October 1937. Surrounded by an enormous Japanese Army, Chinese soldiers hunker down for a siege. Their fortress is the Sihang Warehouse, tall and sturdy, standing on the banks of Soochow Creek. For seven days, they beat off numerous attempts to storm their position. Historian Stephen Robinson recreates and documents these events in Eight Hundred Heroes.
The Battle of Shanghai in 1937 has been receiving more attention by Westerners lately, and justifiably so. It has been dubbed the “Stalingrad on the Yangzte” by historian Peter Harmsen, before the Battle of Stalingrad occurred. In July 1937, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed along the Marco Polo Bridge, separating China and the puppet-state of Manchukuo. Although initially localized, the fighting soon spread to Beijing and Tianjin by the end of July.
However, it wasn’t certain whether or not war would spread to the rest of China, namely Shanghai. However, the murder of two Japanese Navy Marines provided a spark that soon ignited a full-blown Sino-Japanese War. The first two chapters have Robinson detailing the beginnings of the Chinese Republic and the initial stages of the Sino-Japanese War, culminating in the climactic Battle of Shanghai.
Although the Chinese Army outnumbered the small Japanese Marine garrison stationed in Shanghai, the Japanese forces were soon augmented by the Shanghai Expeditionary Army, which landed north of Shanghai on August 23rd, 1937. Several months of grueling battle ensued before the Chinese troops were finally forced to retreat.
To cover the withdrawal, Lieutenant-Colonel Xie Jinyuan (Hsieh Chin-yuan) was ordered to hold off the Japanese advance while the bulk of Chinese forces left Shanghai. Xie’s battalion held up in the Sihang Warehouse, literally the Four Banks Warehouse, since it was funded by four large Shanghai banks. Already reinforced with concrete, the structure became a veritable fortress under Xie’s command.
Although the battalion consisted of four hundred men, Xie purposely spread misinformation that there were eight hundred troops inside the warehouse as a way to intimidate the Japanese. Their dogged resistance and determination earned them the nickname, the Eight Hundred Heroes. It was a surreal sight since the Sihang Warehouse is situated right on the banks of Suzhou or Soochow Creek, which separates the Zhabei (Chapei) neighborhood from the International Settlement, which was run by foreigners. Since it was technically neutral ground, the fighting was confined to the Chinese sectors of the city, but foreigners watched the brutal battle unfold within a stone’s throw of them.
Robinson covers all this in great detail, along with the sudden arrival of a Chinese flag, delivered by a brave girl scout named Yang Huimin. Raising it above the Sihang Warehouse was an act of defiance and a morale booster for the Chinese troops. However, much like Shanghai itself, the Sihang Warehouse eventually fell to overwhelming odds.
Determined not to surrender to the Japanese, Lieutenant-Colonel Xie led a breakout, retreating from the warehouse and into the International Settlement. There, they were disarmed and interned. The International Settlement authorities didn’t want to upset the Japanese, so Xie and his men were not allowed to rejoin the Chinese Army, which had since fallen back to Nanjing.
The book doesn’t end there, covering the ultimate fates of Xie and his men. Most interestingly, he explores the myth and memory around the Eight Hundred Heroes. In particular, he discusses three films that cover the defiance at the Sihang Warehouse. The first is from 1938, just a year after the battle, Robinson compares how Chinese cinema glorified the Eight Hundred Heroes during the war. The second is from 1976, made in Taiwan which was then still controlled by the Kuomintang dictatorship. The third film came out in 2020, made in mainland China. Simply titled The Eight Hundred, it is arguably the best of the films and mercifully free of the most strident nationalist jingoism that plagues most Chinese war movies.
Where Robinson’s book goes beyond not just recounting the historical events, but also discussing how the memory of the Eight Hundred Heroes impacts Chinese and Taiwanese culture to this day. I am a bit reminded of Sun Shuyun’s The Long March, which not only talks about the Chinese Communists’ Long March, but also the myth, legends, and propaganda that surround this event.
Eight Hundred Heroes is probably the only detailed account in English about this epic struggle, long neglected in the West. If you’re interested in China, the Sino-Japanese War, or World War II in general, it is a must-have on your bookshelf.
Stephen Robinson Interview
1) What inspired you to write Eight Hundred Heroes?
As a student of Asian studies at university, I became increasingly interested in Chinese history, so much so that I focused on Republican China in my honours year. In 2001, after I graduated, I chanced upon a VHS copy of the Taiwanese movie Eight Hundred Heroes (1976) and immediately watched it given my interest in Chinese history of the 1930s. Despite the movie’s obvious propaganda, I was fascinated by its portrayal of a lone battalion of Chinese Nationalist soldiers in Shanghai making a desperate last stand against overwhelming Japanese military might. The experience of the movie stayed with me and many years later I felt compelled to watch it again. After searching for a copy of the movie online to purchase, I came across references to the historic Eight Hundred Heroes who defended Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai in 1937. Now that I realised the story had a basis in fact, I became fascinated with the battle and felt compelled to write a historical account.
2) What research did you do?
The defence of Sihang Warehouse was a unique event in military history. The building was situated on the bank of Suzhou Creek, which separated the Chinese districts of Shanghai from the International Settlement. As less than 70 metres separated the Chinese soldiers in the warehouse from the neutral British Concession, the battle was witnessed at close quarters by the foreign press from inside the International Settlement. My research focused on acquiring Chinese sources, in particular the accounts of the Chinese soldiers who survived the battle. At the same time, I also researched the accounts written by Western reporters who witnessed the battle and wrote for newspapers like the North Daily China News, and most of these accounts have not been published since 1937.
3) How well-known is the story of the Eight Hundred Heroes in China and Taiwan?
