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Under the Gun: Nationalist Military Service and Society in Wartime Sichuan, 1938-1945


This dissertation examines the state-making and citizenship projects embedded within the Nationalist (KMT) government's mobilization of men to serve in the army during World War Two. My project views wartime conscription as a fundamental break with earlier modes of recruitment, the gentry-led militarization of the late-Qing dynasty and the mercenary armies of the warlords. Nationalist authorities saw compulsory service as a tool for creating genuine citizen-soldiers and yet, while conscription was a strategic success, it proved to be a political failure.

Despite the expansion of the institutional structures to extract men from their villages, conscription work was always dependent on local community elites. The result was a persistent commercialization of conscription, as men were hired as substitute draftees or literally bought and sold The draft became a stark lesson in political alienation from the government: individuals evaded; rural communities shielded their residents and preyed on outsiders; and Chongqing's densely packed urban institutions defended, sometimes violently, their human resources from the state's agents.

In contrast to this political debacle, the Intellectual Youth Volunteer Movement (1943-45) was a triumph. Deracinated refugee youth - students, teachers, petty professionals and civil servants - who were already dependent on the state and ravaged by inflation, volunteered to serve in the Intellectual Youth Army. An elite force that was ironically militarily irrelevant, the Youth Army had a political mission to legitimize the Nationalist state by embodying, and publicizing themselves as, model citizens and elite soldiers.

This study not only contributes to the history of the war in China, which remains only partially understood, but also to debates on Nationalist state-making and issues of political culture. It tackles the relatively neglected area of Nationalist-held interior society, rather than revolution in communist base areas or collaboration in Japanese occupied areas. It challenges the conventional narrative of wholesale disintegration in the KMT-held interior, a perspective which grew out of America's involvement in China during the war and subsequent scholarship's focus on the revolutionary growth of the Communist Party. And it offers new and nuanced perspectives on the institutional expansion of the Nationalist state, its connection to the war, and the responses (both rural and urban) to state demands. The picture that emerges is one of uneven state growth, combined with political alienation in the countryside. On the citizenship front, my project again shows a degree of vitality in the Nationalist state that has not previously been appreciated in the literature. The Youth Army and its prolific autobiographical propaganda are analyzed to uncover the socio-economic bases of volunteerism, the careful bargain struck between the state and the volunteers, and their complex self-identities as loyal citizen-soldiers. A close analysis of the political techniques to inculcate those identities and an excavation of the material object of the rifle, which stood at the center of the Youth Army's political symbology, outline the nature of Nationalist citizenship, not as a position endowed with "rights" but as an affirmation of the fundamental myth of the Nationalist state itself: that the state was coterminous with the people.

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