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.
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.
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 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.
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.
It is usually said that the long regional war between China and Japan is a 'forgotten war'. Untrue. Anyone who knows China and the Chinese knows that the war was one of carnage, savagery and on a scale only equaled by that on Russian soil after 1941. It is only in the West that there is gross ignorance about this war.
A British university recently asked History undergraduates (all had studied History at A level) to mark on a map Japan, China, Korea and the old Soviet Union. Out of 145 students only 27 placed all correctly.
This new book by R Mitter is an excellent addition to his previous books on China. His style is very good, the illustrations and maps are excellent, and his sources are excellent. He is clearly immersed in his subject which is of enormous importance to the future for power-military and economic-is slowly shifting from the West to Asia. We would do well to heed Napoleon's warning about a waking China.
Western treatment of WW2 almost always misrepresents the overlapping connections and causes between WW2, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. They were in fact closely linked. It was the fears and ambitions of Japan, China and Russia that set them on a collision course in the 1920's and 1930's. The result yielded a viscerally anti Japanese and unified Communist China that is still an angry rising power.
The Second World War began in 1937 not 1939. During that war the 'rape' of Nanking in December 1937 was an appalling atrocity by the Japanese forces that heralded further atrocities to be inflicted on Western and Asian troops and civilians after 1941. It is worth remenbering that the 'rape'lasted 7 weeks and was conducted in full view of international observers. It was a deliberat act to terrorise the Chinese. In the war China lost 20 million dead and their land was devastated. Despite this their suffering has been relegated to a footnote in the West. Rana deals with this oeriod admirably.
Rana Mitter's book also covers the major battles, Pearl Harbour, the work of 'VInegar' Joe Stilwell, and a welcome reassessment of Chiang Kai-shek. For far too long Chiang has been villified in the West thanks to propaganda by Maoist supporters, most of whom are ignorant of what Mao did in and to China. Indeed, their propaganda has tried to expunge Chiang from China's history.
Chiang was not an attractive person. He was corrupt and at times inept-I can think of many in the West that would also deserve that description-and he was outsmarted by Mao in the civil war. He was no saint but neither was the monster Mao who defeated him.
Mitter's excellent book will, hopefully, serve to correct the West's view of Chiang and China's politics. This enormous country in terms of territory and population deserves to be understood. At the same time, the book will serve to remind us of the deliberate sickening and barbarous behaviour of the Japanese armed forces, with full political backing, from 1937 to 1945. Current nationalistic mutterings in Japan are very worrying.
It is high time that China and Japan began to be featured in school History lessons replacing, if necessary, the well-worn studies of Stalin and Hitler. This might result in a higher score on future map exercises-although many students are still unable to correctly place on a map Germany, Austria, Italy, Finland, Jutland, and other European countries in the period 1919 to 1945.
The book is very highly recmmended.
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.
The second major war between China and Japan (1937-1945) started before and ended after the Second World War in Europe. Neglected by the world leaders at the time and by historians thereafter, the fate of the protagonists in this war was inexorably shaped by it and yet, few, looking at China and Japan today, realise how the events and consequences of that war bear on the imprint of the two Asian giants in the 21st century. This book is an account of that war. The author, Mitter, wrote it mainly as a study of one of the two most important Chinese in the twentieth century - Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (known sometimes as `G-Mo', or more derisively, by his arch `frenemy', General Joseph Stilwell, as `Peanut') and Mao Zedong.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the Western Allies compelled Germany to relinquish the territories that it controlled in China. However, instead of returning them to Chinese sovereignty, the Western Allies gave them to Japan, then the rising power in Asia. China, a giant of a nation but weak in the knees, was just awakening itself to the spirit of nationalism through the efforts of the Kuomintang and the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (formed in 1921). Sun Yat-sen's declaration of the Chinese Republic in 1911 and the installation of Yuan Shikai as the provisional president thereafter proved only a fleeting hope that China would regain its greatness in the world. Yuan Shikai's failed manoeuvres to be proclaimed the new emperor and his death in 1914 saw the rise of the warlords with the consequent division and weakening of China. Japan had been making inroads into Chinese territories. The problem for China then was that it was in the midst of a civil war between the Chinese Communist Party (the `CCP') and the Kuomintang (`the Nationalists').
In the summer of 1937, Japanese troops clashed with Chinese soldiers under the command of Song Zheyuan at the small village called Wanping, with only Lugouqiao (The Marco Polo Bridge) as its only claim to fame then. Chiang Kai-shek judged that it was time to declare an all-out war. The disunited country was no match for a modern, well-trained, and experienced Japanese army. By October, Shanghai was lost, and by December, the Chinese army fled Shandong. The Japanese army entered the then Chinese capital, Nanjing. What took place thereafter was described in the chapter, `Massacre at Nanjing' - a chapter that tests the reader's constitution and conscience in equal measure. Chiang Kai-shek was eventually forced to move the Chinese capital to Chongqing.
Even as Mitter described the failings of Chiang's Nationalist army in the battlefield, it is clear that he was sympathetic to the Generalissimo. Mitter acknowledged that Chiang was responsible for some failures, but he drew attention to the shenanigans of the warlords, and the treachery of rivals posing as friends - Wang Jingwei, in particular. Wang who saw himself as the true heir of Sun Yat-sen had to watch as Chiang wrested the power and authority of the Kuomintang from him. Unlike Edgar Snow (see Snow's impressive account of the early CCP and Mao: `Red Star over China'), Mitter was not as impressed by Mao and attributed part of the Kuomintang's defeats to the lack of support from the CCP. Truth is often to be found in fragments rather than a perfect whole. One is unlikely to overlook the inability of the Kuomintang to send reinforcements when needed. Chiang often withheld his best troops and not commit them into battle with the Japanese. Did he have any choice? Was he hoping to have them protect him should the Communists turn on him? The second Chinese civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists began almost as Japan was defeated. That fight which further defined the future of China is another story for another book.
It was quite clear that though ultimately defeated and driven to Taiwan in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek made two important contributions that China must be forever grateful. First, fighting without a unified army, he held Japan at bay for eight years so that the Western Allies could concentrate on their effort in Europe, and thus defeat Hitler. For this, the rest of the world ought to have been grateful, but as Mitter pointed out, the China theatre was underestimated, and the Chinese effort under-appreciated. Secondly, its wartime contribution did enough to merit at least a place as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. That gave China its veto power in world affairs to this day.
I knew of some of the history of the war between Japan and China as I had read a book some time ago The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. This book told of the abhorent ways in which the Japanese treated the Chinese. The autrocities that they committed were certainly on par with Hitler.
One review states that this is told from the perspective of the Chinese and that may well be because they were the side who suffered the most at the hands of the Japanese.
The one thing I got from this book compared to the previous one I read was more of a political viewpoint rather than a personal perspective of the people. It made for interesting reading indeed and while the Rape of Nanking left me feeling angry and biased perhaps, this book brought things a little more into perspective and I was able to understand the history behind the actions and why.
World history should be re-hashed in academia today as our focus should be wider and not just about American History or The World Wars we took part in but should encompass the history of those we now have an easier access to so that we may better understand. Books such as these are what good history learning is all about, rich in details, facts and culture.
on 30 January 2016
This is a very readable account of the war between China and Japan between 1937 and 1945. It is not a military history of that period, although military actions are obviously recorded. It is more an account of the incredibly complicated political situation in China during the period. For perhaps half a century prior tp the events in this book, large parts of China had effectively been in a state of anarchy, with vast areas controlled by local warlords, and any 'official' government only controlled certain cities and areas. Effective government was non-existent, and any hope that the country would be able to resist Japanese invasion was very small.
The fact that the Chinese did resist Japan for so long does them enormous credit, but they paid a massive price, second only to Russia in the death toll. This book explains in a clear way the struggles of the Nationalist government under Chiang kai-shek; the position of the communists under Mao, and their interactions with all those involved - be they friends or enemies (sometimes it's difficult to tell who helped and who hindered).
The book certainly goes some way to help understand the current Chinese attitudes to the war, and to their neighbours to this day.