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4.0 out of 5 stars The neglected China-Japan War 1937-1945, 7 Aug. 2013
This review is from: China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Hardcover)
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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.
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