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The Historical Record for December 24: The Christmas Eve Rape of Student Shen|
December 24th, 2008 ·
Around 8:00 p.m. on December 24, 1946, a group of American marines including 23-year old Corporal William Pierson and Private William Pritchard snatched Beijing University student Shen Chong off the streets near Dongdan in Beijing, dragged her to the adjacent Polo Grounds (what is today the Dongdan basketball courts) and raped her. A group of workers heard her cries for help but –intimidated by the American soldiers — they didn’t intervene and instead ran to report the crime to the joint Sino-American Police Force tasked with keeping order in the city. Pierson was arrested later that night.
The crime electrified the Beijing intelligentsia. The fact that the two soldiers were tried in an American military court with limited Chinese involvement recalled memories of colonial extraterrioriality. Moreover, the assault raised the question of why American troops were continuing to occupy key Chinese cities a year after the Japanese surrender. Many students, academics, and intellectuals, already predisposed to sympathize with the CCP and leftist groups at the expense of Chiang Kai-shek’s government, used the case of Shen Chong’s rape to call for immediate US withdrawal from China, accusing the Americans of being in league with Chiang and possibly planning to return China to colonial status: an American puppet or pawn in the coming war against the Soviets. Within a week, strikes and demonstrations involving thousands of people spread throughout China.
While rape and abuse of women by American (and other) soldiers was an unfortunate fact of life in many Chinese cities at the time, the intersection of imperialism, race, class, and gender practically guaranteed that Shen Chong’s rape would particularly touch a nerve with China’s educated elite. For the students in Beijing, Shen was one of them. When asked about the behavior of Chinese soldiers, a student association leader replied that those soldiers “bothered only peasants and did not molest Chinese intellectuals.” As in other times and places, there was a close relationship between class and the regulation of (female) sexual purity.
The idea of Shen Chong, the image of scholarly virtue and feminine purity, being held down and savaged by barbaric invaders in the heart of China’s cultural capital enraged Chinese, particularly young males. It’s not a stretch to see why. In colonial and conquest situations throughout Chinese history, there has been a pattern of men holding up elite women as symbolic vessels of virtue. In cases of violation/pollution, the anger against the invader/attacker is compounded by a sense of impotence felt by the society who failed to adequately protect the symbolic sanctity of the Women/state/nation.
On an international level, the case galvanized Chinese public opinion against the American occupation, especially among the intellectual classes, making it increasingly difficult for the US forces to play the role of liberator, a situation the Americans did little to help through their handling of the case. A US Navy doctor who examined Miss Shen suggested that had rape occurred, there would have been more (!) bruising on the thighs and buttocks. The US Consulate feared that compensating Shen would inspire similar claims against GIs from other Chinese women of ‘loose morals.’ There was an implicit assumption about “Miss Shen’s” reflected in the cartoons and stories of Asian temptresses which were common reading fodder for American servicemen in the Pacific. As in other colonial/wartime contexts, Chinese female sexuality was reduced to the insatiable dragon lady always on the prowl for new conquests because of the assumed impotence (military defeat equaling sexual impotence) of her ‘natural’ mate, the Chinese male. And who better to stand in than her (China’s) liberator, the American GI? Such images were depressingly common at the time, and still occasionally appear in popular culture today.
While no single incident can be blamed for the eventual failing of trust between the Chinese people and the American government, cases like the brutal rape of student Shen did not inspire confidence in American motivations in China. It is telling too that these issues of gender, class, and national sovereignty still hang heavy today in Japan, Korea, China, the Middle East, or wherever lingering fears of colonization and conquest intersect with issues of sex and sexual violence.
Sources and further reading:
Robert Shaffer. “A Rape in Beijing, December 1946: GIs, Nationalist Protests, and U.S. Foreign Policy”
The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 31-64
Cook, James A. “Penetration and neocolonialism: the Shen Chong rape case and the anti-American student movement of 1946-47.” Republican China, Vol. 22 (1996), pp. 65-97.
Hong Yang, “The Shen Chong Rape Case and the Kang Bao (Anti-Brutality) Movement, 1946-1947,” in America Perceived: The Making of Chinese Images of the United States, 1945-1953 (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002)