Paine, S.C.M. The Wars for Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 131.

[2] Snow, Edgar. The Battle for Asia. Cleveland OH: The World Publishing Company, 1941, p. 45.

Categories: Battle, Media


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