Before starting this book I already knew that WWII really started in 1937, but the sheer scale of the tragic three-way struggle between Nationalist Chinese, Communist Chinese, and Japanese forces was not really apparent to me.
Author Rana Mitter recounts the story, and I warn you it's a horror story, in a very readable way. He is a heavy-duty academic, an Oxford professor of history and politics, but his writing flows with the ease of an accomplished novelist, not with the dusty dryness that might be associated with such a learned figure. I can say with certainty that unless the Sino-Japanese war has been a specialist subject of yours you will learn much from China's War With Japan, and also that you will be shocked and disturbed. History in detail always is shocking and disturbing, which is precisely why it is worth engaging with.
You are the type of person who would appreciate this book, that's why you're considering it. Take it from me that you'll find it very worthwhile indeed.
on 27 June 2013
This fine and important book is a vital corrective to the Eurocentric view that the Second World War began on the 1st September 1939; the global clash with totalitarianism was already well under way, and was centred in China.
To many general Western readers, the war to resist Japanese aggression in China has shrunk to a backdrop for films and novels such as Empire of the Sun and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. This superficial view belies the enormous scale of clash between China and Imperial Japan which is the focus of this book. War caused 14 million deaths between 1937 - 1945, and set stage for the Civil War and eventual Communist takeover of 1949. Current tensions between the two former combatants track back to this period, still a powerful source of on-going tension and polarisation.
Despite a limitless capacity for retelling and reappraising WW2, the clash between these two gigantic Asian powers is poorly understood in the West, but was seen at the time by figures as diverse as WH Auden and Robert Capa as a central battleground in the opposition to fascism, and as important as the parallel conflict in Spain.
Mitter tells a vast story with deceptive ease and control. He is surefooted on the central role of three key men: Chiang Kaishek, Mao Zedong, and Wang Jingwei, the latter a complex figure tainted by collaboration. While the range of personalities in the book is richly portrayed, the reader is drawn back to this key trio who embody the three way struggle between Communist, Nationalist and collaborationist engagement with the Japanese invader. The book is effective, lucid and fluent, providing a balanced account of controversial events such as the chilling fall of Nanjing. The second half of the book is strong on the involvement of West in Burma and the Pacific seen from Asian perspective. There is some careful myth busting, and the grating relations between American commander Stilwell and Chiang are well done. I was constantly intrigued by snippets such as the Chinese fascination with the British Beveridge report on social welfare: a Chinese NHS?
The book is also strong on the legacy of war, and how China's war feels forgotten in the post-Cold War world; I found the reappraisal in modern China of Chiang as resistor of Japanese aggression fascinating. This is a timely and necessary book which in its reappraisal of China's war echoes the similar reappraisal of the Soviet war effort by John Erikson and David Glantz in the 1970s and 1980s. Highly recommended.
I always thought I was pretty well read on 20th century history and especially WW2. Read all the books, watched the documentaries on TV, then the repeats, then the videos and DVDs. Not an obsession but certainly a hobby. Tracked and studied all the World War Two campaigns my late dad was involved in as a signalman/radio operator in the Royal Corp of Signals. Lots of different historians and writers have their own 'moment' when and where they think WW2 kicked off. I would always say that Germany and Italy started it in Spain in 1937, when they used Franco's fascist uprising as a training ground, especially for the Luftwaffe. However I now realise there was a yawning gap in my historical knowledge - that yawning gap being the Chinese/Japanese War of 1937 - 1945.
Rana Mitter's excellent account of this horrific, barbaric and brutal war that cost millions of Chinese lives as they struggled to repel and overcome what seemed at times insurmountable odds, fills this knowledge gap with verve, pace and a vivid narrative style that keeps the reader interested and avidly turning each of it's 380 plus pages of text. Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of China at Oxford University and draws on much new material that has only become available from Chinese Communist Archives in recent times.
This is a war that up-ended two empires in China, the British and Japanese Empires and heralded in two new ones in the region - the American and Soviet Empires. A story of heroic resistance, a country and a regime written off many times by diplomats and journalists as for four years, 1937-1941, they took on the might of one of the most disciplined and technologically advanced armies in the world - with next to no outside help. This poor and underdeveloped country tied down some 800.000 Japanese troops in China, a great help to the USA after 1941 when they found themselves fighting on two fronts.
This is not just a story of vicious fighting, it is also the story of the men and women who fought it. Chinese Nationalist Dictator Chiang Kaishek who won the war but lost his country,, the eventual 'winners' - Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Jingwei the leading Chinese Nationalist politician who defected to the Japanese to form a collaborationist government in 1938. The ordinary men and women whose recollections have only recently become available to foreign researchers are also recounted as tens of millions were swept up in this awful conflict as combatants, refugees or just innocent bystanders.
The author makes a very strong case for the starting point of WW2 being an unplanned, local conflict between tiny numbers of Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge not far from Beijing on the 7th July 1937 and escalated into total war that devastated China, killed 14 million of it's people, created tens of millions of refugees and destroyed the embryonic modernisation and infrastructure of a country just entering the first phases of development. Yet on the other hand the war transformed China from a somewhat backward semi- colonised victim of imperialism to the first stages of becoming a world economic and military superpower with the 1949 victory of Chinese Communist Party, two years after the end of WW2.
A masterly work, superbly researched and written, Mitter's book is a very important contribution to learning and understanding the dreadful conflict that shaped the Asia we know today. Of the four major Allied partners, China is the one whose government, culture and way of life was most changed by WW2. This book reminds us that China stood shoulder to shoulder with the Western Allies to help defeat the darkest forces ever unleashed against the civilised world. A first rate book and a great read covering one of the 'blind spots' of World War Two.
The war between China and Japan started two years before the war in Europe, and at its close in 1945 the number of Chinese losses were similar to those of Russia, dwarfing the losses of the western allies. But although there are numerous books at all levels on the war in Europe, the China-Japan war has been largely neglected. This book is an attempt to partially redress the balance and tells the story of the war from the Chinese perspective.
It starts with a brief history of China, concentrating on the role of the western powers and their exploitation of China for commercial purposes. Japan already had a military presence on the Chinese mainland in 1937, and the main narrative starts with a minor clash between Chinese and Japanese soldiers at the Marco Polo Bridge in the small village of Wanping. Chiang Kai-shek chose this incident to declare war on Japan, but it was an ill-judged decision, because his nationalist army was no match for the experienced Japanese troops. The result was a series of retreats and the loss of much territory, including the cities of Shanghai and Nanjing. The behavior of the Japanese troops in taking the latter city was the atrocity known in the West as the `Rape of Nanking', which even now is a source of friction between the two countries. Chiang Kai-shek's failings were not helped by the behaviour of the numerous warlords with their personal armies and the treachery of some of his colleagues, principally Wang Lingwei, who eventually defected and set up a rival government collaborating with the Japanese.
There followed a long drawn-out conventional war between Chiang Kai-shek forces, based in Chongqing, and the Japanese, where many mistakes were made, both militarily and socially. The American who was sent to be the military leader of Chiang Kai-shek's armies, General Stilwell, was highly prejudiced against Chiang Kai-shek and also made gross misjudgments, including a disastrous foray into Burma. In addition to the nationalist army there was also another army, the communist one, led eventually by Mao Zedong, which occupied the northwestern part of China. They did not engage the Japanese in pitched battles like the nationalist, but nevertheless pinned down the latter by mainly guerrilla tactics. Much energy was expended by both factions in trying to neutralize the other, as both vied for power. The end of the war came only when the war in Europe was concluded and the Allies, particularly America, could turn their resources to engage the Japanese directly.
Although overall Chiang Kai-shek must probably be judged a failure, and was eventually forced to leave the mainland for Taiwan in the later civil war with the communists, he did achieve some significant achievements. For example, by holding down a large Japanese army until the war in Europe was won, China was rewarded with a place as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. That gave China its veto power in world affairs to this day.
It book is the result of many years of dedicated research, helped by a large number of assistants, and the result is a scholarly work, rich in detail. But it is not always easy to read. This is partly because the narrative is extremely detailed, but often disjoint, with forward and backward time shifts, sometimes even on the same page. I also had difficulty with the numerous Chinese names, the are rendered in a way that was unfamiliar to me, so that even those I did know I had to keep mentally `translating' back to the form more familiar to me. Finally, although the book is written from the Chinese perspective, I would have expected a brief discussion of how Japan came to invade China. Was the invasion opportunistic, a move by the strong military over the wishes of politicians, or part of a long-term strategy? The author offers no opinions. But these are relatively minor criticisms, and overall this is an very good, well-written account of a neglected topic.
on 8 February 2014
It is difficult to write interestingly enough for general readers about wars, even more so about long wars. China’s war with Japan lasted eight years and cost some 14 to 20 million Chinese lives. China’s long resistance has not been fully appreciated by historians, partly because of the fixation on the European fronts but also because under Chairman Mao, the rival Chinese Kuomintang Nationalist resistance was deliberately unrecognised. Rana Mitter provides a remarkable revisionist history, which overturns many of our previous assumptions about the War in the Far East. Most importantly, he goes some way to restoring the tarnished reputation of the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang was depicted by Barbara Tuchman in her magisterial history, Sand Against the Wind: Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-45 as a corrupt and incompetent military leader of a regime that was not much less fascistic than its enemies. British and American writers were obviously influenced by Chiang’s defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949 and by Stilwell’s published memoirs.
