'China's war with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival' by Rana Mitter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 3:53pm

China's War With Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

by Rana Mitter Allen, Lane

More than 75 years after hostilities broke out, the Sino-Japanese War continues to inspire new research and fresh appraisals. As well it should: the subject is vast. Bitter fighting went on for two years longer than the European front of the second world war. A solid understanding of this wide-ranging conflict, and its numerous peacetime outgrowths, is vital to any appreciation of modern Chinese politics, the Nationalist-Communist divide and the contemporary position of Japan in East Asia and beyond. This monumental new work by Oxford University professor Rana Mitter magisterially surveys this conflict, the broader repercussions of which still resonate across East Asia.

In July 1937, following years of growing hostility, Japan launched an all-out invasion of China, which quickly bogged down into what became known internationally as the "China Incident". This conflict was that strangest of all creatures, a desperately bloody and destructive conflagration that, nevertheless, remained an undeclared war.

The "China Incident" can be compared to the Spanish Civil War. And like Spain, China was a proxy, a prelude and a military and ideological testing ground for the much larger conflict that would later break out in Europe - and across the Asia-Pacific region. Astute contemporary observers, such as Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, who visited China to observe this "other" proxy war, explicitly compared the two situations in their own writing.

Embattled Nationalist leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek emerges as a more sympathetic figure than is usually portrayed. Besides battling the Japanese, Chiang had to deal with a Communist parallel government in parts of the country, as well as a collaborationist regime under Wang Ching-wei, who - with headquarters in the former Nationalist capital at Nanking established a separate power centre in Japanese-occupied China. Somehow, he had to govern the rest of a massive, unwieldy country. This tricky balancing act was achieved - but at a great cost. By tenaciously surviving, the Nationalists endured to the end of the war - and then lost the peace.

Hopelessly corrupt though they were, the Nationalists did fight the Japanese, and their bravery and endurance was internationally applauded at the beginning. By contrast, the Communists didn't engage the Japanese to any extent. Apart from one battle, a few skirmishes and quite consistent guerilla activity, especially in South China and Hong Kong, the Communists didn't have to encounter a highly trained, well-equipped enemy in open battle. The Nationalists did - regularly.

Like other Western academics, Mitter tends to be kinder to the Communists than they perhaps deserve. During the 1930s, almost any serious intellectual with any real human decency and sense of social justice was, at the very least, openly left-wing. Many Western observers of Mao Zedong's refuge at Yanan, Shaanxi, chose to report a version of events that they genuinely wished to believe. Edgar Snow, American author of Red Star Over China, and others were in candid awe of the Communists at Yanan, and either didn't notice (or chose to ignore) the aura of fear and oppression that existed there. In 1949, Yanan's stifling atmosphere was replicated across the country. Chiang's famous early pronouncement - that "the Japanese were an irritation of the skin; the Communists were a disease of the spirit" - contained a solid kernel of hard, bitter truth.