H-Diplo Article Review 951 on Fredman.  “GIs and ‘Jeep girls’:  Sex and American Soldiers in Wartime China.”

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H-Diplo Article Review 951
20 May 2020

Zach Fredman.  “GIs and ‘Jeep girls’:  Sex and American Soldiers in Wartime China.”  Journal of Modern Chinese History 13:1 (2019):  76-101.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/17535654.2019.1618627.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Walter E. Grunden, Bowling Green State University

Fraternization has been an eternally vexing problem for occupying armies throughout world history.  To diminish discord between the two empires and cultures of Greece and Persia, for example, Alexander of Macedon famously arranged marriages between his officers and Persian noblewomen as a symbol of unity.  Even among allies, however, the mingling of the sexes has also been problematic.  In his article, “GIs and ‘Jeep girls’,” Zach Fredman, an assistant professor of history at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu, China, illustrates how sexual relations between American soldiers (GIs) and the Chinese women who consorted with them, euphemistically labeled ‘Jeep girls’ because they were often seen riding with servicemen in these vehicles, led to violence committed against United States military personnel in China during World War II. Although the soldiers had initially been welcomed as “allied friends” in 1942, Fredman argues that by spring 1945, “the US Army had worn out its welcome in China” (76).  Chinese civilians came to associate American GIs with “inflation, black marketeering, reckless driving, and alcohol-fueled violence” (76).  More than anything else, however, it was resentment over the sexual relations between American soldiers and Chinese women that exacerbated anti-American resentment and ultimately “catalyzed a violent backlash” (76).

Fredman meticulously documents the atrocious behavior of American servicemen in China and the very serious impact that it had upon Sino-U.S. relations during the war.  Fredman begins by framing the discussion as “two interrelated, patriarchal narratives about sexual relations” that emerged by early 1945 (77).  In the first narrative, Fredman explains that for Chinese women, being labeled a ‘Jeep girl’ was tantamount to being branded “a traitor and a whore” (77).  In the second, American GIs were implicated in “snatching ‘respectable’ women off the streets and raping them” (77).  Either way, whether the women willingly entered these relationships or were raped, both narratives “portrayed Chinese women’s bodies as territory to be recovered and inextricable from national sovereignty” (77).  Thus, Fredman’s central thesis posits that “Sexual relations sparked a violent backlash because Jeep girls became the catalyst through which all the variables causing resentment against the US military presence intersected and converged.  Jeep girls represented the alliance’s humiliating asymmetry by symbolizing American dominance over Chinese men” (77).

The first section of the article examines the “Jeep girl-as-prostitute narrative” and considers how both the Americans and the Chinese contributed to its cultural construction.  Fredman argues that the U.S. military stigmatized Chinese women as “racially unsuited to marriage” with the issuing of Circular 179, which prohibited military personnel serving outside the U.S. from marrying without a commanding officer’s approval (78).  Such approval, however, was not likely to be forthcoming, even though U.S. military officers themselves were known to take Chinese mistresses.  Fredman notes that Claire Chennault, commander of the Fourteenth Air Force, for example, was somewhat notorious for committing adultery with Chinese women.  Marriage between American servicemen and Chinese women became even more difficult with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, which now required permission to marry from the theater commander instead of the immediate commanding officer.  As a result, Fredman reports, “not a single GI got married in China until June 3, 1945” (78) and, “by deeming all but the smallest fraction of Chinese women as racially unsuited to marriage, US policy made any Chinese woman who associated with American personnel vulnerable to being labeled a prostitute” (79). Indeed, he argues, the U.S. Army “tacitly encouraged prostitution among China-bound personnel” (79).

Understandably, fraternization caused friction and resentment in China’s socially conservative culture of the time.  Young women were typically prohibited from spending time alone with young men in any case, but the mixing of races added another level of taboo.  By early 1945, Jeep girls were being attacked both figuratively and literally.  Editorial pages in the local press in Chengdu, for example, argued adamantly that Chinese women “ought to attend to Chinese men” and particularly those who were serving on the front lines fighting the Japanese (82).  Newspaper campaigns condemned the behavior of the ‘modern girls’ who were described as “deceitful, greedy, and reckless young women who idolized the West and threatened China’s national strength” (82).  Such campaigns, Fredman argues, were aimed “to reappropriate women’s bodies from American soldiers” (82).  Because the press had to be careful about leveling direct criticism of the Nationalist (Guomindang) government and the U.S. military, the women themselves became scapegoats for the social disturbance engendered by fraternization.

The second section of the essay examines how the sexual misconduct of U.S. service personnel contributed to the Jeep girl-as-rape-victim narrative.  Fredman presents several carefully documented cases of sexual assault committed by U.S. servicemen against a range of Chinese women, young and old, single and married, as well as physical assaults against Chinese men, such as the husbands and fathers who attempted to intervene.  Fredman details the difficulty Chinese women faced in proving rape, stating: “a US military court required evidence that sexual penetration had occurred and that the victim had resisted to the full extent that she was able. Such evidence was difficult – if not impossible – to obtain weeks or months after an alleged crime had transpired” (86).  Fredman also illustrates convincingly how communication barriers contributed to the spread of “rape hysteria” (87) among local populations.

In the third section of the essay, titled “Backlash,” Fredman documents how Chinese men responded.  While there were opportunistic attacks on drunken servicemen as they exited bars, or when they were outnumbered in the streets, Chinese men more often targeted the women, not the American men.  This reaction Fredman likens to the French tonte ritual from the European theater of war, “in which Frenchmen reasserted their masculinity and the virility of France itself by shaving the heads and ripping the clothes of women who had slept with German soldiers” (88). The U.S. Army conducted its own investigations and concluded that “American misconduct lay at the root of the crisis” (88).  Although General Albert Wedermeyer, commander of U.S. forces in China and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff, acknowledged the problem and issued a memorandum on May 16, 1945 admonishing all American service personnel to conduct themselves appropriately, in the end, he blamed a “small minority” of GIs for creating the crisis as well as an orchestrated media campaign for exacerbating it (91). Wedermeyer’s complaint to Chiang resulted in censorship of the press concerning sexual assaults as well as an apparent decrease in the reporting of rape cases, so it is impossible to determine whether such incidents actually declined or whether they continued but just went unreported. Chiang’s perceived lack of urgency or concern in leveling a harsher response to the U.S. military was only one more strike against him for a Chinese populace that had already lost faith in the Guomindang regime.

Fredman is to be commended for taking on a very difficult subject and handling it with such judiciousness.  Skillfully drawing upon both Chinese and U.S. archival sources, Fredman presents a compelling argument, and he is careful to document each case with precision.  The prose is refreshingly clear, but also stark at times given the subject matter.  The essay makes an important contribution to the scant secondary literature on the American military experience in China, particularly for its focus on fraternization and the sexual misconduct of U.S. service personnel, which has not been widely studied.[1] In this regard, the essay serves as a fine complement to Adam Cathcart’s discussion of Jeep girls in his broader study of graphic representations of U.S. military personnel in wartime China.[2]

While there is much to praise about the quality of Fredman’s research, prose, and clarity of argument, his conclusion gives this reviewer pause.  He states, “Friction over sexual relations poisoned Sino-American ties on the ground in China more than any other factor” (95), and he doubles down on this claim in the abstract by stating, “Sexual relations were not the Sino-US alliance’s seedy underside, but the core site of its tensions” (77). Given the array of problems plaguing the Sino-U.S. alliance during World War II, including Chiang’s intractable behavior and corruption, his uneasy relationship with the equally mercurial General Joseph Stilwell, and managing the tenuous alliance with the Communists, Fredman’s assertion seems like a bit of an overstatement. But he makes such a compelling case that one certainly has to rank the issue of the ‘Jeep girls’ highly in the long list of problems that afflicted Sino-U.S. relations during the war.  This reviewer looks forward to reading the longer treatment in Fredman’s forthcoming monograph, From Allied Friend to Mortal Enemy: The US Military in Wartime China, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.  If this essay is a preview, then the book will be well worth the wait.


Walter E. Grunden is a Professor in the Department of History at Bowling Green State University.  His current research examines the origins of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program.  His book Secret Weapons & World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science was published by the University Press of Kansas (2005).



[1] On fraternization, prostitution, and sexual misconduct of U.S. military personnel as well as related literature concerning China in general, see: Beth L. Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Robert J. Lilly, Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe during World War II (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Mary Louise Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); and Robert Shaff, “A Rape in Beijing: December 1946, GIs Nationalist Protestors, and US Foreign Policy,” Pacific Historical Review 69:1 (2002): 31-64.

[2] Adam Cathcart, “Atrocities, Insults, and ‘Jeep Girls’: Depictions of the US Military in China,” International Journal of Comic Art 10:1 (2008): 140-154.