A review of “China’s War With Japan 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter

The Second World War is generally thought to be clearly delineated as taking place from 1939-1945, although the two major allied nations – the Soviet Union and the United States – did not enter the conflict until 1941. For China, though, the Second World War can be seen as a major period in a wider epoch of almost two decades of war.

This started with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, a humiliation about which the Chinese Government was able to do little. Open conflict between China and Japan broke out with the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 and did not end until the Americans dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. This was not the end of hostilities in China, however, since there was then a civil war between Nationalists and Communists until the latter won in 1949.

In this book, Rana Mitter, a British historian of Indian origin who specialises in the history of republican China, provides a brilliantly researched, well-written and commendably balanced account of the war of 1937-1945, although he frames the story with some information on the periods before and after.

This is not a simple tale of aggressor versus victim, since the Japanese were dealing with three different Chinese groups: the Nationalists in the south and centre led by Chiang Kai-shek headquartered in Chongqing, the Communists in the north under Mao Zedong based in Yan’an, and a collaborationist group in the east headed by Wang Jingwei based in Nanjing. Each of these three groups had changing relationships with the others and each ran an espionage network seeking out spies and dissenters.

As if this situation was not complicated enough, various areas were controlled by Chinese warlords who had evolving alliances with the three main Chinese groups. Corruption was rife and Chiang Kai-shek’s nickname was ‘Cash My Check’.

Most of Mitter’s account is focused on the Nationalists since they did almost all the fighting against the Japanese with the Communists confined to a guerilla campaign in northern China. The Nationalists maintained some four million troops in the most populated parts of China, helping to tie down some half a million or more occupying Japanese soldiers who could otherwise have beem transferred elsewhere.

It is a tragic story.

Mitter narrates the doomed attempt to defend Shanghai which involved more than 200,000 Chinese soldiers, the six-week ‘rape of Nanjing’ by Japanese soldiers in a horrific war crime which caused up to 300,000 deaths, the short-lived Chinese victory at Taierzhuang, Chiang’s decision to breach the dykes of the Yellow River causing the death of half a million Chinese, the Japanese victory at Tianjiazhen achieved with the use of poison gas, the Nationalist burning of Changsha to prevent it falling to the enemy. the endless Japanese bombing of the Nationalist capital Chongqing, a famine in Henan province which caused another four million Chinese deaths, and the messy fighting in Burma.

Meanwhile the United States felt unable to provide more than minimal resources and gave Chiang an American chief of staff Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell whose abrasiveness still echoes in Sino-American relations to this day.

Most people appreciate that the Soviet Union suffered a much, much larger death toll than other combatant nations, but very few comprehend the price paid by the Chinese. According to Mitter, the war against Japan resulted in an “unimaginably great” toll of between 14-20 million dead and 80-100 million refugees plus the devastation of infrastructure. He refers to China as “the forgotten ally” whose contribution to the war was not appreciated at the time and is still not widely understood.

Interestingly it is not just non-Chinese who have neglected the country’s wartime role; it is the Chinese themselves. Since most of the fighting against the Japanese was done by the Nationalists who lost a civil war to the Communists and fled to the island of Taiwan, the events of 1937-1945 do not fit into the mythology of the Chinese Communist Party being the source of all the nation’s success.

The war ended what the Chinese call ‘the century of humiliation’ (1842-1945), when a variety of imperial powers (notably Britain) controlled key parts of the country’s territory and trade, and the Chinese leadership is now determined to see the nation as a global power equal to the United States. As Ritter summarises the Chinese view: “at an earlier time when its contribution was needed, China delivered, and it should now be trusted as it seeks, once again, to enter international society playing a wider role”.


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