How a China divided between nationalists, communists and warlords made its stand against imperial Japan

China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, by Rana Mitter, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 480 pages

The British think of the second world war as starting in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland; in America it begins with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941; for Russians the war also commences in 1941, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa. For China it started much earlier, in 1931 with the Japanese occupation and subsequent annexation of Manchuria, followed in 1937 by an invasion that led to the conquest of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and many other cities. Yet in the west the Sino-Japanese war has received scant attention and has at most been viewed as a sideshow to the primary theatre of war in Europe.

In this, as Rana Mitter points out in China’s War with Japan, the Chinese have suffered a grave injustice. For eight years (or two, if you choose 1937 rather than 1931), China, a poor developing country, fought alone against an advanced Axis power. The US and the British empire each suffered losses of 400,000; in China this figure was 14m, a total exceeded only by the Soviet Union. It was not until America entered the war that the Chinese were to obtain significant outside assistance, apart from earlier Soviet support. And even when the US and Britain became involved in the Asia-Pacific war, they viewed China and the Chiang Kai-shek regime as hugely their inferior, not to be taken too seriously.

Apart from Eurocentric bias, there is another key reason why China’s enormous suffering in the second world war has been neglected. No sooner had fascism been defeated in 1945 than the geopolitical cards were reshuffled. The anti-fascist imperative gave way to the exigencies of the cold war. Japan, from being a pariah, became America’s key east Asian ally while China, soon to be ruled by Mao, became the new enemy.

The emergence of China as a global power, however, is forcing us to reappraise its wartime role – and to recognise the conflict’s far-reaching effects on the country’s outlook and attitudes. China’s War with Japan is an important, timely contribution to shedding light where there is currently much darkness.

Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford university, tells a harrowing story. The odds were utterly unequal. Chiang’s Nationalist government was weak, its authority circumscribed by warlords, Mao Zedong’s Communist party and Japan’s occupation of the northeast. Japan, for its part, was a formidable adversary. Between 1868 and 1945 the country fought 10 major wars, lasting 30 years in total, all but one at the expense of its Asian neighbours. From 1937 it was to carve through much of northern, central, eastern and southern China. Chiang’s forces were in perpetual retreat.

Mitter leans over backwards to present Chiang’s conduct of the war in a favourable light. He rightly emphasises the extraordinary difficulties that the Nationalists faced at every turn. But it is abundantly clear that Chiang’s decisions were frequently wrong, sometimes disastrously so, and often marked by a callous disregard for the fate of millions, as instanced by the breaking of the dykes in Henan or leaving Nanjing defenceless in the face of the Japanese. His strategic conduct of the war was also flawed. Would it not have been wiser to have combined conventional warfare, Chiang’s preference, with the kind of guerrilla tactics that his adversary Mao deployed to considerable effect in the north and later elsewhere? The Nationalists appear to have done this only in the defence of Changsha.

The book is at its strongest in explaining the fortunes of Chiang’s regime. Mitter’s descriptions of the Japanese massacre in Nanjing, where hundreds of thousands were killed, and life in the air-raid shelters in the western city of Chongqing are compelling. By comparison, his treatment of the Communist armies in the north is somewhat perfunctory. Yet the rising influence of Mao’s forces and the increasingly beleaguered state of the Nationalists were fundamental features of the war. It is not that Mitter ignores this – far from it – but his book fails to offer a convincing explanation of why Mao was ultimately successful. This is a shame because the Chinese Communist party is historically far more important than Chiang’s Nationalists and, as we have seen in recent years, has deep roots and an impressive ability to reinvent itself.

The experience of war was to shape post-1949 China profoundly. Without the Japanese invasion, it is possible that Mao would never have triumphed. He was a brilliant wartime leader, honing a military strategy and building a political and social base that paved the way to power. The Communist party in its Maoist incarnation was, above all else, conditioned by the demands of war. This legacy was to shape Maoist campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s and the authoritarian character of Maoism itself. While such campaigns worked admirably in conditions of resistance, they led to the catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It was only after the deaths of Mao and Chiang in the mid-1970s that China began to move beyond the inward-looking mentality inculcated by war. The steadily improving relationship between China and Taiwan is one testament to that.

The most important geopolitical legacy of the war is undoubtedly the troubled relationship between Japan and China. Mitter ’s book demonstrates why to this day the Chinese view Japan with such animosity – a state of affairs greatly exacerbated by Japan’s continuing inability to show contrition for its war crimes, in contrast to the example of Germany.