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Wenxi Fire

The Changsha Fire of 1938 (长沙大火), also known as Wenxi Fire (文夕大火), was the greatest human-caused city-wide fire that ever besieged China. It happened in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The result of this fire made Changsha one of the most damaged cities during World War II, alongside Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Contents

Background

On October 25, 1938, the city of Wuhan fell to the Empire of Japan. Soon after, a great number of refugees and injured soldiers, in addition to government institutions and factories, were relocated to Changsha. This caused a population boom in the city, and the number of residents jumped from 300,000 to more than 500,000. Though the city did prepare for this type of scenario for a long time, due to the limited transport capacity of Changsha, it still could not hold this amount of goods and people.

On October 8, Japanese invaders entered northern Hunan. On the 11th, Yueyang fell. Soon, Chinese and Japanese armies faced off along the Xinqiang River just outside of Changsha. The situation in the city became increasingly tense. Because of a lack of confidence in withholding the city, Chiang Kai-shek decided to burn the entire city. It was reasoned that with the city burned to the ground, Japan would gain nothing even if it chose to forcefully enter it. On November 10 (some say the 12th), the chairman of the Hunan government, Zhang Zhizhong, passed Chiang's idea to his subordinates in a meeting. An arson team was immediately organized. The team was dispatched to every corner of the city and was ordered to set the fire once a signal fire was set off on the top of Tianxin Building in the southwest of Changsha.

Events

At around 2 o'clock in the morning of November 13, 1938, there was a fire in a military hospital just outside of the South Gate (to this day, it remains a mystery whether the fire was a signal or an accident). The arson team took it as a signal and started to set the fire. The burning lasted for five days. At the end of it, historical antiques more than 2500 years old suddenly became ashes. City residents tried their best to escape, resulting in a severe boat accident at a river ford on the Xiang River.

Damage

More than 3000 people lost their lives during the fire. Over 90%, or 56,000, of the buildings were burned. The fire cost a total economic loss of 1 billion dollars, which account to 43% of the total output of the city. Government institutions that were destroyed include the provincial government headquarter, buildings housing the bureaus of civil affairs, construction, police, army mobilizations, security, telegraph, telephone, post as well as the courts, Kuomintang branches, chamber of commerce, central news agency, central radio station and several newspaper offices. More than 31 schools including the University of Hunan were also burned down. Banks destroyed include the Bank of Hunan, Bank of Shanghai, Jiaotong Bank and Bank of China. More than 40 factories were burned. The one that suffered the most was the First Textiles Factory of Hunan. The damage to this factory include $270,000 loss due to burned workshops; $960,000 to raw materials; $600,000 to machinery. Of the 190 rice mills and storage buildings, only 12 and half survived the fire. More than $2 million, or about 80% of the total, were lost in the silk industry. 40 Hunan embroidery factories were completely destroyed. Except for the Xiangya Hospital, every hospital in Changsha was burned to ground.

Later Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Ye Jianying were also present during the fire. A verbal description of the fire was written by Guo Moruo, who also happened to be in Changsha during the fire.

Aftermath

In Chinese, the character for 'wen' in the term 'Wenxi Fire' refers to the telegraph abbreviation code for the day of the month, whereas 'xi' (meaning 'night') refers to the time of the fire.

On November 18, in order to calm popular rage over the fire, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the executions of three accused in the case. Zhang Zhizhong, the chairman of the Hunan government, also subsequently resigned. They became the scapegoats for the incident.

On November 19, on the ruins of Changsha, food markets returned. But this time, there were 5 people selling meat and vegetable.

The Bell Tower and the Xiangya Hospital, which survived the carnage, became the living witnesses to the fire.

Chiang's fear proved wrong. The city repulsed three separate attacks against Japanese in 1939, 1941 and 1942. The city did not fall until 1944 to the Japanese in the fourth battle of Changsha although by that time the city no longer held strategic importance.

In July 2005, the first memorial commemorating the event in Changsha, a memorial wall on an old lamp company site, was built. The memorial wall is located on the bank of the Xiang River. In the same year, there was also erected a huge alarm clock carving as a tribute to the fire.

Lost history

Prior to the fire, Changsha was China's only city that has not shifted its location over a 2000 year period. The fire, however, annihilated all the cultural accumulations that the city retains since the Spring and Autumn period. Ground historical treasures were completely wiped out, causing an immeasurable damage to archaeological studies.

References

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