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Maastricht University

Collaboration in Japanese-occupied China (1937-1945): Old and New Questions

David Serfass (Inalco-IFRAE), Paris

Six years after the invasion of Manchuria at the end of 1931, the Japanese army took over the most developed Chinese provinces between July 1937 and October 1938. From Beijing to Guangzhou and from Shanghai to Wuhan, the occupier recruited tens of thousands of Chinese to manage the refugee crisis, handle the day-to-day administration and revive the economy. These local structures were gradually unified, on paper at least: at the regional level, with the establishment of the Provisional Government (linshi zhengfu) of Beijing in December 1937, and the Reformed Government (weixin zhengfu) of Nanjing in March 1938; then at the national level, with the inauguration of a Reorganized National Government (gaizu guomin zhengfu, hereafter RNG) in March 1940, chaired by former Premier Wang Jingwei. Unlike its predecessors and similar ‘puppet’ governments set up in Europe at the same time, Wang Jingwei’s regime did not reject the pre-war government’s legacy. On the contrary, it presented itself as its legitimate successor and accused Chiang Kai-shek’s National Government, which had taken refuge in Chongqing, of playing into the hands of the communists by prolonging a hopeless war. Altogether, more than two hundred million people were brought under the direct or indirect rule of the Japanese authorities. Thus, the eight years of the ‘War of Resistance against Japan’ (kangri zhanzheng), between 1937 and 1945, were marked by a phenomenon common to all situations of occupation: ‘collaboration’.

The terms of the debate

The historiographical debate regarding collaboration in Japanese-occupied China revolves around three main questions: who were the collaborators? Why did they collaborate? How was collaboration conducted? To put it simply, answers to these questions have tended to diverge in two opposing directions: an approach that isolates collaboration as an ‘historical anomaly’ in order to better denounce it; and an approach that inserts the phenomenon into its broader context and makes it interact with other fields of study, such as, for example, the development of the Chinese administrative state infrastructure, in order to better explain it.

Who were the ‘collaborators’?

The question of who were the ‘traitors’ has long been complicated by the rivalry between Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT). During and after the war, the former tried to delegitimize the latter by associating it with the Wang Jingwei regime. It was not until the emergence of a ‘new memory’ of the Sino-Japanese war in 1982 that the CPC recognized the contribution of the KMT to the resistance, drawing a clear line between Chiang and Wang. As Chinese historians led by Cai Dejin started to explore this chapter of the war after the lost decade of the Cultural Revolution, they made ample use of defamatory labels such as hanjian (traitors to the Han nation) and kuilei (puppets) in order to clearly designate – and denounce – the collaborators.

Conversely, the simple fact of toning down the use of these infamous terms – if not getting rid of them altogether – has come to constitute a historiographic stance per se. In the early 2000s, the coming of age of Chinese historians such as Pan Min who had not experienced the war, produced an increasing body of scholarship that limited ad hominem attacks in favour of a more nuanced assessment of wartime collaboration. Yet, this new generation of Chinese historians never explicitly called into question the nationalist bias against hanjian (traitors) as their Taiwanese counterparts have done since the mid-1990s, at a time when the democratization process was underway in the island.

Although the use of loaded terms such as hanjian and kuilei is less problematic in Western languages, historians have given different answers as to who the collaborators were. In the first major scholarly work on the topic published in 1972, John Hunter Boyle refused to dismiss Wang Jingwei as a mere traitor. Comparing interpretations of Wang’s role with those of other Asian leaders such as Jose P. Laurel and Sukarno, who are lauded as national heroes despite their collaboration with Japan, Boyle pointed out the relative nature of any moral judgment on collaboration. Such a relativism was rejected in the following decade by Cai Dejin and other Chinese historians. But from the late 1990s onward, Timothy Brook went further by coining the term ‘collaborationist nationalism’. He thus makes the point that pro-Japanese collaboration deserves to be studied as one side of the Chinese elites’ common effort to ‘save the nation’.

Why did they collaborate?

The debate regarding why people collaborated has polarized between two types of explanation: a teleological response, on the one hand, which looks in the collaborators’ past for warning signs of their future betrayal; and a circumstantial response, on the other hand, which considers the choices of each collaborator in their specific context. This discussion has also engaged with the Japanese side of the story and the Japanese attempt at ‘extracting’ collaboration by questioning its motivations: was it a cynical strategy planned from the start to divide the Chinese resistance, or a somewhat sincere effort to find a solution to the Chinese quagmire?