The story of the Eight Hundred Heroes is essentially modern China’s equivalent of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae or the Alamo in Texas. The story is part of modern national identity in China and Taiwan today that transcends the tensions across the Taiwan Strait. This is somewhat paradoxical in China as the Eight Hundred Heroes were Nationalist soldiers on the wrong side of history from a Communist Party point of view. However, since the 1990s Chinese Communist attitudes towards their wartime alliance with the Nationalists have become warmer as Nationalist soldiers who fought the Japanese started to become honoured as national heroes. The best indication of the popularity of the Eight Hundred Heroes in China is the fact that the mainland movie The Eight Hundred became the highest grossing film in the world in 2020, taking in US$472 million at the box office driven mostly by Chinese ticket sales.
4) How were the Eight Hundred Heroes seen by their Japanese enemies?
The Japanese soldiers who fought the Eight Hundred Heroes were surprised by their bravery and endurance since the rest of Shanghai had fallen. While the battle was raging, Rear Admiral Tadao Honda, a Japanese naval attaché, gave a press conference to Western reporters from inside the International Settlement. Although he declared that Japanese forces would soon be victorious, he noted the Chinese “stout, stubborn refusal to surrender”. Honda added: “We have done our utmost to spare the lives of the defenders in the true Samurai spirit, but we must make a final assault now”. However, he also conceded that the Eight Hundred Heroes had conducted a “more or less heroic stand”.
5) Was there anything that surprised you during your research?
During the battle, a 22-year old Chinese Girl Guide named Yang Huimin left the safety of the British Concession and made her way inside Sihang Warehouse under the cover of darkness to deliver a Chinese flag to Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan, the commander of the Eight Hundred Heroes. Yang had been inspired to do this after learning that the Chinese soldiers had no flag and the next morning her flag was raised on the top of the building. After people inside the International Settlement saw the flag, the Chinese press reported the story, which had a huge positive impact on Chinese morale across the country and Yang became a national heroine. I was quite surprised to learn that in the following year, Yang visited the United States and represented China at the World Youth Congress in New York State where she met Eleanor Roosevelt. After this event, she toured America from coast to coast as a celebrity giving speeches at high schools, churches, Masonic temples and YMCA halls. Her events were covered by media giants like The New York Times but also by local community newspapers as she passed through small town America. Yang even appeared as a guest of the highly popular national radio show Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
6) Have you ever seen the 1938 adaptation?
There were actually two film productions in 1938 and they were both called Eight Hundred Heroes. The version made in Hong Kong directed by Lu Si is sadly now a ‘lost film’ but I hope that one day a copy is found. The other version made in Wuhan directed by Ying Yunwei also became a ‘lost film’ but fortunately Daniel Wang, a Hong Kong resident, protected a copy during the Japanese occupation and his daughter Dolores Wang donated it to the Hong Kong Film Archive in 1994. The Archive restored the film and a spokesperson from the organisation declared: “Despite being produced as a silent film due to production limitations, Eight Hundred Heroes is a spectacular and realistic re-enactment of the epic battle, proving that wartime patriotic propaganda films can also have artistic and aesthetic merits.” Sadly I have not yet seen this version but I certainly hope to one day.
7) What are your feelings toward the 1976 and 2020 versions?
I have a lot of nostalgia for the Taiwanese movie Eight Hundred Heroes (1976) as it was my introduction to the story. Despite the movie’s nationalistic propaganda, the actor Chun-hsiung gave a remarkable performance as Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan with a moving portrayal of the commander as a man torn between the seeming inevitability of his death and his desire to be reunited with his wife and children. The actress Brigitte Lin also gave a superb performance as the Girl Guide Yang Huimin and it is interesting to note that the real Yang Huimin visited her on the set during the filming.
The Chinese production The Eight Hundred (2020) is a completely different experience. The scale of the movie is truly epic with massive sets recreating Old Shanghai. The film is a surreal experience given the contrast between the relative safety of the International Settlement with bars, nightclubs and bright neon lights and the Stalingrad-like hell of the Chinese distinct and Sihang Warehouse across Suzhou Creek. While the earlier Taiwanese version focused on Xie Jinyuan and Yang Huimin, the recent movie centred on a more complex human story concerning a group of stragglers who by twists of fate end up inside Sihang Warehouse. These men are not willing participants in the battle, but they gradually become invested in the events occurring around them after becoming aware that the outside world is perceiving them as heroes. It is a very moving story.
8) How difficult was it to separate fact from fiction when writing the book?
Fortunately separating fact from fiction was not a major challenge. The accounts of the Chinese survivors, despite some nationalist rhetoric, were independently verified by Western journalists who witnessed the battle across the creek. Therefore, we can be fairly certain about the course of the battle and the key events. The mythology concerning the battle primarily originated separately from the Chinese press and government propaganda and, as such, separating fact and fiction was a relatively straightforward task.
9) Why do you think the Sino-Japanese War has been largely ignored in the Western world?
While there are many excellent English language academic books concerning the Sino-Japanese War, these tend to focus on the strategic level and personalities such as the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the Communist leader Mao Zedong and the American commander General Joseph Stilwell. While such books are highly valuable, they tend to be abstract and Chinese accounts of the war that tell a human story are largely missing in English language books. Fortunately this situation is improving and Peter Harmsen’s Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze (2013) and Paul French’s Bloody Saturday: Shanghai’s Darkest Day (2017) are steps in the right direction as these books tell human stories of the war in Shanghai.
10) What are you working on currently?
I am currently writing a follow-up to my earlier book The Blind Strategist: John Boyd and the American Art of War. This new book will focus on the relationship between the ideas of the United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd (1927-97), an influential military theorist, and the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War in the 5th century BC. In doing so, I am pleased that my current project will focus on an important person from Chinese history.