Sweeping account that throws new light on Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership during the Japanese occupation

Prof. Rana Mitter is a busy historian these days as he travels around the world sharing his story of the heroic struggles of the Chinese people in their fight against a large Japanese occupation force of nearly 700,000 troops between 1937 and 1945. Fascinated by his narrative on the collective travails of the Chinese people and new perspectives on the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, I e-mailed him to compliment him on his book China’s War with Japan 1937-1945. In his crisp reply, he mentioned that he was travelling in China where he had limited access to the internet and that he would reply to my mail in detail when he returned to Oxford, where he is a Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China. I suspect he was still rummaging through archives at Chongqing and travelling up the Yellow River to discover more stories about those turbulent years; years that actually determined the future of Modern China as we see it today.

Emboldened by their defeat of Russia in 1904-1905 and creeping domination of East Asia, Japan realised that the only way it would emerge as the undisputed hegemon in Asia was if it conquered China. Exploiting a weak and still developing Chinese Nationalist government under General Chiang Kai-shek, which had emerged from the ashes of the Qing dynasty and the revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen, Japan struck at a time when Hitler had diverted the attention of the two Western powers with geopolitical interests in China, UK and USA. Having already occupied Manchuria in 1932 and forced Chiang to accept their sovereignty over it in 1933, Japanese armies marched into north-eastern China in 1937, capturing Beijing and other cities on their way to their first objective of capturing Chiang’s prestigious coastal metropolis of Shanghai before turning their attention to his capital city of Nanjing. To say that Chiang’s forces were fragmented would be an understatement and the book clearly highlights his attempt to bring together different warring factions and regional warlords, cajoling and impressing upon them the need to come together for China’s sake. In that respect, Chiang’s role in temporarily reining in a restive Mao and convincing him to put aside his aspirations to stir a peasant-led communist revolution for the greater good of China only reaffirms his credential as a true patriot and nationalist. Without fawning over his exploits, Prof Mitter gives him a lot of credit for orchestrating not only a military withdrawal, but a national exodus of people, livestock and factories all the way from the Shanghai-Nanjing area to the Wuhan-Chongqing area of central China – a distance of more than 1500 km.

Mao’s strategy

Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces fought many battles against the advancing Japanese, the most prominent one being the one at Taizerhaung where a warlord general and his army owing allegiance to Chiang defeated two large Japanese divisions in a savage battle. However, this did not prevent the Japanese from regrouping and launching fresh multi-pronged offensives toward Shanghai and Nanjing. Realising by mid-1938 that fighting pitched battles against the Japanese was a losing proposition, Mao cleverly preserved his forces in northwestern China, committing them to battle only later when the Japanese attempted to make inroads into the inhospitable western province of Shaanxi, with Mao’s base in Yan’an — the province where Communist China was born. Mao emerges from the book as a disciplined, ruthless and wily strategist who patiently bided his time, conserving his resources and armies as Chiang exhausted himself fighting the Japanese conventionally. To be fair to Mao, he did attempt to convince to Chiang of the virtues of waging guerrilla war against the Japanese, but Chiang was too steeped in the conventional Japanese and Western methodologies of waging war to follow Mao’s advice. That would also have meant abdicating or sharing equal power with Mao; something that the egoistic Chiang was unwilling to do. The third principal protagonist of Mitter’s book is the tragic figure of Wang Jing Wei, a protégé of Sun Yat Sen and Chiang’s rival for leadership of all nationalist forces in China. After playing second fiddle to Chiang for almost two decades, Wang broke away from what he thought was a losing cause against the Japanese. He formed a parallel government in Japanese-occupied Nanjing in 1940 and is seen as a sad figure and a traitor to the nationalist cause who was exploited by the Japanese to lend some legitimacy to their occupation.

Blending personalities, subterfuge, battles and geography into the larger global narrative of WW II, Mitter argues that China deflected and engaged a fair bit of Japanese military might including air power assets which may have been otherwise been directed against the Allied war effort in the Pacific and Burma. As the war progressed and the US pressured Chiang to open a southern front against the Japanese in Burma, he attempted to extract his pound of flesh from the US in return for military aid and assistance to reconstruct the war-ravaged Chinese economy, but failed to get enough to prevent Japan from continuing to inflict damage to his country till the very end of WW II. Chiang’s personality clash with his US military advisor, Brig Gen Joe Stilwell is much chronicled in the book, which also highlights US disinterest in propping up Chiang’s regime against Mao once the Japanese had surrendered in 1945.

The book does not revolve merely around war, geopolitics and personalities, but also around the people of China and the suffering they went through during the eight long years of the Japanese occupation and the two years of civil war that followed. If one goes by Mitter’s figures of destruction and loss of life due to the horrific aerial bombings of the densely populated Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chongqing between 1938 and 1943, these would be significantly greater than the much publicised Luftwaffe bombing of Britain and the Allied Strategic Bombing Offensive over Germany. Also, it is the Japanese who were the first to attempt the operational strategy of inflicting punishment and causing psychological shock by resorting to widespread aerial bombing of population centres.

The mass retreat of millions of Chinese from Shanghai and Nanjing to Chongqing, Chiang’s wartime capital is described poignantly as a masterly example of human fortitude. Descriptions of the exodus up the River Yangtze, first to Wuhan, and then a year later to Chongqing are indicative of innovative logistics and transportation means coupled with the inherent toughness and stoicism of the Chinese people. If there was one defining moment of truth for Chiang, it was in June 1938 when he ran out of strategies to stop the advancing Japanese and resorted to the demolition of dykes on the Yellow River that caused widespread flooding, untold suffering, death of thousands of peasants and subsequent famine in the province of Henan. Though it stalled the Japanese advance for a few months, it alienated Chiang from millions of Chinese and allowed Mao’s Communists to make inroads into central China in the years that followed. The loss of life during the conflict due to various reasons – bombing, shelling, starvation, floods and widespread famine runs into millions and reflects a human tragedy of proportions that probably no country in the modern era has experienced. Chiang Kai-shek’s visit to India in 1942 is described in some detail as he met with India’s nationalist leaders in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Gandhi and Nehru to support the Allied war effort with greater vigour. His actual motive though was to ensure that the supply route to China from Assam and Burma was kept open. At another level though, it was the first attempt by China’s post-colonial leadership to link-up with another anti-colonial movement. Though much has been written about Mao’s ascendancy to power after WW II, Mitter offers fresh perspectives on how a tired Chiang ran out of ideas to gather international support for his Kuomintang (KMT) regime and fled rather meekly to Taiwan in 1949 when faced with a relatively fresh and motivated Communist Army.

A book of this sweeping breadth would not have been possible without the recent ‘Glasnost’ in China with regards to declassification and availability of archival information on the rule of Chiang Kai-shek and his contribution to the war effort. This is also clearly an attempt by China’s leadership to open up China’s modern history, end the predominantly Maoist discourse of the anti-Japanese struggle and create an inclusive Pan-Chinese nationalism that appeals to the younger generation.

Only time will tell whether this is a clever ploy to counter rising Japanese nationalism, or whether it is a genuine attempt to remind a generation not accustomed to hardship and conflict of the sacrifices made by previous generations.

More In: Reviews | Books