7/7 and a Wartime Dictionary

While I’m spending the summer studying Korean in Seoul, one of the books I brought with me for some recreational reading is a Chinese wartime dictionary (“encyclopedia”) with mostly political and historical terms. It is often quite arbitrary with entries on everything from Lappland to one on Owen Lattimore. It is about 370 pages in length, with 10-20 entries per page, plus a timeline of events beginning with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and up to July 1942, when it was published.

文化供應社《抗戰建國實用百科辭典》文化供應社, 1942.

Dictionaries like these, which have an almanac feel to them, give you a great look at what terms and events are viewed as important by contemporaries, and are thus great background reading for historians interested in getting a flavor for that particular period.

There are also other interesting things to note about some of the events it includes descriptions of. For example, some 68 years ago today fighting broke out between Japanese and Chinese forces at Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing and those historians who find such issues interesting still find great room for disagreement over exactly how and who bears greater responsibility for that particular skirmish. It has great symbolic importance, however, as it has traditionally come to date the beginning of the most open phase of prolonged conflict between the two countries and Japanese aggression throughout China. You can find a special article remembering the event in the People’s Daily. To use Allen S. Whiting’s term, this is also one of the “war recall” days in the Chinese media. Like other such symbolic days in August (end of the war), September (Manchurian incident), and December (Nanjing massacre) there are usually a great swelling of articles, publications, and protests related to Japan.

In this dictionary, however, there is no entry for 七七事變, which is probably the most common name by which the Marco Polo incident has come to be known among Chinese today. A small entry under 七七紀念 simply tells the reader to see 蘆溝橋事變. That second term, explicitly referring to the bridge, is the most common name today in Japan and in English, but is slightly less commonly used in China. 七七事變 must thus have become the standard Chinese term at some later point. Both terms are listed in the People’s Daily article today. The only reason I mention this minor point is that today is also a tragic one for London, as the city has been hit by a serious terrorist attack. If, like 9/11, it comes to be remembered as 7/7 or the 7/7 Incident, there will be something of a nomenclaturial clash in Chinese.

However, in addition to the amusement and information provided by reading the occasional entry, this particular copy of the dictionary is interesting in other ways. I snagged my copy from the Harvard-Yenching library, fairly confident that this particular volume would not be recalled over the summer while I was away since it hasn’t been checked out in over a decade. The copy is stamped “Rec’d thru Dr. Fairbank” on the cover. Although we shouldn’t judge a book’s history by its cover, perhaps the Fairbank picked up the copy while he was in the Nationalist stronghold of Chongqing during the war. Regardless, the book went through something of a mangling, mostly likely at the hands of Nationalist government censors (it was published in Guilin, Guangxi province). Some 63 of the entries, including the entry words themselves, are completely blacked out by a black brush or marker of some sort…

The censored entries make the dictionary more fun to read, especially since you can still read through the blacked out sections in many places because of the slight indentation that the printed characters make on the poor quality paper. It quickly became clear that the blacked out items mostly have to do with issues or events of importance for Communist supporters. Entries such as those for Mao Zedong, Zhu De, the Communist Party, “fellow traveller”, left wing literary movements and Communist international organizations have been blacked out. There are also a number of entries blacked out because of their left wing or pro-Communist interpretations, such as the cases of words relating to capitalism, economic class, “private property ownership”, the word “interest” (on loans), the “seven hour work day system”, “corporation” and “wages.” Often heard Communist slogans like “From each according to his ability…” are also blacked out. The word for “character; personage” 人物 I can only imagine was deleted for a single phrase at the end of the definition referring to class (“…並不像典型人物那樣一定要代表其階級共同特徵”).

Some blacked out terms and events, such as “unemployment” 失業 don’t seem to have anything overtly political in the definition, as far as I can tell, but reflect badly on the performance of the Nationalist government in some way. In the case of “unemployment” the same word is also uncommon in the articles and reporting of Communist China even today, where it is often replaced with a euphemism 待业 meaning literally, “Waiting for work.”

Finally, I find interesting that in 1942, when the Communists and Nationalists are presumably still professed allies, there are a number of entries blacked out whose definitions only stand out in that they mention cooperation between the two in the war against Japan. Thus, almost two whole pages of entries beginning with 抗日 (“resist against Japan”) have been blacked out. The same goes for the entry 三大政策 (“three big policies”) of which one is “ally with the Communists.”

Below are the blacked out words that I could make out (about half of the total censored words) for those who might be curious:

生產工具 見 生產手段


  1. A little light reading? For what it’s worth, I recall Harvard having quite a few books that said “Rec’d thru Dr. Fairbank” and I was told that in the immediate postwar years Harvard gave him a lot of money to buy books in China, on the assumption that many Chinese scholars were rich in priceless historical treasures but short on money and Harvard was, at that time, loaded. Not sure how true the story is.

  2. I see! Well, it seems plausible to me. The aftermath of war always seems like a good time for the more well endowed to go book hunting – as long as they have means to extract the spoils.

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