CHINA’S WAR WITH JAPAN, 1937-1945: The Struggle For Survival
by Rana Mitter
(London: Allen Lane/Penguin)
Hardcover: 480 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Everyone knows of Japan’s participation in World War II, but many are unaware of its protracted conflict with China.
Given that this struggle began four years before Pearl Harbor, that China at any one time was tying down a minimum of half a million Japanese soldiers who could have been used in South-East Asia or the Pacific, and that the Chinese lost between 14 and 20 million killed, this is a major oversight.
China had been subjugated by European countries and the United States during the 19th century; but the revolution of 1911 by Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang abolished the Manchu (or Qing) dynasty and set up an independent republic.
By 1928, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek had displaced their Communist rivals in the Kuomintang, and established a virtual dictatorship.
Japan had been forcibly opened up by the Americans in the middle of the 19th century, and promptly set out to modernise so that it could emulate the achievements of the Western imperialists.
In the 1890s Japan fought China over Korea and Taiwan, and then in 1931 it invaded Manchuria.
Its navy wanted Japan to strike south and create an empire in SE Asia, but its army wanted the rest of China.
In 1937, Japanese forces struck south from Manchuria into eastern China.
The initial clash at the Marco Polo Bridge in Wamping was followed by the Nanjing atrocity, an orgy of rape, torture and murder in which possibly more than a hundred thousand Chinese civilians died.
This was the prelude to eight years of suffering for the Chinese people, with the Japanese and their collaborationist puppets, led by Wang Jingwei, on one side, and the Nationalist and Communist armies on the other.
Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists were responsible for the far greater part of the fighting. They won few victories, and were often in retreat, but they survived. They did not surrender, and they kept their Japanese opponents preoccupied.
Unfortunately, the exigencies of war meant that they did not always endear themselves to the Chinese populace.
For example, in 1938 they blew up dykes on the Yellow River, producing floods which successfully blocked the westward thrust of the rampaging Japanese military, but also killed half a million peasants, and turned another four million into refugees.
The author Rana Mitter, who is professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford, brings out a number of the war’s pertinent aspects.
Today, the role of the Nationalists in fighting the Japanese is finally being acknowledged in publications and war museums across mainland China.
This follows decades of silence or misrepresentation by the Chinese Communist Party, during which the Communists were portrayed as leading the struggle against the invaders while Chiang Kai-shek shirked his duty.
After the Long March of 1934-5, Mao had set up a terror state based at Yan’an in Shaanxi, in China’s north. His armies engaged the Japanese in guerrilla warfare, but his top priority was to preserve his personnel and resources for the civil war against the Nationalists which would follow Japan’s defeat.
He carried out this policy with great success, and was then responsible, during his reign from 1949 to 1976, for the deaths of far more of his fellow-Chinese than were ever killed by the Japanese.
Professor Mitter’s story also reveals the irony that Stalin was more interested in supporting the Nationalists than his fellow ideologues of the Chinese Communist Party, in the struggle against the common enemy.
Another irony, in the light of the subsequent Cold War, was the widespread vilification of Chiang Kai-shek, and adulation of Mao, on the part of Americans, ranging from General Joe “Vinegar” Stilwell to New York Times war correspondents.
Now, as then, trying to portray the enigmatic Chiang Kai-shek as the heroic champion of liberalism, democracy and Christianity is merely fanciful, whereas attempting to portray Mao, history’s worst mass murderer, as the humanitarian father of the masses, is downright bizarre.
This is a story with which all those interested in modern history should acquaint — or reacquaint — themselves, and Professor Mitter tells it well.
Its repercussions continue to be heard in current events such as the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea, and Chinese fury over Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine war cemetery.