Chinese suicide bomber putting on an explosive vest made out of Model 24 hand grenades to use in an attack on Japanese tanks at the Battle of Taierzhuang.


National Revolutionary Army soldiers march to the front in 1939.


A National Revolutionary Army machine gun nest in Shanghai.


Chinese troops making a charge in Luodian.


Map showing the extent of Japanese occupation in 1940 (in red).


Japanese occupation (red) of eastern China near the end of the war, and Communist bases (striped)

The rampant warlordism of the 1910s, 1920s, and early 1930s drove Chinese rural elites to take refuge and reinvent themselves economically and politically in major cities like Shanghai, Wuhan, and Chengdu. But the longue durée of the War of Resistance against Japan and the brutal civil war that followed transformed China—socially, politically, and culturally—for better or worse.



After the split with the Communists in 1927 and the completion of the Northern Expedition in 1928, Chiang continued to see the military as a vanguard institution in China’s struggle to modernize, and he promoted militarism as an ideology of national development. He intended to make the GMD military into the most modern institution in the country, and German advisers were hired to upgrade his forces. The Germans helped to reorganize Chiang’s core units, and oversaw their reequipping and retraining in accordance with German standards. Whampoa’s successor institution, the Central Military Academy at Nanjing, was also upgraded with the assistance of the Germans, and in the years before 1937 it provided Chiang with a steady stream of professionally competent and fiercely loyal graduates. Despite the distractions posed by the ongoing campaigns against the remnants of the Communist Party and the occasional clash with political rivals, by 1937 Chiang had made considerable progress toward his goal of sixty German trained divisions. However, his very success likely accelerated the onset of war with Japan, because the Japanese were not inclined to wait while Chiang built up his forces. The Anti-Japanese War (1937–1945) almost destroyed Chiang’s forces, and quickly undid most of what he had accomplished during the Nanjing decade. Although he finished the war with a greatly expanded army equipped with the latest American weapons, the quality of the troops and officers was generally very low, and morale was poor. The CCP, in contrast, had prospered during the war, and emerged in 1945 with a much expanded army and a burning desire to resume the civil war with the GMD.


In 1931 the Japanese army seized Manchuria, soon declaring the region to be the independent state of Manchukuo (Manzhouguo), with the last Qing emperor, Puyi (1906– 1967), as its puppet ruler. In the spring of 1932, the Japanese navy bombed and assaulted Chinese-controlled portions of Shanghai. The Chinese organized a spirited defense and the Japanese withdrew, but not before sending the Nationalist government in Nanjing a strong message that Central China was vulnerable. What followed was an uneasy truce and a series of “incidents” in North China, which the Japanese used to nibble away at Chinese sovereignty. By 1937 the Japanese had moved troops south to the outskirts of Beijing. On July 7, 1937, the final “incident” occurred, when Chinese and Japanese troops clashed at Marco Polo Bridge in the suburbs of Beijing. From this point on to 1945, it was total war— declared by the Chinese side, though labeled an “incident” by the Japanese.

The turning point in the War of Resistance, or the Second Sino-Japanese War, was the fighting that occurred between 1937 and 1939. During the fall of 1937, the highly mechanized Japanese Imperial Army, supported by heavy bombing raids, quickly swallowed North China and moved south, laying siege to Shanghai by the end of August. The battle for Shanghai was fierce, with the Japanese prevailing by November and soon thereafter closing in on the Chinese Nationalist capital at Nanjing. Chiang Kai-shek had committed his crack units to the defense of Shanghai, where he lost half of his well-trained officer corps. In December, in rapid succession, Jinan in Shandong and then Nanjing fell. Using massive firepower and terror tactics, most famously on the population of Nanjing, the Japanese expected to chase what remained of Chiang’s disorganized fleeing armies into the central Yangzi Valley and deliver the knockout blow that would force Chiang’s surrender, end the war, and leave most of China under Japanese occupation by March 1938.

Instead, the unexpected happened. A variety of regional armies under the command of various militarists came to the rescue of the Chinese nation. Around Wuhan, these regional forces assembled and regrouped with Chiang Kai-shek’s central army units fleeing from Shanghai. Under the reorganization, Chiang Kai-shek and former militarist rivals like Bai Chongxi (1893–1966), Li Zongren (1890–1969), and Feng Yuxiang (1882–1948) formed a new combined leadership. As a result, a surprisingly effective last stand was made around Xuzhou and then at Wuhan in Central China. There, during the spring and early summer of 1938, the revitalized Chinese armies blunted the firepower and mobility of the Japanese Imperial Army using human-wave tactics and night attacks and flooding Japanese mechanized units by blowing up the dikes of the Yellow (Huang) River at Huayuankou (near Kaifeng). By the end of October 1938, the Chinese had lost both Xuzhou and Wuhan. But in the battle for the central Yangzi Valley, both sides exhausted themselves. And most important, the Chinese side, despite having won few battles, had succeeded in turning the war into a protracted affair that would last until 1945.

The next stage of the war was much slower in pace. The Nationalists moved their capital to Chongqing in mountainous Sichuan in 1939, and with the Communists under Mao Zedong they began to organize guerilla-warfare campaigns from their cave headquarters in the Northwest (Yan’an). There was still fighting, but not on the same scale. For instance, Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, was captured and reoccupied by both sides three times between 1939 and 1941. And of course at the end of 1941, the Sino- Japanese War became part of a much larger world war with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into the Pacific and European wars. Chiang Kai-shek (and the Communists) now had a new partner, the United States, permitting both to wait out the war. With the exception of the Japanese Ichi-Go offensive of 1944 (when the Japanese pushed into Jiangxi and Guangxi provinces), the field positions of the opposing armies in China remained roughly stationary for the rest of the war.

But the military facts only tell part of the story. The importance to modern Chinese history of the eight years of total war from 1937 to 1945 is difficult to overestimate, be it in social, cultural, economic, or political terms. The cost in lives lost and property destroyed made this war even more devastating than the war in Europe, a fact not widely acknowledged in the West. Throughout the coastal provinces, from north to south, the atrocities committed by Japanese troops were monstrous. In due course, more than one hundred million homeless refugees (almost a quarter of the population) fled to the interior. Over twenty million civilians lost their lives. Families were torn asunder. Countless women were left to fend for themselves, some alone and others destitute with children, after their husbands and brothers were forcibly pressed into service. Many men died on the battlefield, others succumbed to wounds left untreated, and yet others to starvation and disease.

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