The 1930s were one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history.
Stunning photos of China in the 1930s
Swiss photojournalist Walter Bosshard lived and traveled in China from 1933 to 1939, a time of enormous upheaval in the nation. His photographs capture – among other subjects – the warring factions of the decade.
In 1931, the Empire of Japan invaded China. The occupation became a full-scale war in 1937, with the Second Sino-Japanese War, which ended with the surrender of Japan in 1945.
But that’s not all. At the same time, the Chinese Civil War had been raging from 1927, between the Republic of China, commanded by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, in the hands of Mao Zedong.
Bosshard’s photos are an unforgettable window into this tumultuous time.
Prince Teh Wang, also known as Demchugdongrub, was born into Mongolian royalty. He began a Mongolian independence movement in around 1933, and became head of the pro-Japanese Mongol Military Government in 1938. He was named head of the Mengjiang Japanese puppet state the following year, which he ruled over until the defeat of the Japanese at the end of WWII.
The Eighth Route Army was created from the Communist Red Army, when the Nationalist and Communist parties agreed to form a united front against the Japanese. It specialized mainly in guerilla warfare. After the Japanese surrendered, the unit was renamed the People’s Liberation Army, the name it carries to this day.
A 45-year-old Mao Zedong is pictured in front of the Red Academy at Yan’an, in northern Shaanxi province. The city was the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party from 1936, until just before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Red Academy was a school of Communist political and military thought. In “Red Star Over China,” journalist Edgar Snow writes of the Red Academy in neighboring Bao’an: “it was probably the world’s only seat of “higher learning” whose classrooms were caves, with chairs and desks of stone and brick, whose blackboards were wails of limestone and clay, and whose buildings were completely bomb-proof.”
Chiang Kai-shek was the ruler of China from 1928-1948, and the ruler of Taiwan from 1948-1975. His alliance with this Communists to fight the Japanese was not a happy one. He is claimed to have said “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”
Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (left) explored China’s far western Xinjiang province in 1934, a region held by rebel warlord “Big Horse” Ma Chung-ying… who almost executed him.
Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-ling was the sister-in-law of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China. She was educated at Wesleyan College, and spoke English with a strong Georgia accent – a fact that endeared her to Americans on an eight-month trip to the states to rally its people.
After the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975, Madame Chiang moved to the United States. She died in her Manhattan apartment at the age of 105, having lived through three centuries.
Feng Yuxiang was warlord who served as China’s vice-premier from 1928-30. He is known as the “Christian General” because after being baptized as a Methodist in 1914, he combined his power at the head of a army with a TK to evangelism. He forbade his troops from prostitution, drug use and gambling. Urban legend has it that he used to baptize his troops with a fire hose, but it’s likely just a myth.
The “January 28 Incident” or the “Shanghai Incident” was an early skirmish between China and Japan in 1932, before the beginning of the war in 1937. Japanese forces bombed the city and ground troops were eventually repelled after more than a month of fighting.
Chinese Communist soldiers excelled at guerilla tactics, which they used to great effect against the Japanese – and to much greater effect against the Nationalists when the Chinese Civil War resumed.
In Hong Kong this summer? See the full exhibition at Bosshard in China: Documenting Social Change in the 1930s, which runs from April 27 through August 5, 2018 at the University Museum and Art Gallery, University of Hong Kong, 90 Bonham Road, Pokfulam.
All photos © Walter Bosshard: Archive of Contemporary History Fotostiftung Schweiz