Journal of e-Media Studies, Special Issue: 6.1 (2022)

The USIS, China, and the Postwar Order: The Film Catalogue as Archive Map

by Hongwei Thorn Chen

Tulane University 

The organization known as the United States Information Service (USIS) came into existence in China in December of 1941, when the Foreign Information Service (FIS) under the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) appointed the journalist F. McCracken Fisher to head an office in Chongqing, the Nationalist (Guomindang) capital in the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945). Entrusted with the task of communicating the U.S. view of the world war, Fisher’s office and those in several other Chinese cities built a sizable infrastructure for news distribution, radio broadcasts, film projection, and educational programming by war’s end.1 Known in Mandarin as the meiguo xinwenchu, these offices comprised a local front for a shapeshifting array of Washington bureaucracies. Between 1941 and 1953, they answered to the COI, the Office of War Information (OWI), and the State Department’s Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs (OIICA) before it was absorbed into the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).2 The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese civil war (1945-1949) and the subsequent U.S.-China conflict in the Korean war (1950-1953) pushed the USIS’s China-branches to British-controlled Hong Kong and Guomindang-controlled Taiwan, occasioning further displacements of institutional continuity. 

To speak of a “USIS China archive” across these historical and institutional ruptures is to engage in a process of reconstruction that cannot take for granted the given arché of state archives and the organizational structures they reflect. Instead, we might envision the USIS/meiguo xinwenchu as a translingual signifier that connects a dispersed web of documents, institutional actors, and practices. On the one hand, the records of the COI, the OWI, the State Department, and USIA (housed at the National Archives and Records Administration) remain indispensable for mapping lines of institutional continuity and discontinuity. Yet, a different picture emerges when we look for the meiguo xinwenchu in Chinese-language sources, which show how the USIS became part of local networks of print circulation, radio broadcast, educational reform, cultural exchange, and film distribution.  

I first encountered traces of the USIS China archive while conducting research for my dissertation (and now book project) on Chinese educational film practices in the 1930s and 1940s.3 During this period, the Guomindang state, supported by international organizations, built a sizable infrastructure for the import, production, distribution, and exhibition of 16mm films for the purposes of mass education. Part of the book examines how this nation-building project became entangled in Great Power agendas via systems of technology transfer and institutional knowledge production. The USIS became a part of this landscape in 1942, when the Japanese invasion of Burma cut off the only land route into “Free China,” making airlift over the Himalayas (known as “the Hump”) the only means of supplying Chiang Kai-shek’s government with supplies.4 The OWI and the State Department’s Cultural Relations program, working with the Army Signal Corps, arranged for projectors, films, filmstrips, and microfilmed periodicals to accompany tanks, guns, medicine, and reinforced steel over the Hump.5 Chinese educational film institutions, which had long been dependent on imports, turned to the USIS office in Chongqing as their source for projectors, sound equipment, and films, the latter which supplemented the meager supply of domestic titles produced by the University of Nanking (Jinling University) and the China Educational Film Studio.6 Such patterns of dependency continued into the postwar period, as the civil war and escalating inflation hindered plans to build a self-sufficient state-run film network and the USIS became an important film supplier as part of U.S. programs of cultural aid and educational exchange. 

The bilingual film catalogs distributed by the USIS offer us a window into its work in curating and distributing U.S.-produced educational, military training, and propaganda motion pictures to Chinese film practitioners, and by extension, Chinese audiences. Film catalogs are important paratexts for film historians, serving as documents of how distributors pre-interpret films to facilitate their circulation to prospective users.7 I came across two USIS-film catalogs in the course of my research, one in the Chongqing municipal archives, where it was attached to a letter from the American Consulate,8 and the other in the Shanghai library’s Republican-era reading room, where it stood as a standalone publication [Figure 1].9 

