When China’s Nationalist government lost Shanghai

Society & Culture

The line that separated Nationalist China from the People’s Republic was not a bright one. In 1949, when the Communists took over, many fled Shanghai — but many more remained.

This Week in China’s History: May 25, 1949

On the morning of May 25, 1949, Benny Pan awoke and left his flat. Stepping out onto the Shanghai streets, he saw, along with the spring foliage and traffic that were typical of late May in China’s biggest city, something new: “Endless rows of sleeping soldiers. Thousands of men and boys, many appearing much younger than he, lay on the sidewalks like so many neat wooden staves.” This was the People’s Liberation Army, which had captured Shanghai after weeks of fighting.

Benny was 21 that spring, a student at St John’s University. The university, founded in 1879 by American Christian missionaries, was a jewel of higher education in China, but the Nationalist government had shuttered it — and a dozen other colleges in Shanghai — in April, as Communist armies advanced toward the city. “Though the Nationalists claimed the closures were for the students’ safety,” writes Helen Zia, who told Benny Pan’s story in her acclaimed book Last Boat Out of Shanghai, “no one believed them, and news reports said that the authorities anticipated that students would rally in support of the Communists.”

The war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists, paused during a fragile alliance against the Japanese, resumed in 1946. The Nationalists began the conflict with more obvious practical advantages — greater troop strength, resources, international recognition, and control over nearly every major city in the country — and scored a symbolic victory by capturing the Communists’ base area at Yan’an in March 1947. But after that, the war quickly turned. A string of Nationalist defeats began in the summer of 1948, and did not stop. The Liaoshen campaign in Manchuria, the Huaihai campaign in the east, and the Pingjin campaign in the North China Plain gave the CCP a clear advantage by early 1949.

Although Mao would proclaim the new People’s Republic in October 1949, standing atop Tiananmen in Beiping — soon to reclaim the name Beijing when it once again became the capital city — the fall of Shanghai in May was a tipping point. The then-capital, Nanjing, had been taken without a fight a month earlier, as Nationalist armies sought a more effective place to make a stand. That place never came. Besides Shanghai, the Yangtze Delta cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, and others all fell that spring. The Yangtze Delta was by many measures the heart of Nationalist China: Nanjing was the capital, Shanghai its largest city, Suzhou and Hangzhou traditional metropolises. The region was the center of KMT support, though that had been shaken by an evacuation to Chongqing during the war against Japan. The collapse of Nationalist resistance in these cities — and the streams of refugees fleeing by land and by sea — brought home the reality that the republic was in jeopardy.

The spring of 1949 was the culmination of decades of tension, and Zia’s book brings the epic scale of the Chinese Civil War down to a personal scale by focusing on a handful of her relatives’ experiences during (and after) the war. She describes Benny Pan’s May 25 as a mix of the mundane and the profound. By mid-morning, “the city’s center had broken out in wild celebrations…giant portraits of Mao Zedong had materialized overnight…teenagers with armbands stood in for the traffic cops who’d fled with the Nationalists. Girl League members, carrying big baskets of red carnations, put them in the buttonholes of the Red Army soldiers.”

Benny’s celebration was muted…his father was in prison, facing jeopardy no matter what side was in control. Benny weaved through the crowd of celebrants under the marquees of theaters advertising Bette Davis films, facing a future more uncertain than ever.

Zia writes that Benny Pan’s main concern was whether he would be allowed to graduate. Classes, indeed, resumed at St John’s within a few weeks, but changes made clear that a new regime controlled Shanghai. Morning prayers had been a daily feature of life at St. John’s, but now they were suspended. Even more noticeable was the absence of English, previously the language of instruction at St John’s. Both of these changes were hard on Benny Pan, whose English skills and Christianity were fundamental to his identity, but he continued his classes, and that fall received his diploma.

The drama that surrounded the lives of Helen Zia’s four relatives at the center of this book — Benny Pan, Ho Chow, Annuo Liu, and Bing Woo — is too good for me to spoil, so I’ll leave their details to Last Boat Out of Shanghai, but one point is worth emphasizing, at the risk of betraying a little of Zia’s narrative.

The line that separated Nationalist China from the People’s Republic was not a bright one. The changes had been in motion at least since the summer of 1937, when Japanese armies surrounded the city’s center, and the morning that Benny Pan described in May 1949 was not the last time the sun came up on Shanghai. Six months passed between the “fall” of the city and the founding of the People’s Republic, and even then it would be wrong to think of the city as transformed overnight from international and cosmopolitan to isolated and introverted.

In Last Boat, for instance, many did flee the city, some taking, literally, the last boat out of Shanghai. But others remained. Some characters who wanted to escape the city found jobs and remained, sometimes even in foreign companies. Benny Pan did get out of Shanghai, but remained in China, at least for a time, and two years later found himself working for a foreign organization — the YMCA — in ways that defied expectations of the “bamboo curtain” of ideological imaginations. In my own book, Champions Day, I described architect Dayu Doon, who had worked to design the New Shanghai city center and spent his days at the race club, staying in Shanghai after 1949, designing factories and dormitories in the People’s Republic. Many fled, but many more remained, either by choice or without.

Foreigners in Shanghai also faced a challenge. Cornell Franklin, the American who had been head of the Shanghai Municipal Council, had been imprisoned by the Japanese and then repatriated to America, but he came back to the city in 1945 and tried to negotiate the reopening of the Shanghai Race Club, even after the Communists took the city. He left, for good, only in December 1949. The scene Franklin encountered could hardly have been surprising: Mao’s People’s Republic had, after all, come to power with the promise to end Western imperialism. “Foreigners were never officially expelled en masse,” wrote James Palmer in “Last Tango in Shanghai,” but their welcome had clearly expired…It was still possible, as of December 1951, to dance to the mambo…[have] hair set in waves or doll herself up with imported lipstick…or snack on mince pies and plum puddings.”

In his pathbreaking Shanghai’s Dancing World, historian Andrew David Field does show the demise of the city’s cabaret culture, but just as clearly that it did not end all at once. Shanghai nightlife persisted for some time after 1949 (and some of it remained underground even longer).

But how long the dancing might go on was not on many minds in May 1949. Many had long been wondering when it was the right time to leave Shanghai, if they could. In an essay called “Shanghai’s Past, Hong Kong’s Future,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom and I wondered if those same feelings of lingering doom and a unique cosmopolitan city under threat — which typified Shanghai for more than a decade before 1949 — are the same ones that afflict Hong Kong today. Indeed, many people took that eponymous last boat out of Shanghai to Hong Kong, where some remain today. There, once again, they find themselves in a Chinese city with a long foreign history apprehensively watching the encroaching of the People’s Republic.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.