Retracing Chinese Students’ Cross-Country March to Escape WWII
Editor’s note: In July 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, with early fighting concentrated in China’s North. Teachers and students from three of China’s top universities — Peking, Tsinghua, and Nankai — evacuated south to the capital of Hunan province to form Changsha Temporary University.
But as the Imperial Japanese Army approached Changsha, faculty and students were forced to leave once again. Via three separate routes, they made their way to Yunnan province, in China’s far southwest, in 1938, and formed the legendary National Southwestern Associated University.
One group of nearly 300 male students and 11 teachers walked from Hunan to Yunnan through Guizhou province, covering 1,600 kilometers in 68 days. In 2018, journalist and writer Yang Xiao followed in these young intellectuals’ footsteps to retrace this forgotten piece of history.
On Feb. 14, 1938, the day the “Hunan-Guizhou-Yunnan” group was formed, Lieutenant General Huang Shiyue, who had been appointed the group’s commander, gave a rousing speech. He said the university was moving to preserve the very essence of Chinese culture, and even called the students’ journey the “fourth great cultural migration” carrying on Zhang Qian’s expedition to the Western Regions in the Han dynasty, the monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India in the Tang dynasty, and Zheng He’s treasure voyages in the Ming dynasty.
Such high-sounding remarks generated a variety of responses among the students. Among them, Dong Fen felt a terrible headache and took the opportunity to slip away: “I couldn’t tell from his tone whether he was praising us or mocking us.” Finally, Huang imparted some field experience, saying that students should bind their legs tightly before setting off and wash their feet with cold water after walking. He also advised them to drink a glass of boiled water each day before breakfast — that way, they wouldn’t feel thirsty for the rest of the day.
The nearly 300 male students in the group were evenly distributed among the faculties of arts, science, engineering, and law and business. More than 30% of them were college seniors, most of whom had obtained the necessary credits and had hoped to graduate in Changsha.
When they set off, Wu Dachang from Tsinghua University’s Institute of Engineering only knew a few peers from the same institute. Slowly, however, he got to know his other teammates on the road. Eight decades on, he can still recall most of them: “Wang Nailiang (later a renowned geomorphologist) was the team leader. He was a senior in geology at Peking University and had strong survival skills in the wild. He was tall and dealt with matters in a fair way.” He remembers the later poet and translator Zha Liangzheng reciting an English-Chinese dictionary during the trek. “Almost everyone on the march knew about it,” Wu said.
Huang, the commander, was a tall, affable man in his 50s. He hailed from the eastern Anhui province and had served in the Northeastern Army for many years. Chief of staff was a military instructor at Changsha Temporary University, Mao Hong, who was a grim-faced lieutenant colonel who spoke with a Hunan accent and always had his handsome German shepherd dog by his side. Although opposed to moving the temporary university, Hunan’s governor Zhang Zhizhong generously supported the group by providing hundreds of kettles, knapsacks, straw sandals, and leg wraps, as well as five pigs. The province’s director of education also donated two pigs. The group was equipped with two trucks for carrying their luggage and supplies, along with their own cooks and medical staff.
At 5 p.m. on Feb. 19, the whole group assembled on the large sports field of the Hunan Bible Institute. After a representative of Governor Zhang lectured the students, Huang led everyone in chanting slogans, starting with “Long live the Republic of China” and then “Long live Changsha Temporary University.” Luan Rushu, a junior in mathematics at Peking University, noticed that his classmates looked a little perplexed about how the words “long live” and “temporary” could be used together. After chanting, the group left in teams, heading west along Zhongshan Road — named after the Republic of China’s founding father Sun Yat-sen and lined with national flags — toward the wharf on the Xiang River.
As I walk onto Zhongshan Road today, I try to imagine what the students would have been feeling 80 years ago. Advertisements on the street hark back to its bustling history in empty, modern rhetoric: “Bright lights from 1930.” Far up ahead is a sign which reads “Zhongshan Steamed Bun Shop,” with the characters written in a Republican era-style font. I decide to go inside and buy a couple of buns. “This place must have quite a history, right?” I say to the owner. His reply, in a strong Hunan accent, comes back proudly: “Two years!”
In the 1930s, Zhongshan Road was one of the three main spots to eat out in Changsha. The road offered all the city’s main specialties — stinky tofu, dumplings, coagulated pig blood in sesame oil, sugar oil rice cakes, rice noodle soup, and alkaline noodles. Meanwhile, visitors could also enjoy drinks including coffee, brandy, and German dark beers. These dishes, mixed with the smells of tung oil, firecrackers, burning joss paper, and the humid air, created the distinctive odor of an old Changsha market.
According to diaries from the time, teachers from the Changsha Temporary University were regular visitors to Zhongshan Road. Mao Yingdou, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Agricultural Sciences, once invited literature professor Wu Mi to a Western restaurant here for dinner. Just as they were digging in, the air raid alarm sounded. “Mao was in a state of panic, running around the restaurant trying to find shelter,” Wu later wrote. In contrast, Wu, who previously could sleep soundly in Tsinghua despite the noise of explosions, stayed calm. After saying a few prayers, Wu sat in the restaurant with ease and casually struck up a conversation with an army officer from Nanjing sitting nearby.
The most famous restaurant on Zhongshan Road then was Sanhe Restaurant, run by renowned chef Liu Sanhe. Teachers from the temporary university would host banquets here. Dishes such as tofu-vegetable wraps, three-bird stew, “seven-star sour pork,” mushroom and shredded tofu, cabbage in white sauce, and fried sheep tripe with bamboo shoots, “were beyond the reach of other restaurants,” according to a Changsha guidebook.
It’s said that the food here inadvertently “saved” several nearby shops during the 1938 Changsha Fire when the Nationalist government decided to burn down the city to avoid plunder by the Japanese. The day before, some soldiers tasked with setting fire to the area came to Sanhe Restaurant. Finding no hope of moving away, Liu decided to cook the luxury ingredients for the arson team rather than leave them for the flames. In the end, the soldiers drank so much that they were still sleeping when the fire was being started in the city’s south. By the time they sobered up and got ready to set the fire, they received urgent orders to start putting the fire out.
Farther along the road was the blue facade of the Silver Palace Cinema, the best-equipped cinema in Hunan province when it opened in March 1935. Although there are no records of the teachers and students visiting, it seems likely that they might have frequented the place on weekends. Today, a barbecue restaurant stands at its entrance, and inside it has been turned into badminton courts. A young man at the reception doubles in cellphone repair. While tinkering with a battery, he tells me that the movie theater closed more than a decade ago, after which it was turned into an ice rink and then a badminton hall. “It’s always changing bosses. Nowadays it’s hard to do any kind of business.”
Next to the Silver Palace Cinema is what used to be the Hunan National Products Museum. Fronted by 19 tall Roman columns, it was one of the most imposing buildings in 1930s Hunan. I am unable to go in, however, since it has already closed for the day. Through the window I can see gold and jewelry for sale, but the interior looks faded. Eight decades ago, the Changsha Temporary University rented the library here, as well as a reading room in the Sanhe Restaurant behind it for the teachers and students to use.
The three universities left most of their books up north — while only Tsinghua shipped more than 500 crates of reading materials ahead of time. The serious shortage of books meant they had no choice but to buy books from students. The biggest difficulty was the instability of postal routes after the war broke out. Following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (July 7, 1937), all books sent to Peiping (as Beijing was then called) from abroad needed to be approved by a committee before being forwarded to Changsha. However, difficulties moving goods between the north and south led to inevitable losses, with the library unable to pay for the books they did not receive. As a result of earlier shipments going unpaid, all of the 60 orders Tsinghua University sent out for overseas books in the second half of 1938 were ignored by foreign booksellers.
Even farther along the road is a roundabout on which Zhongshan Pavilion stands. Just off it is the Changsha City Children’s Palace, which used to be the People’s Club at the time. The building witnessed China’s stalled progress toward modernization. After the railway line from Guangzhou to Wuchang in central city Wuhan opened in 1936, the four provinces along the line planned to hold a series of joint exhibitions of local products. On May 10, 1937, the Changsha part of the fair kicked off in the People’s Club. From morning to night, the whole city was said to be “wild with joy.” About 30,000 people crowded into the fair on that day, leading to a temporary cap on visitors for fear of accidents. On July 1, the fair moved to Wuhan. A week later, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident occurred, the fair closed, and China was dragged into full-scale war.
When the group of teachers and students arrived at the Xiang River, it was nearly dusk, and the boat rental procedures hadn’t been completed. Everyone split up to have dinner, but the situation was still chaotic by the time they got back. Some students slept on the boats, others by the river. The small boats were so crammed with people that one student remarked jokingly, “What a sensual experience!” The whole boat roared with laughter.
I too arrive at the Xiang River — the end of Zhongshan Road. The slanting light of the setting sun bounces off the river and dazzles me, while the water laps against the stone bank. Some people are fishing with rods, while others are dragging nets through the water. I look at what they have caught — mostly loaches, pretty big ones. An old Changsha native strolling along the shore explains to me that some Buddhists come here to release animals in the hopes of accruing good luck. But after they release their animals in the morning, other people come and retrieve them in the afternoon. “There are turtles this big and carp weighing 2-3 kilograms!” the old man explains with a gesture.
As the sun keeps setting, Yuelu Mountain gradually becomes just an outline. I sit on the stone steps and continue to watch the water lapping against the bank. On April 10, 1938, 27 Japanese planes bombed Hunan University at the foot of Yuelu Mountain, killing and injuring more than 100 students, residents, and tourists, and levelling the university’s library. On Aug. 17, Changsha was hit by its seventh and deadliest air raid, leaving more than 800 civilians killed or wounded. By October, this “city of pleasure” had no anti-aircraft defenses left and its searchlights no longer swept the skies — the nights were pitch-black and deathly quiet. As the air raids continued, one American who had remained in Changsha wrote in his diary that the Xiang River was now a boiling cauldron of twisted iron plates, dead bodies, garbage, and overturned boats.
Guangzhou fell on Oct. 21, Wuhan on Oct. 25, and Yueyang, the “north gate” of Hunan, on Nov. 11. Panic and faulty intelligence led the Nationalist government to enact its “scorched earth” policy. Starting in the early hours of Nov. 13, Changsha burned for five days and five nights, and most of the buildings in the ancient city were destroyed. At a hospital for injured soldiers, some of the gravely wounded who were unable to escape the flames laid down their guns out of desperation, pulling the trigger with their feet and ending their own lives. The riverside granaries on Zhongshan Road were still smoldering 10 days after burning down — Hunan had just had a bumper harvest the year before.
The fire drove large numbers of refugees to ferry crossings on the east bank of the Xiang River, possibly including the wharf on Zhongshan Road. There were limited wooden boats and sampans available, so many people fell into the water, while some overloaded boats sank before they even set off. Liu Zunqi from the Central News Agency was the first reporter to interview people at the scene of the fire. Early in the morning of Nov. 17, he climbed the ruins of the burned Tianxin Pavilion and looked out: “Yesterday’s beautiful and prosperous city has become today’s Pompeii.”
At 6:33 p.m., I see the last rays of the sun disappear, and darkness quickly falls. As the fishers are packing up, I overhear one man grumble, “Not a turtle to be seen.” A migrant worker from Xinyang in the central Henan province, who looked to be in his 30s or 40s, has his 7- or 8-year-old child with him. As he points to the direction of the sunset, he says to the kid in the tone of a poem, using the famous metaphor by Mao Zedong, “The setting sun is mine, not yours — Your sun rises in the morning.”
This article is an excerpt from the book “To the Finest School I Know” by Yang Xiao, jointly published by OWSpace and Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Students and their teacher from Nankai University pose for a photo in Pan County, Guizhou province, 1938. From the Archives Bureau of Nankai University)