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An Awkward, but Potent, Fit Photographs and Political Narratives of the Tianjin Incidents During the Sino-Japanese Conflict, November 1931

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image of European Journal of East Asian Studies

In November 1931, Japanese-hired Chinese 'plainclothesmen' attacked strategic locations in the Chinese portions of Tianjin leading to the eruption of a mini war for most of the month. At the time the Chinese and Japanese sides engaged in a bitter dispute about the basic facts of the events. The use of photographs in the service of these conflicting narratives shows that on the Chinese side coverage emphasised the link between the plainclothesmen and Japan by contrasting Japanese aggression with Chinese victimhood. Photographs in Japanese sources portrayed an enclosed and claustrophobic Japanese concession surrounded by threats from Chinese agitators goaded on by the Nationalist government. In all versions, photographic content and political narrative often fit awkwardly. Captions, juxtaposition and accompanying news stories placed otherwise cryptic photographs in larger political narratives. The ubiquitous use of photographs indicates a belief in their power which derived from both their claim on veracity and their ability to create an emotional conenction with the viewer. As a political tool, the photograph functioned in public mass media where readers hungered for the poignant and sensational. In the end, veracity and emotional charge, political narrative and sensationalist photo, militarism and wartime reporting were all inextricably linked.

Affiliations: 1: University of Southern California;, Email:


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