An Inspirational, Crucial Battle in Shanghai in 1937: The Battle of 800 Heroes

A famous battle in Shanghai at the boundary of the International Concession Area in front of the world’s mass media that lasted five days (October 26-31, 1937) inspired the whole Chinese nation in a dark hour in Chinese modern history.  That is known as the “Defense of the Sihang Warehouse (四行仓库),” or “The Battle of 800 Heroes,” and sometimes referred to as “China’s Alamo.”

Japan invaded China on September 18, 1931 and started the Second Sino-Japanese War that lasted until the end of WWII in 1945.  However, massive wide-scale military battles did not begin until the July 7, 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident when Japan crossed the Marco Polo Bridge and invaded Beijing.  Shortly after that, Japan’s forces descended on Shanghai   Although Japan at that time openly proclaimed that they would conquer all of China in three months.  But it took them more than three months (August 13, 1937-November 26, 1937) just to conquer Shanghai.  The Battle of Shanghai showed Japan and the world that the Chinese people would not give up easily and would resist Japan’s aggression with their hearts and souls.

After about two months of the Battle of Shanghai, The Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek realized that they would eventually lose in a head-on battle with Japan in Shanghai, and would cause a huge number of casualty of the Nationalist forces. So he decided to retreat most of his forces to the western rural areas of Shanghai and eventually even further west to Chongqing (formerly known as Chungking) which became China’s capital during the rest of the war. To give time for the hundreds of thousands of Nationalist troops to retreat, they put a small number of troops in a large strongly fortified building that the Japanese troops would have to pass to chase after the retreating Nationalist forces. Chiang Kai-shek thought that if the Japanese advance could be stalled until an early November 1937 meeting of the Nine Nation Foreign Powers, then perhaps these foreign powers would criticize Japan for her aggression and perhaps even provide some assistance to the Chinese.

The large strongly fortified building was the Sihang Warehouse located right on the north side of the Suzhou River. This was a large (over 1,800 square meters) six-story building that served as the warehouse for four large Chinese banks, and had thick reinforced concrete walls. On the south side of the Suzhou River was the International Concession Area where large number of citizens of Great Britain, France, Germany, U.S., Russia, and other Western powers reside. Because it was so near the International Concession Area, the Japanese forces did not dare to use artillery fire from their naval ships docked at Shanghai or drop bombs from their bombers to destroy the Sihang Warehouse, for fear that a misfire could anger the Western powers and cause them to join in the war against Japan. So it was an ideal choice for its purpose. Since its purpose was only to slow down the advance of the Japanese troops and it appeared to be a suicidal mission, the Nationalist government put only a few hundred troops in the warehouse, because it could not afford to lose more troops. The number of troops was only about 420 or battalion size from the 88th Division, but it was publicized to the world as 800 in order to make Japan think that there was a stronger defense. This defense of the Sihang Warehouse became known as the Battle of the 800 Heroes.

Below is a photo of the Sihang Warehouse taken on July 10, 2015 (clicking on the photo can enlarge the photo).  The holes were the results of cannon attacks by Japanese troops during the five-day battle October 26-November 1, 1937.

Now the Shanghai Sihang Warehouse Battle Memorial: Cannon holes were kept as reminder of the fierce battles in 1937.

Now the Shanghai Sihang Warehouse Battle Memorial: Cannon holes were kept as reminder of the fierce battles in 1937.

The commander of the Sihang Warehouse defense was Lietenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan (謝晉元), who actually volunteered for this mission. Faced with the Japanese forces numbered more than 200,000, Xie knew that this was a dangerous and most likely a suicidal mission, so he had already written his “farewell” letter to his wife. In a meeting with all his troops, while explaining to them the importance of their mission and rallying their morale, he also instructed them to each write a farewell letter to their family. Since many of the regular army members were already killed during the previous two months of the Battle of Shanghai, many of the 400+ defenders were young new recruits from the nearby area. A lot of them were 15, 16, or 17 year old who were not highly educated, and had never written a letter before, and sometimes didn’t even know how to write. Xie instructed the older or more educated soldiers to help the young or less educated soldiers to write their farewell letters. It was a highly emotional meeting where many tears were shed, but also created close bonds among the soldiers.

Although many of the defenders were young and inexperienced, they fought with all their might and heart. They successfully fought back every attempt by the Japanese troops to attack the warehouse, while suffering only small casualty. The following incident illustrates the bravery of these young soldiers. A large number of Japanese soldiers under the cover of large metal plates over them were trying to dig and insert dynamite under a wall of the building, upon seeing that their bullets couldn’t penetrate the metal plates, a young 21 year old soldier, Chen Shusheng (陈树生), tied a dozen hand grenades to his body and jumped out of the building and exploded the grenades among the Japanese soldiers, sacrificing himself but keeping the wall from being destroyed.

Because the Sihang Warehouse was located just across the river from the International Concession Area, it was closely watched by the Chinese and Western people and media. During the day, hundreds or even thousands of people would line the streets across the Suzhou River to observe the actions. The Chinese observers would cheer whenever the Chinese defenders had any success. At night, truckloads of supplies, donated by Chinese citizens, would be delivered to the defenders. Under the cover of darkness at night on the evening of October 28, 1937, Yang Huimin (杨惠敏), a young Chinese 22 year-old girl scout, delivered a Republic of China flag and other things to the Chinese defenders. [1]  On the morning of October 29, 1937, 30,000 Chinese citizens across the river cheered wildly when they saw the Chinese flag flying on top of the Sihang Warehouse. The defense of the Sihang Warehouse became a symbol of the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion, and boosted morale all over China, as well as overseas. There was wide coverage of the defense of the Sihang Warehouse by the international media. As a matter of fact, the November 8, 1937 issue of Time Magazine had an article on the defense of the Sihang Warehouse. [2]

After about five days of fierce battle and losing about 200 Japanese soldiers while the Chinese side lost only about 10 soldiers, the Japanese realized that it would take many more days to subdue the defenders at the warehouse while losing many more Japanese soldiers.  The foreigners in the International Concession Area also didn’t want the battle to be so close to them.  So the foreign powers, with concurrence from Japan, submitted a petition to the Chinese Nationalist Government to stop the fighting for “humanitarian concerns.” To Chiang Kai-shek, the battle was already won as most of the Chinese troops in Shanghai had already retreated and successfully redeployed to defend more favorable positions, and this battle had already caught the attention of the Western world. So he agreed for the defending Chinese soldiers to retreat.  An agreement was reached with the Western powers and Japan for the Chinese defending troops to retreat to the foreign concessions and then rejoin the Chinese 88th Division.  However, later Japan reneged on the agreement, and threatened Britain with invasion to their concession area if the Chinese troops were allowed to rejoin the 88th Division.   So British troops seized all the weapons of the Chinese soldiers and placed them under arrest.  They were detained by the British for more than three years until after the Pearl Harbor attack. During their detainment, many Chinese citizens and groups visited them, gave them performances, and even taught them foreign languages, mathematics, and other subjects.

When Great Britain and the U.S. declared war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack and Japan’s invasion of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya, the Japanese forces occupied the foreign concessions in Shanghai and captured the Chinese soldiers.  Then the Chinese soldiers were shipped off to various places to do hard labor.  Thirty six of them were sent to Papua New Guinea to do hard labor, and in 1945 when the war went against Japan, they overpowered their captors and took them prisoners instead.

While Xie and the Chinese defenders were still detained by the British, Japan offered Xie to free his troops if they all disarm and left Shanghai as refugees, not as soldiers.  Xie did not agree to these terms.   After rejecting several offers from Wang Jingwei’s government, a Chinese puppet, collaborative government of Japan after the Nationalists retreated to Chongqing, Xie was assassinated on April 24, 1941 by four members of his own troops, who were bribed by Wang Jingwei.  All four attackers were immediately captured. Xie died as a national hero.  More than 100,000 people turned up for his funeral, and he was posthumously made a brigadier general of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army.

The Defense of the Sihang Warehouse has since been revered as the Battle of 800 Heroes.  It is also sometimes referred to as “China’s Alamo.”  Unlike the Alamo, the Chinese defenders did not all died.  As a matter of fact, most of them survived.  This Battle of 800 Heroes became a rallying cry all over China, as well as among oversea Chinese to build up support and raise morale and confidence that China will ultimately defeat Japan in this Second Sino-Japanese War.


[1] Sometimes one may read articles that state that she delivered the flag by swimming across the Suzhou River.  Most likely that was an exaggeration, and she might have delivered the flag through another method, perhaps through a not-well-known back door or hole on one of the rear walls of the Sihang Warehouse.

[2] When the New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (NJ-ALPHA) visited Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai as part of the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Asia Study Tour in July 2015, the Sihang Warehouse was just being converted to a museum.  Since it was not quite finished and it was raining hard, we stayed inside our bus parked in front of the museum and heard an excellent talk by Mr. Zhang Zhong (张众), Vice Bureau Chief of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs of Zhabei District in Shanghai.  He told us about the Time Magazine article, and wondered whether we can help them get a copy.  Upon returning home, one of the teachers participating in our tour found a copy for sale at e-bay.  NJ-ALPHA purchased this copy and has given it to Mr. Zhang, and it will be displayed in the Sihang Warehouse Museum. I want to thank Mr. Zhang for giving us such an excellent talk, which became the basis of this article. I also want to thank Mr. Wu Zukang (吴祖康) for helping us to arrange this visit.


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2 Responses to “An Inspirational, Crucial Battle in Shanghai in 1937: The Battle of 800 Heroes”

  1. Jack Peng says:

    This is Jack Peng. After 1937, my dad along with a delegate visited U.S. to get support for the Chinese government in fighting against the invading Japanese. My dad was the official translator for her as well as the delegation. I do NOT think Yang Huimin was only 12 years old to deliver that flag by swimming across the Suzhou River. You did a great job to describe that famous battle to resist Japanese aggression.

  2. Richard Farng says:

    I cried while reading and after reading. we should boycott all Japanese goods.

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