Both catalogs are from after the war and list a variety of American nonfiction titles that could be borrowed from USIS offices, including wartime OWI films such as Why We Fight (Frank Capra, 1944), U.S. Signal Corps training films, New Deal documentaries, and a repertoire of educational sound films by commercial producers such as Eastman, Erpi and Devry.10 However, the entries for the films in the catalogs do not contain information addressing their diverse production contexts, supplying only title, synopsis, format, language, and runtime, leading the uninformed reader to assume a unitary origin. The Shanghai catalog, the more extensive of the two, lists a total of one hundred and fifty-four films categorized into twenty-three subjects that include Aeronautics, Agriculture, Chemistry, History, Public Health, and United States Life [Figure 2]. The catalog’s encyclopedic organization flattens what in reality was a far more chaotic assortment of wartime propaganda and training films, commercial educational fare, and sponsored government productions made for a variety of audiences into seemingly transparent categories, suggesting that motion pictures could be assimilated into existing configurations of knowledge. Such a view that film was medium of information, as opposed to a distinctive dramatic art, was shared by Chinese educators, who placed motion pictures in a pantheon of technologies that could be used, as the educational cinematographer Sun Mingjing put it, to “introduce impressions, represent realities, transmit thoughts, and express sentiments.”11

Through its presentation, the catalog fit into an epistemological framework shared between the USIS and Chinese film projectionists and educators, rendering it easily usable for the latter. The booklet also made ingenious use of the opposed reading orders of English and Chinese in its bilingual formatting, such that the English text was printed on the front-facing pages (from the perspective of a reader of English), and the Chinese text proceeded on every “back” page. No reader would be forced to flip the book in a direction to which they would not have been accustomed. This sensitive act of cultural diplomacy reflected the makeup of the USIS staff, many of whom were China-born Americans and reputed China scholars who collaborated with their counterparts in Chinese institutions.12 In this sense, the booklet emblematized an emerging modality of transpacific exchange premised, as Richard Jean So argues, on a “coeval, shared sense of temporal experience” made possible by high-speed networks of communication and transportation.13 As such, it also formed the terrain for new strategies of empire and national autonomy, based not on unilateral control of territory but collaboration and struggle over uneven networks of communication and logistics.  

It is indeed possible to understand the USIS presence in China as an expression of logistical and communicative power exercised by multiple agents across coeval networks. The film catalogs I discuss above existed primarily for the benefit of Chinese educational institutions, which ran mobile projection teams that brought USIS films to Chinese audiences, interpreting with their own aims in mind. In a 1943 Public Opinion Quarterly article, David Nelson Rowe, special assistant to the ambassador in Chongqing, complained about this situation, suggesting that the dissemination of news through organs controlled by foreign governments placed the U.S. in the “position of an advertising manager who has not yet decided what he is advertising.”14 Meanwhile, Chinese film practitioners noted their unease at the oversupply of U.S. films in their programs. In a 1943 report, for example, the student projectionist Wang Chaozhang reeled in horror at the thought that, after viewing US-supplied filmstrips, “the ordinary non-newspaper reading person only sees the allied forces at war, not even knowing how much blood our own country has spilled in search of victory.”15 Reacting to the screening of a U.S. Department of Agriculture film about soy, a postwar critic exclaimed in dismay that “we are educating our farmers with other people’s films, with the aid of Chinese film education workers!”16 Envisioning USIS in China as a dispersed local archive makes it possible to understand its institutionality as a product of both the agendas of its officers and those of its Chinese interlocutors working in a shared network. This approach moreover enables us to map how USIS participated in the local struggles that gave rise to the hegemony of “information” as the new keyword of the postwar order. 

Hongwei Thorn Chen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Program in Asian Studies at Tulane University. He received his PhD in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Chen’s work examines how media shape rationalities of government, a subject he explores in his book manuscript, "Governing the Audio-visual: Educational Film in China, 1917–1952." Chen’s writing has appeared in Wide Screen and The Journal of Chinese Cinemas. The research for this article has been generously funded by the Social Science Research Council Mellon-International Dissertation Research Fellowship. 
Title Image: "Film Catalogue of the US Information Service China", circa 1947

The USIS, China, and the Postwar Order: The Film Catalog as Archive Map © 2022 by Hongwei Thorn Chen is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The Journal of e-Media Studies is published by the Dartmouth Library.