1938 Changsha Fire

1938 Changsha Fire

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The Changsha Fire of 1938 , also known as Wenxi Fire , was the greatest human-caused city-wide fire that ever besieged China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

. It happened in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War
Second Sino-Japanese War
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan. From 1937 to 1941, China fought Japan with some economic help from Germany , the Soviet Union and the United States...

. The result of this fire made Changsha one of the most damaged cities during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, alongside Stalingrad, Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 and Nagasaki.


On October 25, 1938, the city of Wuhan fell
Battle of Wuhan
The Battle of Wuhan, popularly known to the Chinese as the Defence of Wuhan, and to the Japanese as the Capture of Wuhan, was a large-scale battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War...

 to the Empire of Japan
Empire of Japan
The Empire of Japan is the name of the state of Japan that existed from the Meiji Restoration on 3 January 1868 to the enactment of the post-World War II Constitution of...

. 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, the Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Army
-Foundation:During the Meiji Restoration, the military forces loyal to the Emperor were samurai drawn primarily from the loyalist feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū...

 entered northern Hunan
' is a province of South-Central China, located to the south of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River and south of Lake Dongting...

. On the 11th, Yueyang
Yueyang is a prefecture-level city at the northeastern corner of Hunan province, South Central China, on the southern shores of Dongting Lake.The Yueyang metropolitan area occupies 14,896 km². and the city proper occupies 304 km²...

 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
Chiang Kai-shek
Chiang Kai-shek was a political and military leader of 20th century China. He is known as Jiǎng Jièshí or Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng in Mandarin....

 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
Zhang Zhizhong
Zhang Zhizhong was a general in the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China. He was born in Chaohu, Anhui, and attended the Baoding Military Academy from which he graduated in 1916...

, 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.


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
Xiang River
The Xiang River , in older transliterations as the Siang River or Hsiang River, is a river in southern China...



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
The Kuomintang of China , sometimes romanized as Guomindang via the Pinyin transcription system or GMD for short, and translated as the Chinese Nationalist Party is a founding and ruling political party of the Republic of China . Its guiding ideology is the Three Principles of the People, espoused...

 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
Bank of Shanghai
Bank of Shanghai is a bank based in Shanghai in the People's Republic of China.In September 1999 and December 2001, Bank of Shanghai received equity investments from International Finance Corporation, HSBC and Shanghai Commercial Bank in Hong Kong....

, Jiaotong Bank and Bank of China
Bank of China
Bank of China Limited is one of the big four state-owned commercial banks of the People's Republic of China. It was founded in 1912 by the Government of the Republic of China, to replace the Government Bank of Imperial China. It is the oldest bank in 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
Embroidery is the art or handicraft of decorating fabric or other materials with needle and thread or yarn. Embroidery may also incorporate other materials such as metal strips, pearls, beads, quills, and sequins....

 factories were completely destroyed. Except for the Xiangya Hospital, every hospital in Changsha was burned to ground.

Later Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976...

 and Ye Jianying
Ye Jianying
Ye Jianying was a Chinese communist general and the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress from 1978 to 1983.-Biography:...

 were also present during the fire. A verbal description of the fire was written by Guo Moruo
Guo Moruo
Guo Moruo , courtesy name Dingtang , was a Chinese author, poet, historian, archaeologist, and government official from Sichuan, China.-Family history:Guo, originally named Guo Kaizhen, was born on November 10 or 16, in the small town of Shawan...

, who also happened to be in Changsha during the fire.


In Chinese, the character
Chinese character
Chinese characters are logograms used in the writing of Chinese and Japanese , less frequently Korean , formerly Vietnamese , or other languages...

 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 vegetables.

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
Battle of Changsha (1939)
Battle of Changsha was the first attempt by Japan to take the city of Changsha, China, during the second Sino-Japanese War. It was the first major battle of the war to fall within the timeframe of what's widely considered World War II.- Background and strategy :The war had already reached a...

, 1941
Battle of Changsha (1941)
The Battle of Changsha was Japan's second attempt at taking the city of Changsha, China, the capital of Hunan Province, as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War.-Overview:...

 and 1942
Battle of Changsha (1942)
The third Battle of Changsha was the first major offensive in China by Imperial Japanese forces following the Japanese attack on the Western Allies....

. The city did not fall until 1944 to the Japanese in the fourth battle of Changsha
Battle of Changsha (1944)
The Battle of Changsha , was an invasion of the Chinese province of Hunan by Japanese troops near the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War...

 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
Xiang River
The Xiang River , in older transliterations as the Siang River or Hsiang River, is a river in southern China...

. 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 major city that had not shifted its location over a 2000 year period. The fire, however, annihilated all the cultural accumulations that the city retained since the Spring and Autumn period. Historical artifacts above ground were completely wiped out, causing immeasurable loss of cultural heritage and damage to archaeological studies.