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China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival

China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival

Martin Lavicka14 Aug 2015Leave a comment


Written by Sylva Martinásková

Rana Mitter: China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival. Allen Lane, 2013. ISBN: 9781846140105.

The modern history of China, as seen from the perspective of Western readers, is often reduced to the Opium Wars and the Cultural Revolution, while many other significant incidents of the 1930s and 1940s are overlaid by the Cold War of the following decades. When the Second Sino-Japanese War is discussed, among the main topics are usually the Nanjing massacre, the Chinese collaborationists, and recently also Unit 731 or the “comfort women”. The discussions concerning this conflict also quite often deal with our inability to get to the real number of casualties in Nanjing, the brutality of Japanese troops, and Japanese propaganda which – together with censorship – effectively managed to conceal most of the unpleasant facts. However, the eight-year-long Sino-Japanese War contains much more we should be aware of. There are still many incidents, causes and consequences, and persons involved that deserve more attention, yet are frequently neglected and ignored. Rana Mitter, the Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and a Fellow of St Cross College, tries to fill in these gaps with his recent book China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (2013).

The book is divided into four parts altogether consisting of 19 chapters, and a prologue and an epilogue. Mitter makes the readers face the horror of war in medias res. The prologue of the book (“City on Fire”) begins in the Chinese city of Chongqing on a May day in 1939 – people bargaining in the markets, a Chinese newspaper journalist sitting down for his lunch, and all of sudden Japanese Navy air-raids hit the bustling city and set it on fire. The ordinary people’s perspective of the war, and eyewitness accounts are what makes the book highly readable.

In the first part of the book, “The Path to War”, the author takes us back in the flow of history, pointing out the cultural influence of China on other Asian countries, as well as summing up Chinese contacts with other nations up to the 19th century (including the Christian missionaries in China), the gradual fall of the Chinese ruling dynasty and the rise of Japanese empire in the East Asian region, growing even stronger at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rana Mitter points out several noteworthy facts of the early 20th century – for example the twist of roles of Japan and China in the modern era. During the first millennium, it was China who was Japan’s main source of erudition and cultural influences, and helped the Japanese develop and refine a rich and subsequently significant culture of their own. At that time China was the “older brother” to assist the less advanced neighbour. On the other hand, Mitter notices, during the first decades of the 20th century (until 1937), approximately 30 thousand Chinese students travelled in the opposite direction – to Japan to get higher education at modern Japanese universities. Thus the roles of both countries changed, and at that time Japan was very well aware of its stronger position. In the early 20th century, the Japanese disregard for the Chinese (as well as other Asian nations) as both racial and economic inferiors was more than obvious. At the turn of the 1930s and 1940s the Japanese effort to dominate East Asia was concealed with the label of a “Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This “project” (hidden under “the idea of Pan-Asianism” – i.e. the idea of Asian nations cooperating under the conduct of Japan) took different shapes in different countries, depending on the mineral and natural resources of each single country, or the willingness of each government to collaborate with the Japanese invaders. China, predictably, was among the most important and desired region for Japan.

However, besides the necessity to face the growing Japanese threat, China had to cope with three main competing inland powers that should be taken account of – the Nationalists, the Communists, and the collaborationists. Therefore the author also pays attention to the most significant persons who played the main parts in the atrocious drama of the Second Sino-Japanese War – Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Wang Jingwei. The latter, as Mitter admits, is often somewhat overshadowed by the former two leaders in many books dealing with the modern history of China, and for this reason Mitter’s effort to describe Wang Jingwei’s role in the conflict is greatly commendable. Mitter points out that the resistance of the Chinese – coming from both the Nationalists and the Communists – saved China from absolute Japanese colonisation.

The second part of the book, “Disaster”, begins in summer of 1937, when the Japanese army starts to penetrate massively into China – the author describes the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the role of Prince Konoye, the battle of Shanghai and Chiang’s effort to take action, the zero reaction of Western powers, the desperate Chinese trying to escape the Japanese invasion, the Massacre of Nanjing which, of course, could not be omitted, or the Chinese effort to stop the Japanese army by blasting the dykes on the Yellow River.

The third part of the book, “Resisting Alone”, provides readers with a summary of events during the years leading up to 1941 – including the bombing of Chongqing, the rising number of refugees and the propaganda effort aimed at them, Mao’s headquarters at Yan’an, and finally the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor.

In the final, fourth part of his book, “The Poisoned Alliance”, the author describes the Japanese aim to advance as far as Burma, the role of Joseph Stilwell, as well as the stringent grain requisition policy leading to the Henan famine and its consequences. Through the Conference at Cairo we move on to the successful campaign of the Allies against the Japanese army, and to the very end of the conflict.

To be able to speak about history we need to know the great figures, the leaders and their deeds, etc., but to understand the global impact of the war on a nation and a country we necessarily need to learn about the ordinary people’s fate, experience and feelings. What makes Mitter’s book very readable is the fact that he frequently uses newspapers, accounts of foreigners residing in China at that time, as well as diaries of the important persons involved. This makes the described period of Chinese modern history much more vivid and comprehensible.

The author does not avoid the brutal topics and incidents caused by the Japanese, such as the Nanjing massacre, but at the same time he tries to describe the conflict in a more objective way – the harsh facts of the Chinese side are not omitted, either. Mitter does not take anybody’s side, and tries to give an objective account of this part of East Asian history. He provides readers with a sufficient amount of data, which can enable them to get a deeper understanding of this particular period of time, and perhaps to perceive this conflict in a new way.

In China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival, Rana Mitter is able to give a very clear and highly readable account of the Chinese resistance to Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This very coherent book will definitely be greatly useful and a must-read for students and those interested in modern history, Chinese studies, and Japanese studies, but also for those dealing with the post-war geopolitical situation of East Asia.

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