On Thursday, November 16, the History Department hosted Associate History Professor Joseph Ho and Professor Charles Bright, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Michigan, to talk more in-depth about their recently published book, “War and Occupation in China: The Letters of an American Missionary from Hangzhou, 1937-1938.”
Ho described the book as a “window into this particular history of the war.” He says that the event on Thursday was a chance for him and his fellow editor to tell the story of how this book came together, how they approached the material and what it was like to travel around the world collecting this information.
The book is a collection of letters written by a Provost Robert McMullen working at a liberal arts college in Hangzhou, China. It details the everyday life of the Japanese invasion and the first year of their occupation of China. McMullen wrote detailed letters to his wife in Montreat, North Carolina. At the time, the United States had not yet entered the war and was a neutral party, so the Provost was asked to negotiate with the invading Japanese army, along with keeping charge of the campus and protecting 10,000 refugees once the Chinese government had left the city.
Professor Ho said, “It’s incredible the amount of detail covered in the letters. There’s a bombing attack near the campus, and the provost, Robert J. McMullen, counts 404 windows blown out of the college campus buildings.”
But Professor Ho said that McMullen did not seem disturbed by his duties.
“It’s interesting because his language was often very calm and collected. ‘Well, our camp is being sprinkled with bullets,’ he would write,” said Ho. “ He was in the middle of all of this and processed it in a very calm and collected way. I think part of the reason he was writing so many of these letters was because he was processing it. He was by himself, his wife and kids back in the U.S., and he was using these letters to make sense of what was going on around him, especially when it was chaotic and unclear what was going to happen to him or the Chinese people in this region.”
Professor Ho said that he and Dr. Bright have been working on this book on and off for six years, since Professor Ho’s second year in graduate school, which he worked on in addition to his dissertation.
The project began in 2011 when Professor Bright approached Ho about some materials from his family’s time in China after a presentation at the University of Michigan.
Professor Bright is the grandson of the Provost and an American missionary who lived in China for more than 20 years before World War II and through the war. Professor Bright’s specialty is diplomatic European history, and he was interested in collaborating with Professor Ho, whose specialty is the cultural history of China.
“When we were doing it we had no sense that it was going to become a book. It was more like detective work, figuring out what’s going on in these letters,” said Ho.
Together they wrote 420 footnotes identifying the places, names, events, geography, and politics mentioned in the letters. After completing this, they decided to publish their findings with the letters.
The book has been published by Lehigh University Press, a subgroup of Roman Littlefield, an academic publisher in New York City.
“He wrote the introduction and conclusion, and I wrote the footnotes, so it was about half and half for the book. I also contextualized the information from Chinese history and put together a Chinese glossary that covers all the key terms in this book, in Chinese,” said Ho. “Working together was a great experience. He was amazing to work with, and a great collaborator. We took original research from both his side and my side and combining it in this project.”
Professor Ho said that the most exciting part of this work was being able to go to Hangzhou and trace McMullen’s footsteps. Ho enjoyed being able to see where McMullen had lived during the war, from the campus where he wrote letters to his wife, to the church that he occasionally preached at. It helped him to get a sense of the place and scale that McMullen often referenced in his letters.
The campus where McMullen worked at has now been merged with Zhejiang University, and much of the campus is now overgrown with trees, hiding it from the many tourists who come to Hangzhou. However, Ho is disappointed that these tourists don’t know about the war history of the campus that they pass by when visiting.
“[McMullen] was embedded in this part of China and had a very personal perspective onto this. Charlie and I have lived with this guy’s voice for the past six or so years, and really had to think about what it means to process and make sense of history happening right before you, and be able to transmit that history to first his family and now a global audience,” said Ho.
Ho said that the importance of the book was that they were able to turn these letters into a collection that people interested in Chinese history can understand and use. He has already used these letters in teaching his classes here at Albion.
Photo courtesy of Joseph Ho.