Occupational Hazard: American Servicemen’s Sensory Encounters with China, 1945–1949

Chunmei DU*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


In January 1947, William W. Lockwood, future president of the Association for Asian Studies, who had served for eighteen months as a U.S. Army officer in China, wrote that the “first venture in large scale American tourism in China” caused “many sour, even hostile, reactions to the Chinese.” He asked: Did millions of returned young GIs “gain a sympathetic and tolerant understanding of that world? Or were their home town prejudices simply confirmed?” This intriguing question should be understood not only as a critical reflection on the U.S. wartime presence in China, but also in the context of U.S. postwar involvement in the region.

The expanding U.S. military presence after World War II exposed tens of thousands of servicemen and women to lives beyond their comfort zones back home. While performing assigned missions, determined by high-level diplomatic exchanges, political negotiations, and military strategies, U.S. soldiers on the ground often forged intimate connections with local populations by exchanging goods, services, language, and culture. These encounters both followed and contradicted official policies and popular representations. The rich corpus of studies on the U.S. military overseas has demonstrated that existing hierarchies of gender, race, and class informed attitudes, policies, and practices on both sides, and can be traced to earlier imperial traditions and colonial institutions. Meanwhile, recent Cold War international history has broadened the scope of inquiry to include accounts of various types of informal cultural exchanges by previously neglected groups, ranging from artists, tourists, and immigrants to military families. Christina Klein, for example, has identified the late 1940s and 1950s as a distinct cultural moment during which Americans became fascinated with Asia and the Pacific through the proliferation of popular cultural productions. Thanks to the empire’s unprecedented expansion in the region during the Cold War, Americans produced and consumed a proliferation of new plays, movies, novels, and nonfiction books about Asia. If these works helped to propagate the new ideology of global integration accompanied by mutual understanding and benefits, the large number of U.S. troops, which an Army official guide to China called “ambassador[s] of the American people,” formed a direct force of grassroots diplomacy. Together with the letters, memoirs, photos, souvenirs, reports, and stories they brought home, American soldiers’ intimate encounters abroad encompassed and went beyond mere cultural representation to shape postwar American identities and locals’ perceptions of the United States in significant ways.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberdhac076
Pages (from-to)55-84
JournalDiplomatic History
Issue number1
Early online date7 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


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