Some of the changing historical interpretations are explained by Mitter in the epilogue to the book, but it might have been helpful to readers for this to have come at the beginning of the book, so that they could appreciate where Mitter was coming from. On the military side, Mitter is much influenced by Hans Van de Wen’s War and Nationalism in China: 1925-1945 (Routledge: 2003), who believes that Chiang’s defensive long-game strategy was much more sensible than Stilwell’s determination for the offensive and a concentration on an Allied land advance through Burma. This strategy depleted China’s defensive capabilities and allowed the Japanese to advance further and further into central and northern China. Mitter argues powerfully that Stilwell’s arrogance and lack of diplomatic skills may have tarnished Sino-American relations for a long time. I think that Mitter underestimates the importance of a land campaign to re-open the India-Burma-China route because that was China’s only supply route for much of the war.
Mitter is aware of Chiang’s weaknesses and also of some of his very poor decisions, but basically sees him as the only man who could have held the Chinese war effort together and that therefore he and the Kuomintang did not deserve to be written out of history by the Communists. Another nationalist who was literally dynamited out of history, or at least his tomb was, is Wang Jingwei, who defected from Chiang and collaborated with the Japanese. The book focuses on three leaders, Chiang Kai-Shek, Wang Jingwei and Mao Tse Tung. Mao was eventually to triumph over his opponents, partly by cannily avoiding set-piece battles with the Japanese but rather using guerrilla tactics. More important though were Mao’s social reforms which won him the support of the peasantry, whilst the Kuomintang were associated with crippling rural tax demands and corruption. Even so, there was nothing inevitable about the Communist victory in the civil war that followed the end of the war with Japan- if nationalist forces had not been so depleted in the war with Japan, Chiang would probably have controlled most of China. Mitter concludes by arguing that Chiang did bring China at last to the world stage, a seat at the Cairo Conference of 1943 and more importantly a seat on the UN Security Council. The price that China paid in lives and damage to the economy was, however, enormous and left certain legacies which presaged some of the dictatorial disasters of Mao’s leadership.
So, an excellent and readable history of a most important subject.
on 24 October 2013
Having read lots of books about the Second World War but focused on the European theatre of war, and more recently having read about Mao Zedong, I was very interested to read about the war between China and Japan which lasted from 1937 to 1945.
Throughout the book, Rana Mitter looks to intertwine a chronological history (quite dry) with the people involved (more interesting). In this regard, much of the book is given to detailing the battle for rule over China between Chiang Kaishek (who would subsequently rule Taiwan), Mao Zedong (who would subsequently rule mainland China) and Wang Jingwei (who ruled a collaboralist regime in China similar to Vichy France). However, a lot of the narrative is also given to General Joseph Stilwell, a US four-star General based in China through the War. I found it a fascinating perspective and learnt a great deal about WW2 I did not know before.
Mitter also does well in terms of keeping focus - he avoids the temptation to write too much about the Civil War that followed in China, although he does refer to it in terms of background. Likewise there is very little time spent describing the war in Europe other than when it affects the situation in China (for example Allied priorities). My one criticism is that Mitter has very clear views on the behaviour of the various actors in the war, to the point that I found some of the content a little unbalanced (notably Stilwell). However, after reading 350+ pages on the subject I am not sure I want to read another book to get a different perspective.
Overall, I found the book very interesting and feel I am a lot more knowledgeable about the subject. It is a book you can read cover to cover (often difficult for a history book) and would also serve as a useful source for school assignments.
on 30 June 2013
The book's focus is the Chinese resistance of Japan aggression from 1937-1945. However reader is given a quick overview of Chinese history, starting with the Song Dynasty and getting more detailed with the British et. al. exploitation of China, the fall of the Qing, the first republic of Sun Yat-sen, and rise of Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong (initially joint, later separate). After Japanese surrender the book concludes briefly with the Communist win against the Nationalists.
The history is clearly and carefully written, giving details of the outbreak of the war and the essential turning points. The author is careful to present many facts without trying to pass judgement on the main leaders of the three parts of China during the war: Chiang Kai Shek in the ever shrinking area under nationalist control, Mao Zedong in the north-western part and the leader of a Vichy-like government in the Japanese occupied china, Wang Jingwei. In the end though the main actors in the drama, including the American Joseph Stilwell come out either as unsympathetic or incompetent, often both.
In many ways the book covers new ground both for western and Chinese audience. For a westerner (like the author of this review) the book sets out a clear argument that China was a major partner in the allied war effort against the axis powers, fighting by far for the longest (in 1937 not even infamous Munich agreement has been signed yet and it was more than four years to go to Pearl Harbour). For a Chinese reader it lays out in full the honest if not always successful effort of the Nationalist government in fighting the Japanese, whilst not hiding their effort to diminish the strength of the Communists. Those are seen trying to take advantage of the situation whilst not attempting any significant offensives against the Japanese. This is of course just as well, because for the Nationalists these resulted mostly in failure whilst the guerrilla tactics of the Communists were effective.
