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

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder