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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 13:56 GMT
Life in civil war Shanghai
Jack Birns
Jack Birns: Pictorial historian
A new book has been published showcasing many previously unseen photographs taken by an American photo-journalist based in Shanghai in the late 1940s.

Assignment: Shanghai is a picture-chronicle of life in China as an increasingly desperate population fell prey to the miseries of civil war.

It is the work of photographer Jack Birns, who arrived in war-torn China in December 1947, and remained there until Shanghai fell to communist forces in May 1949.

He was sent by the US publication Life, and during his time in China was their most prolific photographer.

Daily life in civil war China

"I was the only international photographer present for most of the time from 1947 to 1949... I brought a lot of stuff to the attention of the world," said Birns, who is now 84 and living in California.

After arriving on a troop ship with his pregnant wife, he soon realised that his assignment was more than just reporting daily news.

"I was a pictorial historian," he said.

He took so many pictures that there was not room for all of them between the covers of Life, and some of them are now published for the first time.


China was in a state of chaos when Birns arrived.

In the wake of the Japanese defeat in the Second World War, the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was struggling to contain the communist forces under Mao Zedong.

Consequently, the work of Jack Birns captured a society characterised by poverty, petty crime, homelessness and military rule.

Nationalist soldier on guard
Nationalist troops were holding out against communist forces
Refugees were pouring into Shanghai from the countryside, where they had been caught in the crossfire between the rival armies.

But it was often to a life of misery that they fled.

"Homeless, beggars, and no jobs... many starved," said Birns.

But only a few months later, it was refugees fleeing the city that he caught on film.

As Mao's fighters encircled Shanghai in 1949, thousands packed every available form of transport to try and escape the communists.

"They knew Shanghai was going to fall, and they knew China was going to fall," he said.

But these images of China did not always go down well with Birns' employer back in the United States.

Life magazine was owned by the publisher Henry Luce, who had been born in China and was a devout anti-communist.

He was therefore keen to show the nationalists in a good light.

So when Birns sent back photographs of a nationalist atrocity - the beheading of a communist general - Henry Luce ordered that they be pulled from the magazine.


But there were less dramatic depictions of the conflict between these opposing ideologies.

As Mao's communists gradually gained the upper hand, nationalist-controlled Shanghai still boasted western-style bill boards, advertising anything from cigarettes to stockings.

They were an interesting precursor to developments in late 20th century China, but for Jack Birns they represented a contradiction - "a western skin with a Chinese heart."

Amid his pictures of a world of uncertainty and suffering, one photograph stands out as a more hopeful image of the era.

It shows a nationalist soldier with a small bird - a dove - lying on his backpack.

It is one of Jack Birns' favourite pictures from his China days.

"I call it a dove of peace. Six months later the war was over. I call it a harbinger of the peace to come."


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