The Japanese war atrocities are mentioned in detail. The impact the war has on the current relationship between China and Japan is also discussed. Details are given of how the Chinese communist government has been rewriting history, mainly during Mao's era, to suit their ends. It is amusing to see them trying to convince the Japanese that they see in full their own history. This extends to the the absurdity of the current Communist government, responsible for deaths of tens of millions of their compatriots during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for which it has never accepted full responsibility, in trying bring the Japanese to acknowledge the extent of their crimes.
The only part of weaker point is the lack of detail regarding the Japanese side of the story. How did they come to invade China? Was it part of a plan? Or was it the case of the military going further than was their remit and the politicians unable to stop them afterwards? Why did they attack America at the same time as being involved in a stalled campaign in China? But perhaps one shouldn't expect this in a book about "China's war with Japan". Because this is indeed a story of the Chinese war with Japan, superbly told.
The book is a pleasure to read, very hard to put down even though one knows the outline of the story one is compelled to read the book to see the details. Disclaimer: the author of the review is no historian so this review is an opinion of an amateur.
Author,Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Cross College. As the author of A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World, he is more than well qualified to write a compelling updated history of a bloody chapter in Sino/Japan relations. The war with Japan which preceded Mao's Communist forces taking control of the country,was a brutal war,the history of which has essentially been buried beneath the overwhelming WW2 narrative. However,the incredible suffering that Chinese people experienced at the hands of the Japanese goes a long way to explaining their isolationist stance within the modern world.
Author Mitter offers a highly readable and objective account of the campaign which will be enjoyed by those wishing to learn more about, what is in the West,a largely hidden war.
I was, perhaps, more aware of the war between China and Japan that kicked off in 1937 than many, thanks to my work. But Professor Mitter is right that this is very much a forgotten war as far as the West is concerned, despite its importance to our own war in the Pacific arena.
Through a very accessible book, Prof. Mitter attempts to set the record straight, starting with a prologue that sets the stage before moving on to establish the historical friction between the two nations that eventually led to all-out war two years before Europe took up arms. Later chapters cover the war itself, and its consequences into the modern era. It is difficult reading in places - the sheer numbers of casualties involved is hard to comprehend at times, as is the sheer level of cruelty - but it is an interesting and enlightening read, and far from dry in spite of the academic rigour with which it has been assembled.
There are, unfortunately, three things that I cannot comment on as I was provided with an uncorrected proof copy for review: photographs, maps and the index. There are spaces for maps, but without seeing them it is impossible to review how well they support the text. And for a history text to have repeated usefulness beyond the first read, it needs a good index and, again, in my copy there isn't one.
These are, for the most part, minor quibbles. If you don't know much about the war in the Orient that had such direct consequences for our own (and for current world affairs), then Prof. Mitter's book is a very good place to start.
Japan started flexing its imperialist muscles after the defeat of Russia in 1904 - 1905, it went on to make territorial gains in Korea and Manchuria. China was in a state of flux and had been since the last Emperor had stood down after Sun Yat sens popular revolution of 1911. Mao Zedong had tried to bring about Communist change and ended up doing a tactical withdrawal to the north in what has come to be known as `the long march'. Meanwhile Chiang Kai-shek was holding order in the remainder of China under the nationalists.
Then Japan ever eager to insert its influence put on an incident at The Marco Polo Bridge and the first shots of the war had been fired. China was woefully unprepared for war with lack of central control and feuding regional war lords and corruption that was endemic. Japan on the other hand was over ripe for war and had modern arms, planes, warships, and tactics. They also had an unwavering self belief that they were the destined rulers of Asia in what they saw as a `co-prosperity sphere'; what that meant to those in that sphere was very different. They also had a militaristic zeal that bordered fanaticism. What Professor Rana Mitter does in this book is pull all the facts together to throw light on why and how China fought and how the interplay of ideologies had such an impact on the war and the eventual outcome for all of China.
He also examines how the Allies treated China and how the mistrust can still be seen to resonate to this very day. His writing style is assured and accessible and makes for an engrossing and moreover a rewarding read. What happened at Nanking is dealt with as are other atrocities, but to have covered everything in greater depth would have meant writing another book methinks. Either way this is an excellent piece of historical work and if you like Chinese history you may find the wonderful Jack Beeching's book `The Chinese Opium Wars'The Chinese Opium Wars (Harvest Book; Hb 350) a rather excellent read too. - both this and the Beeching tome are highly recommended.