China's War with Japan 1937-45 by Rana Mitter: Fragments of other histories beginning to emerge

The scale of suffering in China during the Second World War was unimaginable. Yet China did not submit, and it has only been since the 1980s that fragments of other histories have started to emerge.

China’s War with Japan 1937-45
Rana Mitter
Allen Lane, 480pp, £25

The official history of China, much rewritten in recent times, is full of questionable propositions. Important among them is the assertion that China’s contemporary attitudes are determined by a century of “national humiliation” at the hands of foreigners – from the mid-19th century until the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the civil war in 1949.

China certainly suffered the aggression of upstart powers, including Britain, which was intent on trade. When trade was refused, conflict followed. Yet, for the most part, the national response to foreign incursion was less a sense of humiliation than a painful reflection on what had gone wrong with a once mighty country and a search for modernising options that might restore its power.

It was not until China lost the first Sino- Japanese war in 1895 that the word humiliation first appeared in this context. China regarded its smaller neighbours as tributary states. To be annoyed by western barbarians was one thing; to lose a war against the “northern dwarves”, as China’s president Chiang Kai-shek once described the Japanese in his diaries, was quite another.

The humiliation of the defeat in 1895 was revisited in 1919, when the post-First World War settlement handed German concessions in China to Japan, triggering public outrage and a reform movement that was to touch every aspect of Chinese life. Even then, as Rana Mitter points out in this comprehensive history, Japan was viewed with resentment and respect: Chinese students flocked to Japan to study, seeking the key to its swift modernisation. They included Chiang, the future leader of the Nationalist Party (KMT); Wang Jingwei, who would lead the puppet regime in Nanjing – the Chinese equivalent of Vichy, which lasted from 1940 until Japan’s defeat; and Sun Yat-sen, regarded by both the Nationalists and the Communists as the father of the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

These events were the backdrop to the second Sino-Japanese war, which began with the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 and ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945. China’s long resistance to Japan’s occupation was to shape it profoundly. Mitter has done an important service both in pulling together the complex narrative threads of this period and in reminding readers of China’s vital and largely neglected contribution to the Allied war effort.

The war displaced 90 million Chinese from central and east China to the remote interior. The Nationalists went to Chongqing, in Si - chuan, a city defenceless against Japanese bombing. The Communists settled in the remote northern town of Yan’an, where the founding myths of Chinese Communism were forged. The displacement broke down social barriers and geographic loyalties, while resistance to the invader helped to forge a sense of nationhood out of the fragmented, post-imperial state.

All three regimes, the CCP, the KMT and Wang’s puppet government in Nanjing, ran ruthless secret police and terror operations, fascinatingly described here. The Communist operation was scaled up to national-level terror after 1949 but Mitter raises the question of how oppressive the others might have been in the long run.

 Because Chiang fought the Japanese in China, the Allies did not have to. Had Japan not been tied down in an eight-year war in China, half a million Japanese troops would have been available to fight the war in the Pacific, with potentially different results. And had the Nationalists not been fighting the Japanese, the Chinese civil war could well have taken place much earlier – also, potentially, with different results.

Mao Zedong had reason to be grateful to the Japanese, especially since the victorious CCP got to write the official histories, in which the Communists became the heroes of the anti-Japanese resistance and the KMT’s effort was written out. In reality, Mitter writes, Mao spent much of the war reading.

The scale of suffering in China is beyond imagining: the estimated ten to 12 million dead included victims of the floods in Henan when Chiang ordered the breach of the Huang He River’s levees to cover his desperate retreat, the victims of famine and Japanese bombing and the destruction of a Chinese force of 300,000 in three weeks in the last stages of the war. Yet China did not submit and Mitter gives credit to the often derided Chiang. China began the war as a weak and semi-colonised state and ended it with the promise of a seat in the Security Council of the newly formed UN.

In China, the story faded from official discourse as Mao directed national hostility to the KMT regime in Taiwan and to Soviet revisionism. It was not until the 1980s that fragments of other histories began to emerge. Today, a rash of atrocity museums and growing tensions in the East China Sea are inflaming popular memory. In international narratives, China’s effort was submerged in the new east-Asian configuration in which Japan became a key US ally and Mao’s China a new enemy. Mitter’s excellent history tells us why we need to remember it.

Chinese soldiers depicted fighting with Japanese troops during World War II. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear