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Lead book review

China’s War with Japan, by Rana Mitter - review

While the second world war raged in Europe, a separate conflict was devastating China, whose effects still linger to this day, says Jonathan Mirsky

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

China’s War with Japan 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival Rana Mitter

Allen Lane, pp.450, £25

The Sino-Japanese struggle that began in 1937, two years before the rest of the world plunged into war, is not as unknown as Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Oxford, contends in this comprehensive new book. His copious notes, after all, display how well that conflict has been studied by many scholars. But in the sense that few Westerners under the age of 80 can string more than two sentences together about those terrible eight years, he is right.

It is a big story, and for the most part Mitter tells it well. The scene — China — is vast. Two competing leaders, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, dominate it. In the wings are Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill who, once the war began for them in the Soviet Union, the Pacific and Europe, brought China on to the international stage — just enough to keep Japan at bay on the Asian mainland — but treated Chiang Kai-shek’s regime like a third-rate power.

The elements that always mark Chinese history are present: famine, great suffering and death — of between 14 and 20 million; endemic official corruption; movements of millions from one part of the country to another; and the stoicism of badly-fed and ill-clothed soldiers.

We learn about someone rarely noticed: the handsome, weak, ambitious and pathetic Wang Jingwei, who challenged Chiang for national leadership, lost, and cast in his lot with the Japanese, who used him, while making guileful concessions to his demands for what China should look like when the war ended.

Mitter deftly sketches the plight of Chinese intellectuals, who wondered where to place their loyalties, and were persecuted if they chose the Communist side. This particular matter preoccupied the Americans sent to observe Mao at close quarters; they fell for what the journalist Edgar Snow had already called Mao’s ‘Lincolnesque’ charm and charisma, without realising what he was creating in his domain.The violence and moral corruption of Mao’s capital at Yanan — clearly portrayed by Mitter — were hidden from these Americans, who saw only the black side of Chiang’s far larger territory. This is a many-stranded story and the author keeps his focus on the big picture while including many convincing, often horrific, details.

The origins of the war are ironic. For centuries, much of Japan’s high culture was drawn from China. In the late 19th century and into the early 20th, the position was reversed. Many Chinese were dazzled by Japan’s sudden modernisation and pressed for China to learn from its example. But the increasingly war-hungry Japanese feared British and American imperialism in Asia; they hoped to unite Asian nations in challenging the West, with China dragged in regardless.


The war began with a series of northern skirmishes and sudden Japanese attacks on Shanghai, first from the air and then on the ground. In the minds of some Western ‘progressives’ (Mitter’s word for people and movements he approves of), this Japanese onslaught chimed with the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. Auden and Isherwood, visiting China at the time, made just this comparison.

One thing becomes clear from this book, although it has been often been the subject of doubt in earlier studies. Corrupt and disorganised, led by the secretive and devoutly Christian Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalists fought the Japanese. Admittedly they were often unsuccessful, retreating to fight again, and unleashing the Yellow River to block the Japanese advance, drowning hundreds of thousands as a result — but they fought.

Mitter exaggerates, however, when he claims that the Nationalists finally ‘managed to pull off a victory’. That was largely due to the Americans. But to his credit, Chiang endured — which in itself was a great achievement. He did no deals with Japan, although he occasionally hinted, like certain pro-Hitler British statesmen, that he might.

As Mitter observes, the Communist side fought exactly one major battle against the Japanese, and a number of limited guerrilla actions. Mao, unlike Chiang, did not have to govern, or supply — if inadequately — a huge population, or reinforce a national army. Nor did he have to deal with the collaborationist regime of Wang Jingwei.

In addition to his other concerns, Chiang had to suffer the presence of General Joseph Stilwell, whom Roosevelt sent to China to command some of its armies while pretending to be under Chiang. Stilwell, a curmudgeonly self-promoter, was for a long time hailed by scholars as a great general. Over 50 years ago, students were also taught that the Americans at Mao’s HQ at Yanan — including Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, officials like John Service, and certain gullible scholars — had it right. Mao was a hero and Chiang Kai-shek was deeply corrupt — or at best, according to Stillwell, ‘a peanut’.

With more recent studies of Chiang and his regime — Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo, for instance, and Hans J. van de Venn’s War and Nationalism in China, 1925–1945 — a different picture emerges: of an embattled, rattled, often incompetent but patriotic and determined Nationalist party, and of a brutal Communist one, masterfully keeping its secrets dark.

According to Mitter, Mao’s acts of cruelty and revenge arose from the war. But this was not the case. He and his master-torturer Kang Sheng were already tormenting thousands of internal adversaries by the early Thirties, having learned from Communists sent to Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Into the Fifties, as Mitter outlines, a storm gathered in the US over ‘who lost China’; and those Americans who had praised Mao and had urged Washington to deal seriously with him were vilified — chiefly by Senator McCarthy — as ‘Comsymps’ who had engineered the ‘loss’. All this is well handled by Mitter. But he appears not to know that one significant figure, John Service, a China-born foreign service officer, more than admired the Communist side. During the Chinese civil war, he gave military secrets relating to Chiang Kai-shek’s army to a Soviet agent. He revealed to me years ago, not long before he died, that while at Yanan he knew nothing of Mao’s violence against his critics. ‘I wanted the Communists to win,’ he said.

Mitter does well, however, to include the description of Communist Yanan by the Tass representative and Comintern agent Peter Vladimirov, who observed an ‘oppressive, suffocating atmosphere in the party; people abandoned any initiative’ in their haste to ‘redeem themselves from non-existent sins’. Mitter, who may not have encountered enough Chinese in China to realise that they generally praise the regime of the moment because they know what happens to those who don’t, contends: ‘It is possible for a regime to be repressive and genuinely popular among its own people at the same time.’

I suppose it is possible, but that was not the case under Mao’s rule. Long after the Yanan years, survivors, often the ‘angry widows’ of those whom Mao had mauled, told the American scholars Tony Saich and David Apter that their main memory of Mao’s guerrilla lair was fear.

Never mind. Here and there, as scholars do, Rana Mitter falters. But his is the best narrative of that long-ago war, whose effects still linger in China today, with Japan the major hate figure.


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