Modern Asian Studies

Part I: Experiencing China's War with Japan: World War II, 1937–1945

Building the Nation, Serving the Frontier: Mobilizing and Reconstructing China's Borderlands during the War of Resistance (1937–1945)*


a1 History, School of Humanities, Avenue Campus, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK Email:


The wartime period between 1937 and 1945 provided an exceptional opportunity for the Guomindang state to experiment with a wide array of schemes that sought to further its nation-state project in the borderland regions of China. Under the rubric of ‘frontier reconstruction’ (bianjiang jianshe) it devised a series of plans that encompassed both the economic and cultural transformations of these regions. This paper discusses a particular scheme devised by Chinese anthropologist, Li Anzhai (1900–1985), during his stay at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Labrang where he sought to transform borderland societies into a modern Chinese citizenry. A key aspect to his strategy was the mobilization of youth where trained cadres and students performed what became known as ‘frontier service’ (bianjiang fuwu) establishing a dialogue with the community's own particular demands by means of building schools, hospitals and agricultural projects. This paper argues that the notion of ‘frontier service’ and the ‘cultural reconstruction’ project propounded by Li not only sought to modernize and unify China around a distinct multicultural identity, it was also an important mobilizing force amongst sectors of wartime youth which arguably introduced young Han Chinese to a region which they had hitherto only imagined in the pre-war period.

(Online publication March 01 2011)


* The author would like to thank the British Academy and the University of Southampton for research and conference travel support that made important parts of this paper possible. The author is also indebted to Martha Smalley and Joan Duffy for their invaluable guidance whilst conducting research at the Yale Divinity Library Special Collections. Comments from Rana Mitter, Paul Nietupski, Lily Chang, and an anonymous Modern Asian Studies reviewer helped shape the final version of this paper. Portions of this paper were first presented at the Association of Asian Studies Conference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (26 March, 2010). The conference where this paper was presented was organized by the China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University, funded by the Leverhulme Trust ( [accessed 21 December, 2010]).