To be sure, the decision to collaborate is often interpreted as a choice within a context shaped by a series of broader political factors (anti-communism, trade-off diplomacy, Asianism, inter-party struggles or internal rivalry within the KMT) and, to a lesser extent, sociological factors (such as collaborators having studied in Japan, being married to a Japanese woman, etc.). These kinds of explanations suffer, however, from the fact that they apply to a large part of the Republican era’s political and military elites, the majority of whom did not collaborate. Thus, they blur the distinction between collaborators and the rest of the population, and are ultimately less convincing for understanding the causal factors that produced collaboration. Chinese historians have therefore often endeavoured to ground their analyses in an explanatory scheme presenting ‘treason’ as the manifestation of an atavistic nature. Until the mid-1980s, they explained collaboration in terms of social class (the collaborators were synonymous with pro-Japanese elements within the class of big landlords and big capitalists). As class struggle started losing ground in the post-Mao era, they resorted to psychological determinism to explain the collaborator’s ‘capitulationism’. Against this teleological approach, new research in Taiwan, Japan, but also in China has helped clarify the complex process that led Chinese leaders like Wang Jingwei to collaborate with the enemy.

How was collaboration conducted?

As the field of studies on occupied China has become increasingly specialized, historians have in recent years tended to focus less on the ‘why’ of collaboration, than to delve into its ‘how’, and tackle the concrete functioning of pro-Japanese institutions in occupied China. This aspect of the debate addresses the issue of the collaborators’ agency vis-à-vis the occupiers and, consequently, the degree of autonomy of the pro-Japanese governments in China. Once again, the debate revolves around two tendencies: a monolithic vision of the ‘puppets’ and their Japanese masters, as opposed to a more nuanced vision that emphasizes the former’s quest for autonomy and the latter’s internal differences and contradictions.

The ‘question of the regime’s nature’ (zhengquan xingzhi wenti), as Chinese historians phrase it, most often concerns the RNG established by Wang Jingwei in 1940. In contrast with other earlier regimes set up in occupied China, it purported to carry on the nationalist programme envisioned by Sun Yat-sen. While the first generation of Chinese historians dismissed the RNG as just another ‘puppet regime’, new research published in the early 2000s offered a more complex picture of collaboration as a never-ending negotiation. Nonetheless, Chinese historians are faced with a dilemma: how to further the understanding of collaboration without questioning the sacrosanct consensus about the ‘puppet nature’ of pro-Japanese organizations.

Such a dilemma is less relevant outside China, where the historiographical sanitary cordon between ‘puppet regimes’ and ‘normal’ governments tends to disappear. Against a tendency among earlier Chinese historians to address the former as historical anomalies, Timothy Brook placed them as an integral part of China’s modern state trajectory by arguing that ‘our disdain for forced ideology produces its opposite, confirmation of the natural legitimacy of state sovereignty’ (Brook 2005, p. 223). Consequently, in his view, historians should be able to study collaboration regimes as they would explore any other political organization. Recent publications on collaboration by scholars originally working on topics unrelated to occupied China show how beneficial this approach can be. For instance, Joshuah H. Howard known for his work on the Chongqing’s arsenals during and after the Second World War has shed new light on the RNG economic and social policies in his recent study of the labour disputes within Nanjing’s handicraft sector.

New research perspectives

Thematically, the field has long been dominated by political and, to a lesser extent, economic and military history. It is now expanding to new aspects in cultural history, as is the case with Jeremy E. Taylor’s seminal work on the RNG’s visual culture and Odila Schröder’s doctoral research on the musical culture of collaboration in Japanese-occupied Beijing. Spatially, most research on collaboration is focused on the main regional pro-Japanese governments established in the Lower-Yangzi region (Shanghai and Nanjing) and North China (Beijing). Future research should try to better connect these areas with other parts of occupied China, and also with non-occupied territories. Incidentally, it is worth noting that this lack of communication across the historiographical boundary between occupied and free China goes both ways: too many fine works on the 1937-45 period do not include data produced in the occupied zone. Chronologically, the 1945 threshold has been crossed mostly as far as post-war trials are concerned. Seki Tomohide’s recent exploration of the intellectual legacy of Sino-Japanese collaboration in post-war Japan suggests that a trans-war approach to collaboration could contribute to a better understanding of East Asia’s transition toward the Cold War.

While these new questions constitute exciting perspectives for the field, they should also allow us to revisit older questions on which much remains to be done. Scholars need to delve deeper into the functioning of the occupation state, which can be defined as an apparatus going beyond the collaboration regimes that includes the Japanese military and civilian agencies as well as local governments in China. Indeed, existing scholarship has only scratched the surface of the occupation state by describing its evolving legal structure and analyzing the political strife that took place at its top. For instance, a precise prosopography of the middle and low-level administration would help illuminate the degree of continuity in terms of state personnel before, during and after the war. Likewise, we lack a comprehensive understanding of the ‘internal guidance’, that is, Japanese advisers posted at various levels within the Chinese administrations. Such research on the Japanese adviser system in occupied China would help place the issues of ‘collaboration’ and ‘sovereignty’ during the war within a larger reflection on imperialism. In this regard, historians would be well advised to follow the recent example of the work of Seiji Shirane and seek to bridge the gap between studies on Japan’s colonial empire (Korea and Taiwan) and on post-First World War occupied territories (Manchuria, China proper, South-East Asia). Indeed, the multiple connections within Japan’s ‘Great East-Asia’ were embodied by Japanese agents as they moved from one position to another through the empire. Further research on this matter should also clarify the extent to which these connections exceeded the chronological limits of the war, since these agents continued to be active after 1945. As the Japanese occupiers were themselves occupied (by the US) until 1952, former advisers in China engaged in new forms of collaboration at home, while others were mobilized abroad against communist regimes. Furthermore, whole sectors of the occupation state, such as the education system, have still not received proper attention by historians. Even the crucial (and very complex) question of the ‘puppet’ armies, which often switched sides during and after the war, has been largely left untouched since Liu Shih-ming’s pioneer work.

In conclusion, future research on Japanese-occupied China should not only further explore collaboration in all its aspects, but also attempt to better bridge the gap with other historical fields and broader questions emanating from the comparative field of occupation studies. Studies on mid-twentieth century China cannot continue to ignore occupied China as well as the growing body of scholarship that now addresses it.



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Brook, Timothy, Collaboration: Japanese Agents and Local Elites in Wartime China, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Cai Dejin, Lishi de guaitai: Wang Jingwei guomin zhengfu [Freak of history: the Wang Jingwei national government], Guilin: Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 1993.

Howard, Joshuah H., « Beyond Repression and Resistance: Worker agency and corporatism in occupied Nanjing », Modern Asian Studies, vol. 56, n°1, 2022, p. 309-349.

Liu Shih-ming, Weijun: Qiangquan jinzhu xia de zuzi (1937-1949) [The “Puppet” Forces: Pawns Vacillating Among Hegemonic Powers, 1937-1949], Taipei: Daoxiang chubanshe, 2002.

Pan Min, Jiangsu Riwei jiceng zhengquan yanjiu (1937-1945) [Study of the local puppet governments in Jiangsu, 1937–1945], Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2006.

Schröder, Laura Odila, “Treasonous repertoires: Performing collaboration and musical life in Japanese-occupied Beijing, 1937–1945”, PhD thesis: University of Nottingham, 2022.

Seki Tomohide, Tainichi kyōryokusha no seiji kōsō: Nitchū sensō to sono zengo [The Political Vision of Pro-Japanese Collaborators during the Sino-Japanese War and Beyond], Nagoya: Nagoya daigaku suppankai, 2019.

Serfass, David, « Occupation japonaise et collaboration chinoise : tendances historiographiques récentes », Revue historique, vol. n° 680, oct. 2016, p. 941-966.

Serfass, David, « Collaboration and State Making in China: Defining the Occupation State, 1937–1945 », Twentieth-Century China, vol. 47, n°1, 2022, p. 71-80.

Shirane Seiji, Imperial Gateway: Colonial Taiwan and Japan’s Expansion in South China and Southeast Asia, 1895–1945, Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2022.

Taylor, Jeremy E., Iconographies of Occupation: Visual Cultures in Wang Jingwei’s China, 1939-1945, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2021.

Wang Ke-wen, « Irreversible Verdict? Historical Assessments of Wang Jingwei in the People’s Republic and Taiwan », Twentieth-Century China, vol. 28, n°1, 2002, p. 57-81.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Wang Jingwei (third from right) meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (third from left) when he went to Tokyo to attend the “First Anniversary of the Great East Asia War”, December 1942.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

David Serfass is Assistant Professor in Chinese and East Asian Modern History, Inalco University, Paris, France