Theses Doctoral

Bombing and Air Defense in China, 1932–1941: War, Politics, Architecture

Thompson III, John B.

This dissertation traces the emergence of the air raid shelter as the paradigmatic architecture of air defense under the Nationalist Party government in China during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945). More broadly, it explores how air defense in general became an integral part of the Nationalists’ “war of resistance and reconstruction” (kangzhan jianguo), a fascist project derived from total war, the globally circulating military-political idea holding that modern warfare would enlist entire nations and their economies in war while also subjecting them to comprehensive enemy violence.
The Nationalists joined the world in confronting aerial bombing after the Empire of Japan bombed Shanghai in 1932. In response, the government and its military constructed air defense, a political and technological complex combining mass mobilization, through air raid drills and air defense organizations, with material technologies, like searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, and bomb shelters. The Nationalists found in air defense more than a military technology. To them, it also offered a set of tools and resources for fortifying their flailing attempts to unite China in a common national project, and even recasting the substance of that project. Air defense could forge a new society that invested all Chinese people in war as a necessary precondition for overcoming China’s colonial subjection. Where democratic institutions collapsed and appeals to common heritage and customs failed, the Nationalists used air defense to turn survival (shengcun) into the bedrock value of the national community.
Meanwhile, a group of young architects associated with the journal Xin jianzhu in Canton identified air defense as an organizing problem for the nascent professional field of architecture. Rather than the stale historicism endorsed in Nanjing, and against China’s craft building traditions, the group championed modernist architecture, especially the International Style, whose principles of simplicity, functionalism, and rationality they saw as necessary for building modern, industrial, and hygienic Chinese cities capable of enhancing human life. Moreover, they argued that the technological instrumentality informing modernism made it the only style capable of preserving Chinese cities and people from modern threats like bombing. After the fall of Canton in 1938, members of the group took their mission to Chongqing, where they joined the Nationalist government in building air defenses in the wartime capital.
In particular, this dissertation argues that the air raid shelter and air defense focused contradictions in the Nationalists’ fascist project for uniting and revolutionizing China as it traveled to Chongqing following the Nationalist escape from Japan’s invasion of the coast. Over the course of the war, the principal technology of air defense shifted away from mass mobilization, as the Nationalists came to administer refugees and displaced people they had never governed before, and became located in infrastructure like city plans and air raid shelters. Air defense served to exclude surplus populations like women and the elderly, rendered redundant according to the state’s wartime needs for industrial production and conscripts, by dispersing them in satellite settlements outside the city, from which they constantly returned in search of work or material goods. Shoddy air raid shelters, in the meantime, revealed the fragile biology of real bodies beneath the fascist fantasy of the heroic political subject, as shelters failed to provide for basic needs like respiration. Over time, these two problems collided, as the state closed shelters in the city to dispersed people, exposing surplus populations to bombing, while civilians also languished in shelters that could still kill them. The goal of building national unity through survival collapsed into a confusion of inclusion and exclusion, life and death, with disastrous results, like the asphyxiation of around one thousand people in Chongqing’s largest public air raid shelter in June 1941. In these circumstances, professionals like the Cantonese architects and new state regulatory bodies produced proposals and standards for building better shelters, attempting a technical resolution of air defense’s political contradictions and consolidating the transformation of air defense into a primarily technological discipline.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 20, 2022