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.

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

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.