A postcard showing Chinese weapons captured by the Japanese in Manchuria during WWII.
A postcard showing Chinese weapons captured by the Japanese in Manchuria during WWII.



Conflict seems to inspire trophy hunting. In the west this often takes the form of fading photographs of someone’s grandfather holding a vintage Luger. A large number of katanas also made their way back to the United States in the hands of returning servicemen. These became the seeds that gave rise to an increasingly sophisticated culture of Japanese sword appreciation on this side of the pacific. Nor does it appear that this impulse is the exclusive domain of the western cultures. As one combs through the historical artifacts of the great conflicts of the 20th century it is not hard to find evidence of similar practices in both China and Japan. Some of these remembrances can even be helpful to later students of martial arts history.

The decreasing cost of photographic reproduction ensured that by the middle of the 20th century images, rather than artifacts, would become some of the most frequently collected items to return home with soldiers. During the WWII period we can think of these as falling into three different categories based on their methods of production and distribution.

First, there are a very small number of personally produced photographic images that were taken by individuals who were actually located on the scene. These items are relatively rare as most soldiers who were actively campaigning did not have access to cameras and a darkroom. Many of these pictures were taken by journalists.  Nevertheless, when located these images can be important historical documents.

Much more common are images produced by professional photographers that were then reproduced for sale to servicemen and officers who were stationed in the local area. Often these images will feature stereotypical local scenes such as “The Great Wall of China,” or images of “The Shanghai Bund.” It is not uncommon for these reproductions to be labeled within the photograph itself, or to have been sold in collected albums, where each page featured a different theme. Such images could be sent home to loved ones and are fairly commonly encountered. In fact, if you spend some time on eBay it is not hard to start spotting duplicates of the more common themes. Execution scenes appear to have been big sellers.

Lastly there are images that were reproduced on an even wider commercial scale. Of course the most common of these are postcards. Whereas actual photographs derive their value from their specificity, being tied to a known place and time, postcards draw on the emotional appeal of the generic. Rather than a specific data point they promise a look at “all Chinese women” through a single portrait, or a sense of the totality of “Manchurian Daily Life” in a single street scene.

Working with these images can be rewarding, but it is not without its challenges. Occasionally some important piece of historical data can be gleaned from these postcards, but in general their value stems from what they betray about the subconscious attitudes and expectation of both those who sent and received them. Because their images are treated as generic and universal they are often reused in anachronistic or geographically puzzling ways. It is not uncommon to find postcards of “Chinese life” mailed in the 1940s that show images of China from before the 1911 revolution. The persistent yearning for an “oriental” and eternal China is portrayed in many of these images.

The inexpensive and widespread nature of the medium also made postcards a useful tool of public diplomacy and educational propaganda. The Japanese, in particular, produced large numbers of postcards that featured scenes of daily military training and camp life to be sent back to the families of soldiers in the mainland.

Other “educational” images seem to have been produced with the soldiers themselves in mind. These might carry useful bits of information, or show something about the forces that they were engaged with. The two postcards that we will be examining today, both taken from longer series, seem to fall into this category.



Weapons of the Enemy

Recently I had the good fortune of running across two postcards on eBay (both located in Japanese collections) that contained images of Chinese swords and other traditional weapons captured by Japanese troops in Manchuria during World War II. The first of these (featured at the head of this essay) was a black and white image of two swords, a Mauser pattern bayonet, a helmet and a gasmask. All of the items in this image are notable for their quality. The broader of the two swords is a dadao.  Note that the scabbard is present and that the blade lacks the distinctive “ring pommel” construction seen on so many surviving examples. Instead this sample appears to have a more traditional peened hilt.

While the dadao was likely produced during the late 1930s, the other sword is of a slightly older vintage. It is a well preserved example of a civilian jian. It is difficult to say much about the quality of the fittings or blade given the poor resolution of this photograph, but it is interesting to compare the length of this sword to the dadao besides it. Such weapons were favored by more extensively trained civilian martial artists. The helmet and gasmask, while core elements of this period’s military technology, feel slightly out of place in this image. We will return to that visual tension shortly.



A Japanese postcard showing swords captured in WWII.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Japanese postcard showing swords captured in WWII. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


The second image features an even more diverse array of traditional arms. Readers should begin by noting that this postcard is labeled in Japanese, English and Chinese. Most Japanese postcards from the WWII period are labeled only in Japanese (at least on the front), so this may be a reprinted image that was put back into circulation in the post WWII period. Again, it is hard to say with certainty as these images tended to get passed around and reprinted somewhat randomly.

The first two swords on the left are both patterns of dadao that are still encountered by collectors today. In fact, the first sword with the distinctive ring pommel and broken (probably brass) handguard was the most commonly produced type of dadao. The handle was generally wrapped with cord (sometimes with wooden inserts) to make it usable. The next sword to the left is notable for its wider blade. It appears to have lost its guard altogether (or perhaps it never received one).

The next three blades show a great deal of variety in both size and construction type. Readers should also notice the slender (probably Qing) era dao placed between the various bayonets. Along the bottom the image we see some archaic black powder firearms that were still in circulation and even a socketed spear head. A submachine gun rounds off this collection of weapons, once again adding an anachronistic flair.

One of the most interesting aspects of this image is the generally poor condition of these weapons. They look remarkably like many of random dadaos and lower quality swords that one might encounter at an auction house today. I must admit that I had always assumed that the missing handles and generally poor upkeep of these weapons had something to do with their age. But looking at this image (probably originally taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s), one wonders if perhaps a large percentage of the dadaos issued simply went into the field in an unfinished condition?


Selection Bias: A Double Trap

It might be tempting to look at this selection of images and to immediately draw some conclusions about how the Japanese individuals who bought and consumed them viewed the Chinese. Does this emphasis on traditional weapons betray a certain Orientalizing or infantilizing attitude? Does it constitute an implicit argument as to why Japanese Imperialism is not only necessary but ultimately beneficial?

I have heard a number of similar arguments made as scholars attempt to read similar images as historical texts. Some care is necessary in these exercises. To begin with, how much of the picture are we actually seeing?

I suspect that postcards like these are actually overrepresented in existing collections precisely because they are visually interesting. But how common were they in the 1940s? Recently I had a chance to see a number of other postcards produced in the same series as the first black and white example which we discussed above. All of these images were attempting to “educate” Japanese troops and other individuals as to the weapons that were encountered in Manchuria. But none of them (with the exception of the example given here) contained any traditional weapons at all. Instead they focused their attention on multiple patterns of modern rifles, submachine guns, handguns and poison gas gear. At least 80% of the series focused on modern weapons, yet I can’t find a single high quality image of these once more common postcards to share here.

Ultimately I would not discourage scholars from theoretically informed attempts to interpret or “read” the social meaning of these images. I believe that the exercise is quite fruitful. But some caution is in order. We must consider quite carefully whose discourse we are actually coming into contact with. Certainly we are not seeing the full totality of life under the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in these photographs. Only a tiny fraction of all of the available images was selected for distribution as postcards.

Yet over half a century later we rarely see more than a few of those. Instead we tend to encounter the elements of that discourse that found favor with more recent Japanese and Western collectors. These images survived and were reproduced precisely because they were congruent with the newly emerging discourse about China, WWII and the martial arts that arose in the current era. The Japanese soldiers being exposed to these postcards during WWII seem to have been (understandably) mostly concerned with the modern and deadly weapons in China’s arsenal. Yet the various patterns of bolt action rifles and sub-machine guns that characterized that conflict have faded in the popular imagination while the sword and bayonet have grown.

Nor is this challenge restricted to the realm of ephemera and postcards. Anyone looking at the history of popular culture needs to remember that these discourses usually come to us through multiple stages of evolution, each of which limits and colors what we see.


A rare period snap shot showing Chinese swords captured by Japanese during WWII.  Source: Author's personal collection.
A rare period snap shot showing Chinese swords captured by Japanese during WWII. Source: Author’s personal collection.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (22): Heavy Knives and Stone Locks – Strength Training in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts