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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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit