Japanese Invasion of China During the Second Sino-Japanese War
The origins and start of the Second-Sino Japanese war
1937 - 1938
author Paul Boșcu, March 2019
In 1937 what seemed at first a minor border skirmish near Peking quickly escalated into a full scale war between the Chinese and Japanese. The Japanese invasion of China had disastrous consequences for the Chinese: within the next year of fighting major cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan fell to the Japanese.
The Second Sino-Japanese War was a conflict fought between China and the Empire of Japan. It began in 1937 and by 1941 was merged with other conflicts of the Second World War as a major theater known as the China-Burma-India theater. The war came as a result of Imperial Japan's ambitions to expand its borders in order to secure much- needed resources required for national expansion. Initially the Japanese achieved major victories, capturing both Shanghai and the Chinese capital of Nanking. By 1939 however, the war had reached a stalemate, with the Japanese unable to defeat the Chinese.

As early as 1936, American correspondent Edgar Snow, a passionate admirer and friend of Mao Zhedong, wrote: ‘In her great effort to master the markets and inland wealth of China, Japan is destined to break her imperial neck. This catastrophe will occur not because of automatic economic collapse in Japan. It will come because the conditions of suzerainty which Japan must impose on China will prove humanly intolerable and will shortly provoke an effort of resistance that will astound the world.’ Snow was right about the outcome of Japanese imperialism, though not about the military effectiveness of Chinese resistance.

Between 1937 and 1942, both nationalists and communists inflicted substantial casualties on the invaders – 181,647 dead. But thereafter they acknowledged their inability to challenge them in headlong confrontations which drained their threadbare resources to little purpose. Chinese historian Zhijia Shen has written in a study of Shandong province: ‘Local people were much more influenced by pragmatic calculation than by the idea of nationalism … When national and local interests clashed, they did not hesitate to compromise national interests.’

The occupation of half of China constituted a massive drain upon Tokyo’s resources. The country was vast: even if organized opposition was weak, large forces were indispensable to make good Tokyo’s claims on territory, and to control a hostile and often starving population.

The Battles of Shanghai, Xuzhou, and Wuhan are usually described separately, as if they were events that followed each other without connection. They were in fact closely linked in strategy on the Nationalist side, although not for the Japanese, and can only be understood in relation to each other. If the Battle of Shanghai initiated full-out war, the Battle of Xuzhou was the critical encounter. Following the fall of Shanghai and Nanjing, Xuzhou provided the best opportunity for a counter-offensive.

The Japanese were the only large-scale wartime users of biological weapons. Unit 731 in Manchuria operated under the cover name of the Kwantung Army Epidemic Protection and Water Supply Unit. Thousands of captive Chinese were murdered in the course of tests at 731’s base near Harbin, many being subjected to vivisection without the benefit of anaesthetics. Some victims were tied to stakes before anthrax bombs were detonated around them. Women were laboratory-infected with syphilis; local civilians were abducted and injected with fatal viruses. In the course of Japan’s war in China, cholera, dysentery, plague and typhus germs were broadcast, most often from the air, sometimes with porcelain bombs used to deliver plague fleas.

That the Japanese attempted to kill millions of people with biological weapons is undisputed; it is less certain, however, how successful their efforts were. Vast numbers of Chinese died in epidemics between 1936 and 1945, and modern China attributes most of these losses to Japanese action. In a broad sense this is just, since privation and starvation were consequences of Japanese aggression. But it remains unproven that Unit 731’s operations were directly responsible.

Over 200,000 people died during the 1942 cholera epidemic in Yunnan. The Japanese released cholera bacteria in the province, but many such epidemics took place even where they did not do so. It was difficult, with available technology, to spread disease on demand with air-dropped biological weapons. Yet even if Japan’s genocidal accomplishments fell short of their sponsors’ hopes, the nation’s moral responsibility is manifest.

Wanping does not look like the sort of place where the destinies of nations are decided. It is an unremarkable village about 15 km southwest of Beijing. It does, however, have one impressive feature: a granite bridge decorated with the carved heads of nearly five hundred stone lions, which drew the attention of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who called it 'one of the finest bridges in the world'. This endorsement gave it the name by which it is best known in the West, the Marco Polo Bridge. In China, it is known as Lugouqiao.

In July 1937, diplomats stationed in northern China sensed something in the air. 'Rumors have been current in Peiping [Beiping] during the past week of possible disorders being created by disgruntled Chinese or Japanese Nationals,' wrote the Counsellor in the US Embassy. 'The rumors seem primarily due to the uneasiness which has developed among local Chinese as a result of Sung's lengthening absence.' The Counsellor's judgement was that General Song [Sung] was away from base because he was trying to avoid the Japanese, who wanted to pressure him into allowing them to dominate more of north China.

In the summer of 1937 the area around Lugouqiao was heavily populated by rival troops. The Chinese 29th Army was under the command of local strongman Song Zheyuan. Also positioned nearby were soldiers of the Japanese North China Garrison Army. Japanese troops started firing in the area around Wanping. The local Japanese commander declared that one of his men had gone missing, and demanded entry to Wanping to search for him. The accusation was clear: the Chinese must have kidnapped or killed him. Song's troops refused, and low-level skirmishes broke out.

The Japanese were allowed to deploy their military in the area because of agreements made after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, permitting foreign powers to station troops that would protect them against another uprising. The relationship between the two sides was very uneasy, and Song himself was in a difficult position, caught between the government in Nanjing and the Japanese. Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek’s government wanted Song to refuse to cede any further ground to Japan, but at the same time not to provoke a diplomatic incident; and Song needed to compromise with the Japanese to preserve his own base of power.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the circumstances, not even that they led to a series of clashes around Beijing. Neither Nanjing nor Tokyo wanted a large-scale war, in spite of the creation of the Second United Front a few months earlier. But the Chinese were determined not to give up this important railway junction. Even the Japanese army did not foresee that they would snowball into a full-scale Japanese invasion.

Chinese troops around the Marco Polo Bridge decided to strengthen their defenses. On 7 July the Japanese conducted night maneuvers around the bridge, firing blank cartridges. The Chinese returned fire briefly, and no one was hurt. A missing Japanese soldier at roll call the next morning, however, prompted the Japanese to begin an attack, although the man returned after twenty minutes. The Chinese successfully repulsed the Japanese.

It seemed likely that the fighting would die down again; many such clashes had dissipated before, usually after the Chinese had made some concession. However, in distant central China, Chiang Kai-shek decided that it was time for a different sort of response. Despite the fact that local commanders began discussing a ceasefire, Chiang was unwilling to achieve a compromise that would probably mean the Chinese would have to give up their former capital, Beijing. As such, the local conflict could not be resolved, and it degenerated into a widespread war between the two countries.

When he heard the news of the fighting near Beijing, Chiang was not in Nanjing, but at the resort of Guling at Mount Lushan, in Jiangxi province. Chiang used Lushan as a country retreat during the hot summer months, and throughout the 1930s he invited his advisers there to plan for a future war with Japan. By the summer of 1937, this preparation had become urgent. 'China has a responsibility to strengthen itself,' he wrote in his diary. 'Only if we develop the psychology that having to fight is inevitable may we perhaps avoid fighting.'

Chiang was meeting with his Military Council when he heard the news that Song's troops had clashed with the Japanese. 'The dwarf bandits have attacked at Lugouqiao,' he added in his diary, using the derogatory term for the Japanese that had first emerged in the imperial era. 'This is the time for the determination to fight.' In his diary, Chiang also reflected on the meaning of the fighting at the Marco Polo Bridge: 'Is there going to be trouble for Song Zheyuan? Are the Japanese trying to bring about independence for north China?' He then added, more pensively still: 'Is this the time to accept the challenge?'

It seemed likely that any compromise settlement would involve his government formally ceding control of the former capital. This was not like giving up Manchuria. The establishment of Manchukuo had been a huge blow to China's prestige, but not a disaster. Chiang had all but recognized the Japanese client state by 1933. Beijing was a different matter: the city had been a national capital for centuries. Although its political importance had waned, it was still a place of immense cultural and emotional significance to many Chinese.

Beijing had strategic importance: it was the major rail interchange for northern China, connecting the north of China to the inland commercial city of Wuhan, and allowing rail traffic to travel in all four directions of the compass. If Beijing fell under Japanese control, then an order from Tokyo could send thousands of troops from Korea and Manchukuo into the heart of the mainland. If Chiang surrendered the city, he would cede north China for a generation, and put the Nationalist heartland in great danger.

At the Marco Polo Bridge, the local Chinese and Japanese commanders were beginning to discuss a ceasefire. The Shanghai press was still trying to determine who was responsible for the incident. 'Who started the firing is still not clear,' the North-China Daily News of 10 July declared, 'but it is considered probable that the Chinese, guarding the railway bridge-head, seeing an armed party advancing along the embankment in the dark, challenged them and on receiving no reply, opened fire, thinking them to be plain-clothes men or Japanese staging a real attack.' But by now, the fate of a bridge near Beiping was beside the point.

As events escalated in July 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge fighting began to resemble the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June 1914. It was not inevitable that that particular incident would escalate into continental war. But if it had not, the balance of power and wider tensions within Europe would probably have precipitated war shortly afterward. In the same way, even if the fighting near Beiping had been resolved at a local level, it had become clear that China and Japan were heading toward conflict sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the temperature rose in Tokyo. Prince Konoye announced at a press conference that Japan was mobilizing troops in north China. Ironically, on the same day, the local Chinese and Japanese commanders announced that they had agreed on a ceasefire. But it was no longer a local issue; Chiang's decision to move troops northward had become a signal for the Ministry of War to dispatch troops from Korea and Manchuria. Japanese public opinion was now in a frenzy.

Konoye addressed a meeting of prefectural governors. In his remarks he advised the Japanese public to be ready for the 'worst eventuality'. 'Our strenuous efforts to reach an amicable settlement of the North China incident have to all appearances failed,' Konoye declared. 'Thus, the lives and properties of our co-nationals in Peiping, Tientsin and the neighboring areas are in danger.' The minister of war, General Sugiyama Gen, added that the 'real cause' of the affair was 'the anti-Japanese campaign and education, strenuously carried on by the Nanking government for years'.

The Chinese government made it abundantly clear that it was mobilizing for a major war. The Chinese public was becoming increasingly incensed. Shanghai's civil society began to demand resistance to the Japanese. The tensions between the two sides meant that a dispute between a Chinese rickshaw driver and a Japanese client over a fare in early July led to mob violence in Shanghai.

The Japanese were reluctant to declare war openly. But they wanted to neutralize China fast, and they hoped that they still had a chance to confine the conflict to the north: the Japanese Army had stated in a resolution that its aims were to eliminate the northern Chinese armies 'in one go', and occupy the region north of the city of Baoding, some 140 km south of Beijing. At the disposal of the Japanese was the Kwantung Army, along with local forces that would either collaborate with them or at least not stand in their way, some 130,000 troops or more in total.

In landing craft, the Japanese were indeed far ahead of both the USA and Britain. Much training and thought had gone into preparations for amphibious operations, which required rapid communications by the airforce, the navy, and the infantry and needed a highly skilled officers corps. Given that Japan had to use amphibious operations to be able to fight in South and South-east Asia, it is no surprise that they were far ahead in this aspect of modern campaigning. The Japanese also possessed some of the best aircraft of the time.

Japan’s massive invasion of China was not thoroughly planned, but it was the logical result of an unstable situation. What Japan persisted in calling the ‘China incident’ years into the Sino-Japanese War quickly turned into a quagmire. At first, events seemed to be falling Japan’s way. Japan’s best hope was that quick victories might pressure the Nanjing regime into accommodation with Japan. World opinion was sympathetic to China, but China was isolated. Yet the Nationalists would not surrender.

Chiang Kai-shek’s resistance to the Japanese made him a national hero, but after some initial damage inflicted on Japanese attackers, Chinese armies overall were ineffective. Chiang decided to take the war to Shanghai. Perhaps urban fighting would nullify some of Japan’s great advantages in tanks and artillery. It might divert Japanese attention from the northern plains, giving Chinese armies more time to build up defenses. And it might even involve the Western powers as they witnessed Japan’s invasion from the concessions.

For all the bravery of their defense of Shanghai, the Nationalists lost many of their best troops while Japan took the north anyway. And it was Chinese bombers, missing the Japanese fleet, that hit Shanghai instead.

The heroic and dogged, if sometimes incompetent, resistance of Nationalist troops against the Japanese in the first year of the war literally cost Chiang Kai-shek most of his best troops. After 1938, his strategy was to retreat and wait: ‘trading space for time’. Giving up territory for time to build up strength was the only choice.

The Japanese struck. Beijing came under attack, as did Tianjin about one hundred kilometres away. The cities fell swiftly after only a few days of fighting. With inferior forces, General Tang fought hard at Nankou in Hebei province but he was unable to defend the city even with Yan Xishan's support. The fighting in north China went on into August, although it soon became clear that the region was lost.

Chiang was shaken. 'The dwarf bandits took Beiping and Tianjin with great ease,' he wrote in the monthly reflection section of his diary. 'This was not what I expected. But if they gained it with such ease today, then how do we know they won't lose it again with ease on another day? ... When it comes to diplomacy with the dwarfs, you have to be firm.'

Chiang did not deploy his own Central Army, instead leaving the fate of the north in the hands of the generals who had dominated the region, including Yan Xis han and Song Zheyuan. Chiang did put one of his personal allies into the army: General Tang Enbo, who, like Chiang, had been trained in Japan. Yet Chiang also hampered Tang: he refused to allow first-rate troops to serve under him, saving them for the coming war in Shanghai and the Yangtze valley. As the best troops were very limited in number, this was perhaps understandable.

Once the Japanese had captured Beijing and Tianjin they drove westward, scattering ill-equipped and loosely coordinated local Chinese armies. The railways were also shaping the pattern of war in northern China. The Japanese military depended on its ability to move large numbers of troops fast, along with their technologically superior weaponry. To do this, they had to dominate the railways in the north, which they did with increasing success through the summer of 1937.

Chiang did have another option, albeit a very risky one: he could now enlist his former enemies, the Communists. He received top-level Communist officials including Zhou Enlai, Bo Gu and Lin Boqu. They had been tasked with negotiating a more concrete agreement between the Nationalist and Communist armies, and had come to meet senior Nationalists including Shao Lizi, Zhang Zhonghui and Chiang himself. Yet both sides were cautious. Chiang compromised, allowing the Communists to set up their own military headquarters and legalizing the Red Army.

Immediately after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Mao Zedong and several senior colleagues issued a statement urging Chiang to stand firm and fight, and pledging their support: ‘The Japanese bandits have attacked Marco Polo Bridge as a step in carrying out their established plan of taking North China by military force. Our grief and indignation upon hearing this news are beyond description! ... We respectfully implore you to issue strict orders to the Twenty-ninth Army to put up resistance with all its courage and might, and to carry out a general nationwide mobilization ... The officers and men of the Red Army sincerely wish to give their all in the service of their country under your leadership, Mr Chairman, to fight against the enemy.’

Chiang did not want yet more troops who would not obey his commands, and the Communists, still wary after a decade of persecution by Chiang's forces, were unwilling to lose any control over the Red Army, which had been formed under conditions of great difficulty as the party fled from its Nationalist enemies.

Of all the concessions that Chiang made to the Communists, the most important was permission to establish their own armed forces. Following their legalization, the Communist troops based in the northwest were renamed the Eighth Route Army. Under their commanders, including Lin Biao and He Long, the army would stand at the heart of the Communists' ability to maintain autonomous control of armed force. There were also a smaller number of troops in the south.

Mao felt that in north China, the area of greatest CCP presence, the first line of defense should run through cities such as Zhangjiakou in Hebei and Qingdao, the seaport in Shandong. Cities such as Datong and Baoding would be the next priority. Mao also authorized the type of combat that would characterize the CCP's contribution to the war over the next seven years: 'The Red Army and the other appropriate armed forces ... may engage in guerrilla warfare.' But Mao also sounded a wary note as he sent his comrades on their way into the camp of their former enemy, now reluctant ally: 'You may come up with other ideas as opportunity offers, but not too many, and firmly grasp the essentials.'

Mao and the CCP also had to make a painful choice. They deferred dreams of revolution and entered an alliance with an old enemy. Mao's public statements at this time reflect the unease that he and his comrades felt at the sudden outbreak of conflict. 'The authorities of North China from the very start resorted to the tortuous pursuit of compromise, without making sufficient preparations militarily,' Mao declared at a rally. The 'authorities' had also failed to harness popular anger against the Japanese. 'The result of this behaviour was that they lost Beiping and Tianjin!' Clearly he was pointing a finger at figures such as Song Zheyuan, but he was also criticizing the Nationalists.

The Chinese government held a confidential Joint National Defense Meeting in Nanjing at the premises of the Lizhishe. The location was symbolic, reminding everyone present of the hard-won Chinese Republic and its history, and what was at stake if the country were defeated by Japan. All the major figures in Chinese Nationalist politics attended. The main event was the address by Chiang Kai-shek, who was now uncompromising in his strong advocacy of war. Chiang made it clear that this was a struggle for the fate of the entire Chinese people.

'If we can win this war,' Chiangndeclared to his elite audience, 'then we can revive the country, and turn danger into security ... but if China loses a war with Japan, then I fear it may take decades, or even centuries, to revive it.' Objectively, he pointed out, the Japanese military was stronger than the Chinese; but the Japanese economy had real problems. 'In spirit, the United States and Britain would help us,' he added, 'but as the Italian case shows, they're not reliable.' Chiang was referring to the failure of the Western democracies to prevent Fascist Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Chiang then issued the challenge in terms that were hard to turn down. 'So, comrades, we need a decision. Do we fight, or shall we be destroyed?'

At the end of the meeting, those who favored war were told to stand up. Among those who stood were Liu Xiang, military commander of Sichuan province in the west of China, which would within months become the center of China's resistance. Also standing was Yan Xishan, another bitter military rival of Chiang, but one who now accepted his arguments that the war must corne. And then there was Wang Jingwei, the man who had for so long tried to keep China out of a conflict with Japan. In fact, everyone stood up. In truth, it would have been hard not to.

The next few days saw frantic military preparations. Chiang had finally abandoned any hope that the conflict in north China might be contained, and peace restored. His own best troops were located in central China, under the control of his government in Nanjing. It was time to take the war to the Japanese, and in a place of Chiang's choosing: the great port city of Shanghai.

It had been clear for weeks that both China and Japan were squaring up for a war in central China. The Japanese had been diverting naval troops from the north to boost their numbers in Shanghai. Chiang declared that 'all hope for peace has been lost'. Chiang had been reluctant to commit his best forces to defend north China, an area he had never truly controlled; Shanghai, on the other hand, was central to his strategy for the war against Japan.

Chiang would use his very best troops, the 87th and 88th Divisions, units trained by generals advised by the German von Falkenhausen, who had high hopes that they would do well against the Japanese. In doing so, Chiang would show his own people and the wider world that the Chinese could - and would - resist the invader.

Chiang Kai-shek gave orders to his armies to defend Shanghai: 'divert the enemy in the sea, block off the coast, and resist landings'. Even before Chiang had mobilized troops, panic hit Shanghai. Refugees swarmed in uncountable numbers crossing the Garden Bridge in the hope of being admitted into the foreign areas of safety. The foreign community did not welcome its new guests.

Built on both banks of the Huangpu River, the city was the junction between the Pacific Ocean to the east and the great Yangtze River that wound thousands of kilometres inland to the west. Shanghai was a distillation of everything that made China modern, from industry to labor relations, to connections with the outside world. And although foreign diplomatic presence was concentrated in nearby Nanjing, the capital, it was in Shanghai that the foreign community took the country's temperature.

Both sides began to dig in for battle - literally so, as trenches were formed in the streets. Chinese troops under some of the major commanders, including Hu Zongnan and Chen Cheng, were moved toward Shanghai. The Japanese responded; by early September some 100,000 troops had been moved in from north China and even from as far as Taiwan.

Attempts to capture the city street by street led to intense fighting, with massive aerial bombing by the Japanese to wear down resistance. Chiang knew there was a high chance of losing Shanghai. Chiang's German-trained troops, however good, were limited in number, and large proportions of the Nationalist Army were under the control of generals who were only occasionally reliable allies. However, bringing the war to Shanghai was important both for domestic and international political reasons. Among foreign powers there was also an early, if grudging realization, that the resistance to Japan was a sign of Chinese determination.

From the beginning, Chiang knew that the city's fate was part of a wider set of calculations and gambles. In his diary he asked: 'Are we gathering our forces for a decisive battle at Shanghai?' Already, just a couple of months into the war, Chiang was preparing himself - and his party and people - for the likelihood that the war would not be over in weeks or even months, but years. This view was still not shared by the Japanese, at least not officially. They continued to regard the events in north China and Shanghai as 'incidents' that had flared up and would be damped down with a firm hand.

Despite the appalling performance of its bomber pilots, the Central Army had thrown itself fully into the defense of Shanghai. The era of avoiding military confrontation and political concessions was over. The decision to attack the Japanese in Shanghai also drove home that this was now a national war.

By bringing the war to Shanghai, Chiang forced the world to take notice. Clashes in north China could be seen as part of the wild activity in the 'outstations', a very long way from Shanghai's foreign concessions. Chiang's great hope was to gain foreign cooperation for the war: in his diary he wrote that he hoped 'every country would be angry at the enemy, and ... encourage the US and Britain to take part in the war along with the USSR.'

Song Mei-ling made a radio address to the US in which she lambasted the West for its unwillingness to support the Chinese cause: 'If the whole Occidental world is indifferent to this and abandons its treaties ... we in China, who have labored for years under the stigma of cowards, will do our best.' The League of Nations, which had shown itself so supine in the face of the occupation of Manchuria in 1933, again offered words instead of concrete assistance, unanimously adopting a resolution condemning the open bombing of Chinese towns by the Japanese.

The British diplomat Robert Howe noted, 'The difficulty which I found in Nanking was that no one in authority appeared to be able or willing to formulate terms which would serve as a basis for approach to Japanese either for an armistice or peace.' Howe went on to say that 'unwillingness to surrender is practically confined to the military and intelligentsia, whilst the agricultural and mercantile mass of population are apathetic and would welcome peace on almost any terms'. It was Chiang's challenge to change this view, both among his own people and in the eyes of the world.

The Japanese government approved the creation of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army, as the navy had wanted. The force consisted of three divisions, and its task was defined as securing together with the navy ‘the destruction of the enemy at Shanghai as well as the occupation of Shanghai and the region to its north’. The first two divisions reached Shanghai and landed in three different places – Chuansha Harbour, Shizilin, and Wusong – between 80 and 140 km north of the city. They established a beachhead running from Baimiao on the Liuhe River to Luodian, Wusong, and North Station in Shanghai.

Chiang used Shanghai as a challenge to his militarist rivals. They all billed themselves as patriots, but would they actually provide troops to defend China? In many cases, the answer was 'yes’. The assault on Shanghai had also enabled Chiang to move ahead with his only successful attempt to gain support from a foreign power: that surprising ally, the Soviet Union. The Soviets now had a strong interest in keeping China engaged in a war with Japan. The Soviet ambassador to China, Dmitri Bogomolov, agreed to a mutual non-aggression pact with the Nationalist government. The Soviets also sent material aid to the Chinese.

Cantonese general Xue Yue and Sichuanese general Liu Xiang were two of the most prominent regional commanders to send troops, supplementing Nationalist generals directly loyal to Chiang who commanded sections of the Central Army, such as Hu Zongnan and Chen Cheng. Military leaders who would not previously have favored sending troops outside their areas of control were now operating, however sporadically, on a national scale.

The Soviet-Chinese agreement involved more active assistance than the term 'non-aggression' implied: by mid-1938 the Soviets had supplied nearly 300 military aircraft, along with ammunition and aid worth 250 million US dollars. Despite his anti-Communism, Chiang was now dependent on Moscow for his survival.

China had the advantage in numbers. It is unsurprising that the best Nationalist Group Armies, including those of Chen Cheng, Lo Zhoying, and Hu Zongnan were present. These were reinforced by armies mostly from south China.

In Shanghai the destruction which began in September stretched on into October. The foreign community looked on in disbelief, finally realizing that the war was not a temporary interruption. Early in the month there were reports of 'severe hand-to-hand fighting in the maze of streets between North Szechuen and Paoshan Roads'. Nor did the bombing campaign let up.

Shanghai's North Station was attacked, leaving the railway terminus in ruins with palls of black smoke billowing up, visible across the city. The next day the government escorted groups of foreign and domestic reporters to the station so that they could see the destruction in detail. Photographs of the devastation were printed in newspapers around the world.

Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and one foreign account noted: ‘No quarter was given and no dead were buried. Flyblown corpses lay in the August sun until the smells of death and burning were wafted over Soochow Creek into the Western area.’

The final phase of the battle for Shanghai began when the Chinese forces retreated to the Suzhou Creek, only to face a fortnight of attack from the Japanese, who had sent in 120,000 troops to finish the job. The Japanese piled on further pressure when they landed an amphibious force at Hangzhou Bay, some 150 km southwest of Shanghai. Chiang had withdrawn troops from the area to defend the city itself, but in doing so, he had left the approach to Shanghai vulnerable.

Suzhou Creek offered considerable advantages to the defenders. However, the defensive positions left much to be desired. Machine gun and artillery cannon had been fitted on top of high buildings vulnerable to Japanese artillery barrages. Usually only a single line of trenches had been dug, with no provision for machine guns and without communication trenches to the rear. Barbed wire was sporadic. In various places, due to obstacles, it was impossible to place the river under fire and so prevent crossings.

The Japanese attacked Suzhou Creek with 120,000 troops. The first Japanese attacks failed, but two days later they succeeded in breaking through at two separate points. Despite desperate counterattacks, the Japanese breakthroughs held and three bridges were thrown across Suzhou Creek, allowing the Japanese to pour men and equipment across. The Chinese position in Shanghai became hopeless.

By early November, Chiang faced the inevitable. His forces could not hold Shanghai. Rather than sacrifice more of his best troops, he decided to pull out, substituting a more achievable aim: to 'defeat the enemy's plan of a rapid decision in a quick war by carrying out a war of attrition and wearing out the enemy'. Orders were sent secretly to Chiang's military commanders to prepare to move out of the city.

Japanese bombing and close Japanese pursuit on the ground destroyed the plans for an orderly retreat. Chinese units could often move only by night, and they lost contact with their commanders. Highways and railroads were too dangerous to use. Panic spread as the Japanese threatened to trap the fleeing Chinese forces in an encirclement from which they could not have escaped.

The inevitable was finally made public and the people of Shanghai learned that the 'National Government' would be moving 'to Chongqing for long-term resistance'. Now that Shanghai was lost, Nanjing could not be defended either. The military command would move upriver to Wuhan, and base its defense of central China there. The government bureaucracy would move further upriver, to the hilltop city of Chongqing in southwest China, a last redoubt against an invasion by land.

Insiders had found out the news earlier than newspaper readers did, among them Zhou Fohai, a few hundred kilometres away in the government offices at Nanjing. Zhou met Chen Bulei, Chiang Kai-shek's political secretary and ghostwriter, who told him that the government would have to relocate immediately. Zhou's first fear was that the government would collapse as a result of the military disaster. He wrote: ‘This day was the beginning of my new life… I am extremely pessimistic ... China will have no more history. Why should I keep my diary any more?’

The fate of Shanghai deeply shocked the West even after the guns ceased firing and a sullen peace returned. The British poet W. H. Auden and the writer Christopher Isherwood, both fresh from seeing the carnage of the Spanish Civil War, arrived in the city some months after the fighting had ended. Isherwood recorded in graphic terms the destruction that lay before him, made more eerie by the fact that the foreign concessions remained almost intact while the Chinese-controlled parts of the city had been demolished: ‘The International Settlement and the French Concession form an island, an oasis in the middle of the stark, frightful wilderness which was once the Chinese city. Your car crosses the Soochow Creek: on the one side are streets and houses, swarming with life; on the other is a cratered and barren moon-landscape, intersected by empty, clean-swept roads. Here and there a Japanese sentry stands on guard, or a party of soldiers hunts among the ruins for scrap-iron. Further out, the buildings are not so badly damaged, but every Chinese or foreign property has been looted - and no kind of wild animal could have made half the mess ... books and pictures have been torn up, electric-light bulbs smashed, wash-basins wrecked.’

The sacrifice made by the Nationalist armies was real. Chiang had taken a great gamble at Shanghai. By early November he had more than half a million troops on the ground there, but some 187,000 of them were killed or wounded in the first three months of the war, including some 30,000 of the officers who had been so painstakingly trained by Chiang's German advisers. The Communist armies had not been involved in the battle.

The Japanese army landed forces which occupied the prepared Chinese defensive lines mid-way between Shanghai and Nanjing. At the same time, Japanese commanders on their own initiative began a disorderly race to Nanjing to gain glory by capturing the Chinese capital. This was an unplanned operation well beyond Japanese logistical capacities, with the result that chaos descended over the battlefield, with horrible consequences when standing orders were issued to take no prisoners and not to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

There were two wars being fought in the autumn of that year. In central China, the struggle for power was between the Nationalists and the Japanese, mainly in Shanghai, but stretching down as far south as Guangzhou. In northern China, the situation was much more complex: armies aligned with Chiang Kai-shek, but not under his control, dominated the area. In addition, the Communists were a powerful presence. The city of Taiyuan, 350 km to the northeast in Shanxi province, now became a center of resistance as the local militarist, Yan Xishan, tried in vain to defend it against the Japanese.

The Communist armies had not been involved in the battle for Shanghai, but their leaders were deeply concerned with the defense of other cities in northern China, which were nearer to their Yan'an base in Shaanxi province. Theoretically, Chiang Kai-shek was now their supreme commander, but in practice he had no control over their actions. Mao had little to say about events in the Yangtze delta, but he issued a string of commands from Yan'an in an attempt to shape events in the north.

Taiyuan in Shanxi province was ruled by the militarist Yan Xishan, one of the many militarists with whom Chiang had a wary relationship. Within weeks all the normal patterns of life were utterly disrupted. People had to work by night rather than day, remain quiet and still for long hours, and endure the constant fear of death.

The maneuvering among the Nationalists, the militarists, the Communists and the Japanese had real and devastating effects on the wider population. Should they remain where they were, at the mercy of clashing armies? Or should they gather all their belongings and flee to places unknown for a life lived out of a suitcase, with no clear means of support? For the very poor, there was often no choice at all; they simply had too few resources to leave their homes.

The Japanese had captured major railheads including the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, which gave them the bases they needed to launch an assault on Taiyuan. The Japanese attacked in three separate groupings. Yan's troops resisted valiantly, but after taking tens of thousands of casualties, the line finally broke, and the troops fled west. The Japanese took the city as terrified crowds of Chinese soldiers and civilians tried to escape the aerial bombardment.

The Communist Eighth Route Army was not directly involved in the defense of the city, although Mao positioned troops nearby. The fall of Taiyuan now convinced Mao that the CCP must engage in a long war, making fuller use of guerrilla combat that could stir up the Chinese people. He wrote, in typically earthy style, 'The essence of the contradiction is that those who have seized the latrine pit can't shit, while the people of the whole country, who suffer acutely from bloating, have no pit. Resistance by the government and the army alone can never defeat Japanese imperialism.' Instead, the Communist forces would be used to harass the enemy: 'A guerrilla war should be mainly in the enemy's flanks and rear.'

Some jaundiced foreign observers expressed doubts about the government's capacity to survive. The view that 'China' would last while its government would not was a clear expression of the long-standing Western idea that somehow modern government was alien to a more traditional and unchanging society. For some, the idea that the National Government was an indigenous product of a new, modern China still seemed hard to swallow.

One British diplomat, Douglas MacKillop, was particularly pessimistic in a note sent to London from Wuhan: ‘The strongest impression which one forms here is of the supineness, incapacity, disunion, irresponsibility and ill-founded optimism of the Chinese Government - optimism based almost wholly on hope that other countries including prominently our own will be willingly or (?unwillingly) [sic] involved in war and that a great catastrophe will save something out of the wreck for the Chinese government. It can be stated fairly in their defence that their machinery of government and even their centre of gravity has been forcibly displaced, that they have never before been called upon to discharge full normal obligations of centralised sovereignty over this territory, that it is a difficult country to administer on modern lines, and that they are deprived of foreign advice and of the wealth of Shanghai to which they formerly had access. But the real question for us is surely not respective deserts of blame or sympathy but whether they are capable of existing ... In my opinion [the] answer is that they will disintegrate as soon as they are forced to leave Hankow (Wuhan) … I have spoken of Chinese Government and not of China. Latter unlike the former is probably indestructible.’

The CCP's efforts in guerrilla warfare were in stark contrast with some of Chiang's other commanders. Most notorious was Han Fuju, governor of Shandong province who tried to make a deal with the Japanese and then flew to Kaifeng at the end of December 1937, abandoning his armies. Chiang had him arrested, and he was later court-martialed and executed as an example to other generals who might feel tempted to leave their commands. Meanwhile, as Chinese troops fled Shandong, the bombing began.

Missionary Katharine Hand wrote: '...the barracks just south of us were bombed, my house shook ... It is an experience I don't care to repeat often. I found I could scarcely speak when it was over. Seven bombs were dropped, not all exploding. Two men were killed and several injured.' The next few weeks saw constant bombardment. On 25 December Hand wrote ruefully: 'And such a Christmas! I was so thankful for the happy service in the Church in the morning. Then in the afternoon eleven bombs.' She noted that she 'had to have a stool lest my knees give way and I add to the fright of the group'. The following day she wrote 'there was no rush for shelter' as the bombers came back, but the fear remained.

Du Zhongyuan noted in one of his reports that the wider population feared the enemy aircraft as if they were 'ghosts and spirits'. Superstitious beliefs were just one of the obstacles that stood in the way of efforts to institute a rational civilian response in the face of constant aerial bombardment. The rhetoric in China, as it would be in wartime London three years later, was of defiance, and for many, that defiance was fierce and real. But it coexisted with a fear that death might come from above at any time, unannounced and terrifying.

The military campaigns in north and central China had become distinct from one another, but refugees were not subject to military discipline, and they travelled in panic from one zone of conflict to the next. The Nationalists quickly created an official portrait of a defiant retreat into the interior, in which large numbers of patriotic Chinese chose to follow their government into exile rather than live under Japanese oppression. And this was indeed the motivation of many.

For those fleeing central China, the lifeline was the Yangtze River, the waterway that could bring them to safety in Wuhan, or further west 800 km away upriver in Chongqing. The government made arrangements for skilled workers to be brought west to staff the arsenals. Factories were also broken down and shipped, as it would be near impossible to build new plant from scratch in the midst of war.

In later years, Mao never wished to commemorate those who had gone to Chongqing, only those (rather fewer) who had travelled to the Communist headquarters at Yan'an. That situation finally changed after Mao's death. No robust statistics have ever been put forward for the number of Chinese who became refugees during the war. So many people fled in so many directions, and the governments under which they lived were so consumed by the struggle for survival, that keeping meaningful records became a secondary task.

By the end of 1937 the cities of north China lay in Japanese hands: Tianjin, Beiping, Taiyuan, Datong and Ji'nan had all fallen. The invaders had less control in the countryside, where guerrilla fighters, many controlled by the CCP, ambushed and harassed them. Central China lay vulnerable, but Wuhan, the city where the temporary Nationalist military command was located, remained secure for the moment. Still, the fear that the Japanese would conquer yet more of the country meant that the numbers of refugees continued to grow.

As 1937 ended, the worst was yet to come. In the first winter of war an incident would occur which was so shocking it still shapes the relationship between China and Japan more than eight decades later: the massacre of Nanjing.

In October 1937 Chiang's government began its westward march, relocating its military command to Wuhan, and the administration to Chongqing. Chiang knew that the abandonment of the capital was a devastating blow to the prestige of his regime. Nanjing held immense cultural resonance for all Chinese. Nanjing was never a strategic target for the Japanese. Shanghai gave them mastery over China's greatest port. The capture of Nanjing was purely a matter of symbolic power.

Until 1421 the city had been China's capital under the Ming dynasty. Its long city walls had taken over twenty years to build with the labor of 200,000 workers, and they towered above Nanjing as a symbol of imperial power. Even after the capital moved to Beijing, the city was renowned for its fine architecture and the gracious lifestyle of its merchant class. Nanjing had also been the Taiping capital during the bloody civil war of 1850-64. The city came to prominence again starting in 1928, when it became the national capital under Chiang's government. The Nationalists used the city to project a vision of urban modernity that would rival the great colonial city of Shanghai.

The Japanese high command had not initially intended to capture Nanjing. When fighting broke out in northern China, the Japanese were mainly concerned with consolidating their grip there, rather than taking over the areas under Nationalist control. But Chiang's decision to widen the war by opening up a front in the Yangtze valley forced the Japanese to rethink their plans. They set up a new entity, the Central China Area Army (CCAA).

By taking the capital, the Japanese would finally demonstrate their victory over Chinese Nationalism, a force they considered pernicious and alien to their vision of East Asia's future. 'Unless the Nanking Government reconsiders its attitude and ceases its resistance,' declared General Matsui Iwane, 'Japanese troops will continue to advance to Nanking, Hankow, and even Chungking, China's new capital.' From Matsui's viewpoint, shared by others in the Japanese leadership, the apathetic European powers were somehow propping China up, and only the Japanese had China's true interests at heart: ‘The first point is to make the Nanking Government abandon the policy of depending on European countries and America ... The second point is to make the Chinese people recognize that Japanese troops are the real friends of China, and have been sacrificing themselves in the current incident to rescue 400,000,000 Chinese correcting the latter's misconceptions brought about by the anti-Japanese policy pursued by the Nanking Government.’ The idea that the Nationalist government was 'dependent' on Europe or America was a reference to the way that Chiang's government had tried to counter the threat from Japan before 1937 by seeking support from the Western powers.

Most foreigners had left Nanjing by early autumn. Embassies evacuated their staff, companies sent their employees home. One of those who stayed on was John Rabe, a German businessman. Rabe noted that by mid-October most of the hotels, shops and all the cinemas in Nanjing had already closed. For most foreigners, this had been a signal that it was time to leave, but Rabe was one of a small group of foreigners who decided they must do something to help the Chinese population left behind by the Nationalists. This group decided that they would establish an International Safety Zone that would be deemed neutral and that Chinese who sheltered there would be safe.

Chiang made last-ditch attempts to prevent what now seemed like the inevitable fall of Nanjing. He cabled Stalin, asking him to dispatch troops to help China; Stalin, who had no intention of launching a land war in China, refused. Chiang's distrust of the Soviets, and the CCP by implication, increased.

The man who volunteered to take charge of Nanjing's last stand was General Tang Shengzhi, yet another 'ally' with whom Chiang had had an ambivalent and complicated relationship during China's turbulent warlord era. Meanwhile, residents began to panic.

The Japanese carried out an act that shocked the outside world: they sank the American gunboat USS Panay. American and British ships were stationed on the Yangtze outside Nanjing, and served as a reminder to Japan that the Western powers had not yet abandoned their interest in China, even if they remained neutral in the conflict. The Japanese government took responsibility and quickly issued compensation to the US government, all the while maintaining that the incident had been unintentional. A confrontation that had the potential to open hostilities between Japan and the US was therefore avoided. But the Panay affair was a clear warning that the West could not rely on neutrality to shut itself off from the ever-spreading war.

The Japanese army entered the capital. General Matsui Iwane led the CCAA, but illness meant that his deputy, Prince Asaka, was the acting officer in command when the Japanese took the capital. The city was in desperate shape. In many places in China foreigners were bystanders to the conflict between the Chinese and the Japanese. In Nanjing the tiny group of westerners, fewer than thirty, who remained in the city, found themselves thrust suddenly into the midst of events, providing a buffer between the Japanese army and a Chinese population left defenseless.

Cheng Ruifang recorded the arrival of the invaders in her diary: 'Yesterday evening our army retreated. This morning we heard no return fire. At 2 p.m. today the Japanese army entered through the Shuixi gate.' The policeman who guarded the college gates saw the Japanese marching through the city and tried to tear off his uniform while running down the road: 'He fell over and his face was white; he's such a coward.' But in the next couple of days Cheng recorded good reasons for the policeman's terror. More and more people arrived at Ginling College: ‘because Japanese soldiers were arriving in broad daylight to steal their money and to rape. In the streets, a lot of people have been bayoneted to death, even in the Safety Zone. Even more [have been killed] outside [the Zone]; nobody dares go outside. Most of the dead are young men.’

The westerners who formed the Safety Zone committee were not trained bureaucrats or public servants. Rabe was a businessman, Robert O. Wilson a doctor, others were university teachers. The committee members made an assumption that the Japanese army would behave, overall, according to the laws of war. They also assumed that it would have an interest in restoring order, something that would also benefit the Chinese and the foreigners in the city. As they were citizens of neutral countries (including the US and Germany), the committee members also hoped that they would gain authority by virtue of their third-party status.

From the first hours of the occupation, the Japanese troops seem to have abandoned all constraints. For the next six weeks, until the middle of January 1938, the soldiers of the Japanese Central China Area Army embarked on an uninterrupted spree of murder and robbery. Far from establishing a new, if temporary, order in the city, the army seemed determined to reduce Nanjing to utter chaos. The Japanese claimed that they were simply rooting out military opposition, but no such explanation could make sense of another crime that was visited upon the civilian population: rape.

The foreign observers witnessed deeply disturbing sights from the very first day of the occupation. At first, the targets seemed to be civilian men suspected of being soldiers who had abandoned their uniforms, although it seemed that little discrimination was being used. Any Chinese man might be a victim. The sounds of rifle fire were heard over and over again in those days, but those who were shot were perhaps fortunate. George Fitch, head of the city's YMCA, noted: ‘I ... went to the house of Douglas Jenkins of our Embassy. The flag was still there; but in his garage, the house boy lay dead ... There are still many corpses on the streets, all of them civilians as far as we can see. The Red Swastika Society [the Buddhist charitable organization; it had no connection with Nazism] would bury them, but their truck has been stolen, their coffins used for bonfires, and several of their workers bearing their insignia have been marched away.’ Three days later, Fitch wrote, 'Went ... to see fifty corpses in some ponds quarter of a mile east of headquarters ... All obviously civilians, hands bound behind backs, one with the top half of his head cut completely off. Were they used for sabre practice?'

Day by day, hour by hour, reports came in of women being sexually assaulted. On 17 December Rabe wrote: 'Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about a hundred girls at Ginling College alone. You hear of nothing but rape.' Minnie Vautrin's diary reported the victims of rape who sought refuge at Ginling College. 'A stream of weary wild-eyed women were coming in,' she wrote. 'Said their night had been one of horror; that again and again their homes had been visited by soldiers. Twelve-year-old girls up to sixty-year-old women raped. Husbands forced to leave bedroom and pregnant wife at point of bayonet...'

There seemed to be no let-up in the intensity of the atrocities. Just after Christmas the Japanese set up public stages where they called upon former Chinese soldiers to confess, saying that if they did so, they would not be harmed, but if it were later discovered that they had been soldiers again, they would be executed. Over 200 former soldiers did come forward, and were promptly killed. Men then stopped identifying themselves as soldiers, but the Japanese rounded up a group of young men who had aroused suspicion. Some of the women refugees were asked to identify them: if they were recognized as relatives, then they would be freed, but 'people left unrecognized were just taken away' to their deaths.

The members of the Safety Zone committee were conscientious in their recording of the events. They knew that they were the only outside witnesses to a major war crime (indeed, some would later be called to testify at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial), and that they had to record details that few others would be able to. But even though few Chinese were able to document their experiences at the time, the entire population was witness to the horrors being visited on the city.

Things did improve, albeit very slowly. The fury of the army eventually began to fade, and the Japanese began to turn their minds to co-opting the city's inhabitants rather than merely terrorizing them. By late January 1938 the arbitrary murders and rapes were lessening in number. At the start of the year, a new city government under Japanese command was set up, which slowly began to restore some sort of order. Food also became a little easier to find.

Nanjing slowly returned to a sort of deathly calm. It was a city under occupation, and atrocities continued into the spring and beyond. But by mid-February, the initial frenzy of murder and rape had ended. Now the city waited to find out what years of Japanese occupation would bring.

Why did the atrocity happen? Few believe that there was a preplanned conspiracy to massacre the population of Nanjing. What made it shocking was the violent manner in which the looting and killing took place, not its cold calculation. The Japanese Army was deeply angry. It had assumed that it would conquer China fast. The strength of opposition, and the length of time it took to secure Shanghai, had enraged troops who were already whipped up by propaganda about the rightness of their cause. The lack of external witnesses was another factor.

Ever since the early twentieth century, the conscript army had been at the center of Japan's reinvention of itself as a modern state. By the 1930s, the army and navy dominated Japanese life almost to the exclusion of other more liberal sections of society: public life, business and the media all came more and more under the military project. The Imperial Army had entered an echo chamber in which its mission to subjugate China could not be opposed either within Japan or outside it.

For reasons having as much to do with the role of historical memory in China and Japan today as the history of the event itself, the Nanjing massacre has been the subject of intense debate. Ultra-nationalist Japanese continue to deny that anything special took place at all; on the Chinese side, estimates of over 400,000 civilians slaughtered cannot be substantiated. But there can be no doubt of a seven-week spree of killing and rape.

News reports of what had happened at Nanjing did leak out, even if the scale of the killings was not clear. The North-China Herald ran an editorial entitled 'Nanking Horror' and lamented 'If every city which may be captured by the Japanese is to be transformed into a bath of blood the world will be repelled with horror and dismay.' There was more detail, although not much: 'Grim tales of massacre, looting and rape during Nanking's capture were received yesterday,' ran the report: ‘...in two days the whole outlook has been ruined by frequent murder, wholesale and semi-regular looting, and uncontrolled disturbance of private homes, including offences against the security of women ... anyone who was caught in streets or alleys after dusk by roving patrols was likely to be killed on the spot ... the terror is indescribable.’

Even if there was no meticulous plan for the massacre in Nanjing, the wider ideological clash between Japan and China was a central cause of the tragedy. Japanese Pan-Asianism had metamorphosed in the decades between 1900 and the 1930s, and the Japanese were seized with a sincere, if deluded, belief that they had a duty to lead their Asian neighbours, including China, in a journey of liberation from Western imperialism. The notion that China might have developed its own vision of nationalism, in which Japan was as much an aggressor as the West, did not fit into the world view of the invaders. This cognitive dissonance did a great deal to fuel the contempt of the troops for their victims, and their consequent savagery.

The larger issue is not the details of what happened in Nanjing but the extreme brutality of the war overall. Why were civilians repeatedly subjected to terror? First, of course, this type of warfare was not unique to the China theater – modern war is ‘total war’ and as the Allies bombed German and Japanese cities to demoralize civilians, so the Japanese sought to break the Chinese will to fight.

At the time of the Nanjing massacre, the Japanese themselves blamed a breakdown of discipline, as troops, exhausted and hungry, suddenly found themselves in a relatively wealthy city. However, that misses the point that officers did not try to stop the murder, rape, and robbery for weeks. Thus others – at the time and since – have focused on the extreme brutality of Japanese military culture, which subjected enlisted men to mistreatment and humiliation, as well as the desire of ordinary soldiers to take revenge for comrades who had died in the sieges of Shanghai and Nanjing.

Nanjing was unique in the scale of the slaughter but not in the decisions to execute surrendered prisoners or attack civilians after a battle had been won. The Japanese army was not the only military force in human history to use terrorism, rape, and torture to cow a population. But the attention paid to Nanjing should not deflect attention from what amounted to policy. The Nanjing massacre was then followed by hundreds and thousands of atrocities and a general policy that was, at best, indifferent to civilian lives.

In November 1937 Chiang Kai-shek had moved his command to the great tri-city of Wuhan. The city was really three municipalities in one - Hankou, Wuchang and Hanyang - which had grown prosperous over the centuries as it became a gateway for trade between coastal China and the interior. The disasters of autumn 1937 thrust Wuhan into new prominence, and just a decade after it had been stripped of its status as temporary capital it once again became the seat of military command and resistance. Yet as 1937 slipped into 1938 the Japanese advance seemed practically unstoppable.

Leading Nationalist politicians had been seen in the city in the months before war broke out, fuelling suspicions that Wuhan would play a major role in any imminent conflict, and by the end of the year the generals and their staffs, along with most of the foreign embassies, had moved upriver.

In January 1938 there was a new escalation of hostilities. Until that point, Japan had not officially declared war. But an Imperial Conference was held in Tokyo in the presence of Emperor Hirohito. Prime Minister Konoye set forth a 'Fundamental Policy' to deal with the 'China Incident'. In fact, it was an ultimatum to the Chinese Nationalist government. Its terms were harsh, including reparations payable to Japan, and new political arrangements that would formalize the separation of north China under Japanese control. Over the next few days, the Japanese government made it clear that this was a formal breach of relations.

The Chinese government was still considering its response when Konoye publicly declared that 'Hereafter, the Imperial Government will not deal with the National Government.' In Japanese, this became notorious as the aite ni sezu (absolutely no dealing) declaration. The Chinese ambassador to Japan, who had been sitting ineffectively in Tokyo for six months since hostilities broke out, was finally recalled.

Chiang summoned a military conference, at which he declared that the top strategic priority would be to defend the east-central Chinese city of Xuzhou, about 500 km north of Wuhan. Control over Xuzhou and the railway lines that ran through it were key to the defense of Wuhan, to the city's south. Holding Xuzhou was the first priority. And doing so meant that Chiang had to place great trust in one of his rivals: the southwestern general Li Zongren.

Chiang's defense was part of a larger strategy that had been evolving since the 1920s, when the military commander and thinker Jiang Baili had first introduced the idea of a long war against Japan. His foresight earned him a position as an adviser to Chiang in 1938. Jiang had run the Baoding military academy which had trained some of China's finest young officers. Now, many of the generals who had trained under Jiang had gathered in Wuhan, and they would play a crucial role in defending the city: among them, Chen Cheng, Bai Chongxi, Tang Shengzhi and Xue Yue. They were loyal to Chiang, but also sought to evade his tendency to micro-manage all aspects of their strategy.

The city was located at the junction of the east-west running Long-Hai Railroad from west of Xi’an to the coastal port of Lianyungang and the north-south running Tianjin-Pukou Railroad. With Xuzhou in their hands, Japanese logistical problems would be greatly eased, as they could then make use of the harbor at Lianyungang.

To defend Xuzhou, the Nationalists concentrated massive numbers. By January 1938, some 200,000 troops were at Xuzhou, 150,000 troops were deployed between Kaifeng and the Tongguan Pass, while 250,000 troops invested south Shanxi. Among them were strong National Army divisions, but also a great number of troops from regional armies.

The Japanese hoped that their capacity to pour in up to 400,000 troops could destroy the Chinese forces holding eastern and central China. Chiang was determined that this should not happen, recognizing that the fall of Xuzhou would then place Wuhan in immense danger. He gave a speech to Nationalist Party delegates in which he linked the defense of Wuhan to the fate of the party itself.

The Xuzhou region offered several advantages to the Chinese defenders. It was at a distance from Japanese troop concentrations in the north. Lakes such as the Nanyanghu to the north of Xuzhou, the Loumahu to the east, and the Hongzehu to the south sheltered the city, which unlike Shanghai was beyond the reach of Japan’s naval artillery. Japan’s air force also played less of role than at Shanghai, partly because of problems of range, but also because at this time the Japanese did not yet pursue strategic bombing offences, as they would later.

Chiang needed China’s armies to fight well at Xuzhou also because of political reasons. Following a punishing series of defeats and the loss of the capital, Chiang and the Nationalists had to make the case that the war was worth all the sacrifices that would be demanded and that they continued to have the policies and personal qualities to see it through. In Wuhan, Chiang linked the War of Resistance with national redemption. On one occasion he addressed a large mass rally and stated: ‘As the war progresses, we must gradually complete the creation of a state based on the Three Principles of the People. You must fully realiz+e that the only goal of the War of Resistance and the Revolution is to rebuild the country. To achieve this goal, we need to implement five types of reconstruction. The first is spiritual reconstruction, the second is material reconstruction, the third is social reconstruction, the fourth is political reconstruction, and the fifth is military reconstruction. Only if we succeed in carrying out these five types of reconstruction will we be able to realize the Three People’s Principles and only then can a modern nation be truly established.’

The Japanese continued their conquest of central China. In February they seized the city of Bengbu some 400 km northeast of Wuhan, giving them control of areas north of the Huai river. The next few weeks saw a savage campaign with Xuzhou as the target. The Chinese defenders stood their ground along the eastern end of the Longhai railway, near the port of Lianyungang. At Yixian and at Huaiyuan, north of Xuzhou, both sides fought to the death: the Chinese could not drive back the Japanese, but the Japanese could not scatter the defenders either.

At Linyi, some 50 km northeast of Xuzhou, Zhang Zizhong, a general who had disgraced himself by abandoning an earlier battlefield, became a fêted hero because of his determination to stop Japanese troops.

For the Chinese, a frightening reality was on the horizon by late March 1938: the Japanese were close to victory on the Xuzhou front. Li Zongren and his senior colleagues, including generals Bai Chongxi and Tang Enbo, decided to confront the Japanese at the traditional stone-walled city of Taierzhuang. The town was not large, but it was strategically significant, lying not only along the Grand Canal, China's major north-south waterway, but also on a rail line that linked the Jinpu and Longhai lines, bypassing Xuzhou.

While the city was still in Chinese hands, the Japanese troops in the north and south remained separated from one another. The loss of the city would close the pincer. By late March, Chinese troops appeared to be gaining ground in Taierzhuang, but then the Japanese started to increase the number of troops, drawing men from the column led by General Isogai Rensuke. The defending generals were no longer sure whether they could hold the position, but Chiang made it clear in a telegram that 'the enemy at Taierzhuang must be destroyed'.

Chiang made clear to his commanders that he wanted a success: ‘If [Taierzhuang] is lost, not only will all officers and soldiers of the 20th Group Army [of Tang Enbo] be punished, but Commander-in-Chief Li Zongren, Vice Chief-of-Staff Bai Chongxi, and Assistant Chief-of-Staff Lin Wei will also be punished.’ Han Fuju’s recent execution made it inadvisable to regard Chiang’s words as an empty threat.

Even by the savage standards set by the war so far, the fighting at Taierzhuang was brutal, with the combatants confronting each other face to face. The battle raged for a week. In the end the Japanese broke and fled, leaving behind thousands of dead. For once, the Chinese had won a decisive victory. The victory provided a much-needed morale boost for the army as well as for the wider population.

Sheng Cheng's notes reflect the battle memories of Chi Fengcheng, one of the star officers of the campaign: ‘We had a battle for the little lanes [of the town], and unprecedently, not just streets and lanes, but even courtyards and houses. Neither side was willing to budge. Sometimes we'd capture a house, and dig a hole in the wall to approach the enemy. Sometimes the enemy would be digging a hole in the same wall at the same time. Sometimes we faced each other with hand grenades - or we might even bite each other. Or when we could hear that the enemy was in the house, then we'd climb the roof and drop bombs inside - and kill them all.’

The foreign community noted the new, optimistic turn of events and the way it seemed to have revitalized the resistance effort. US Ambassador Nelson Johnson wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull from Wuhan just days after Taierzhuang. He noted that the mood in unoccupied China had been similarly transformed: ‘Conditions here at Hankow have changed from an atmosphere of pessimism to one of dogged optimism. The Government is more united under Chiang and there is a feeling that the future is not entirely hopeless due to the recent failure of Japanese arms at Hsuchow [Xuzhou] ... I find no evidence for a desire for a peace by compromise among Chinese, and doubt whether the Government could persuade its army or its people to accept such a peace. The spirit of resistance is slowly spreading among the people who are awakening to a feeling that this is their war. Japanese air raids in the interior and atrocities by Japanese soldiers upon civilian populations are responsible for this stiffening of the people.’

The Japanese had superior technology, including cannon and heavy artillery, but for once the cramped conditions in Taierzhuang gave them no advantage. The Chinese command managed to resupply their troops successfully - a problem which so often undermined Chinese defenses on other occasions - and also prevented the Japanese from restocking their own dwindling supplies of arms and bullets. Slowly, the Japanese were worn down.

The British had always been wary of Chiang Kai-shek, but Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, the British ambassador in China, wrote to the new British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, shortly after the Taierzhuang victory, and gave grudging credit to China's leader: ‘[Chiang] has now become the symbol of Chinese unity, which he himself has so far failed to achieve, but which the Japanese are well on the way to achieving for him ... The days when Chinese people did not care who governed them seem to have gone ... my visit to Central China from out of the gloom and depression of Shanghai has left me stimulated and more than disposed to believe that provided the financial end can be kept up Chinese resistance may be so prolonged and effective that in the end the Japanese effort may be frustrated … Chiang Kai-shek is obstinate and difficult to deal with ... Nonetheless [the Nationalists] are making in their muddling way a good job of things in extremely difficult circumstances.’

The victory was made possible by Japanese over-extension, a failure to coordinate operations in different theaters, the limits of offensive warfare, and the underestimation of China’s will to fight.

The Japanese commanders learned from their defeat. They renewed their war plans and reinforced the numbers of troops, moving soldiers from Japanese armies in north and central China to enclose Xuzhou in a vice. A Japanese advance in late April and early May managed to cut off Chinese access to the Longhai railway, severing the flow of Chinese troops who were trying to hold Xuzhou. Nor did Chinese troops to the south of the city show the persistence of Tang's troops to the north. The remaining Chinese troops in Xuzhou were about to be encircled so Chiang Kai-shek authorized a withdrawal.

The successful defense of Taierzhuang led Chiang Kai-shek to push for a determined counter-offensive. In a series of telegrams he urged the defenders of Taierzhuang to capitalize on Japanese problems. The Chinese counter-offensive soon petered out. After being thrown back at Taierzhuang, the Japanese retreated to the south Shandong hills to await the arrival of reinforcements. They used their superior artillery and the protection of city walls to defend themselves. Lack of intelligence about Japanese movements and the threat of Japanese poison gas attacks blunted the counter-offensive.

After the Taierzhuang debacle, Japanese reinforcements were rushed from Manchuria and Japan. The Japanese Supreme Staff Headquarters adopted a new war plan for the Xuzhou campaign. This called for a coordinated operation of four divisions in the north and two in the south. A fresh group of staff officers was sent from Tokyo. A new war plan called for the Second Army of the North China Expeditionary Force to strike south to the west of Xuzhou to cut the Long-Hai Railroad. The Central China Expeditionary Army was to restart its northward march, simultaneously this time, so as to achieve the broad encirclement of all Chinese forces.

The Japanese advanced rapidly and General Terauchi’s Headquarters claimed that 400,000 men had been trapped in a ring of steel so that they could only surrender or die. However, by this time, the Chinese had already begun their withdrawal, which was authorized by Chiang. Most Chinese divisions, divided into small detachments, escaped in various directions, finding gaps between the Japanese columns, which rushed towards Xuzhou. The lack of sufficient numbers of troops to make the encirclement watertight, together with timely dust storms that rendered Chinese movements invisible to Japanese reconnaissance, made the escape possible.

As in Nanjing, this Chinese army may have lived to fight another day, but the effect on Xuzhou itself was horrific. The departure of Nationalist troops left the city and its outskirts at the mercy of an angry Imperial Army. Aside from the atrocities committed by the Japanese themselves, the local population found that they were assailed by bandits in the absence of local law enforcement.

The loss of Xuzhou was both strategic and symbolic. Its fall marked another terrible blow to Chiang's attempt to hold central China and control the transportation of troops in the region. The fall of Xuzhou was also a sign, if one supported the resistance, that the war would be a long one and that a swift victory against Japan was no longer a possibility. In the meantime, the development of guerrilla warfare was an essential part of the long-term strategy, which the Communist armies would seek to develop in north China.

Mao Zedong's Yan'an base area was many hundreds of kilometres northwest of Xuzhou, but he understood the meaning of defeat there. In May 1938 he gave one of his most celebrated lectures, 'On Protracted War', in which he chided those who had been overly optimistic: 'After the Taierzhuang victory, some people maintained that the Xuzhou campaign should be fought as a "quasi-decisive campaign" and that the previous policy of protracted war should be changed.' Such people had been made 'giddy' by Taierzhuang. Mao had no doubts that China would ultimately prevail, but 'it cannot win quickly, and the War of Resistance will be a protracted war'.

The fall of Xuzhou had a profound impact on the public mood in China. When news of the Taierzhuang victory reached Wuhan, the press had been jubilant and hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets in celebration. After the Battle of Xuzhou, despondency set in again.

Before they could strike at Chiang Kai-shek's center of command, the Japanese needed to take the city of Zhengzhou. If the Japanese captured the city, then Wuhan and the northwestern city of Xi'an would in turn become vulnerable. By the summer of 1938 the Chinese defenders were desperate. Over the centuries the force that had shaped central China more than any other was a waterway known as 'China's Sorrow': the Yellow River (Huang He). The river was held in check by massive dykes that prevented it from leaving its bed. There was one way to stop the Japanese advance, at least for a while: to breach the dykes. But to do so would unleash incalculable suffering on those who lived nearby.

Cheng Qian, commander of the First War Zone, was one of those who put the idea to Chiang, who had flown to Zhengzhou and realized that a military assault could not repel the Japanese now. The only choice was to let the Japanese capture the city within days, or else unleash the only weapon that would stop them, at least for a while: the river's implacable force.

Chiang knew that if he did not break the dykes, and Wuhan fell within days, the Nationalist government might not be able to relocate to Chongqing in time and would be even more likely to surrender, leaving Japan in control of almost all China. The dilemma over whether to break the Yellow River dykes was the product of desperation. Chiang made his decision. He gave orders to General Wei Rulin to blow up the dyke that held the Yellow River in place in central Henan. There was no doubt about what this meant. Floods would inundate much of central China, turning it into a vast expanse of water and mud, and the Japanese advance would be forcibly stopped.

Chiang's government had committed one of the grossest acts of violence against its own people, and he knew that the publicity could be a damaging blow to its reputation. He decided to divert blame by announcing that the dyke had been broken, but blaming the breach on Japanese aerial bombing. The Japanese, in turn, fiercely denied having bombed the dykes.

After the Battle of Xuzhou, the Japanese immediately struck westward along the Long-Hai Railroad, with the intention to fall upon Wuhan. After they had taken Kaifeng and had begun an assault on Zhengzhou, Chiang ordered the destruction of the Yellow River dikes at Huayuankou. The resulting floods, affecting Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu, wrecked the Japanese plan and postponed the seizure of Wuhan by five months, but also led to the devastation of large areas.

Eventually some 54,000 square kilometres of central China were inundated by the floods. If the Japanese had committed such an act, it would have been remembered as the prime atrocity of the war. Accurate statistics were impossible to obtain in the midst of wartime chaos and disaster, but in 1948 figures issued by the Nationalists themselves suggested enormous casualties. For the three affected provinces of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu, the number of dead was put at 844,489, with some 4.8 million becoming refugees. More recent studies place the numbers lower, but still estimate the dead at around 500,000, and 3-5 million refugees.

Supporters of the dyke breaches could argue that these acts saved central China, and Chiang's military headquarters in Wuhan, for another five months. The Japanese were indeed prevented from advancing along the Longhai railway line toward Wuhan. In the short term the floods did what the Nationalists wanted. But the flooding was a tactic, a breathing space, and did not solve the fundamental problem, that China's armies needed strong leadership and rapid reform. Some historians suggest that Chiang's decision was pointless anyway, since it merely delayed the inevitable.

Chiang Kai-shek's decision can be partly explained, although not excused, by the context. We can now look back at the actions of the Nationalists and argue that they should not have held on to Wuhan, or that their actions in breaching the dam were unjustifiable in the extreme. But for Chiang, in the summer of 1938, it seemed his only hope was to deny Japan as much of China for as long as possible, and create the best possible circumstances for a long war from China's interior, while keeping the world's attention on what Japan was doing. The short delay won by the flooding was itself part of the strategy.

Some strategic justification existed for the decision. Combined with the heavy rainfall of the spring of 1938, the floods turned the north China plains into fields of mud, which increased Japanese logistical difficulties and prevented them from using tanks and mobile artillery. Airfields were inundated. The floods, then, made it impossible for the Japanese to capitalize quickly on their victory in the Battle of Xuzhou and gained China’s forces the time to withdraw and regroup in war zones that were then being built up to continue resistance in the future.

In the summer of 1938, in the midst of all this turmoil, one of Chiang's most important alliances ended: all of the Nationalist government's German advisers were called home; any who disobeyed would be judged guilty of high treason. The outbreak of war and the retreat of the Nationalists to Wuhan convinced Hitler's government that they should throw their lot in with Japan, and the recall of all German advisers was one immediate consequence.

Chiang gave a speech praising Alexander von Falkenhausen, declaring that 'our friend's enemy is our enemy too', and declaring that the loyalty and ethics of the German Army were an example that the Chinese Army should follow. 'After we have won the War of Resistance,' Chiang declared, 'I believe you'll want to come back to the Far East and advise our country again.' Von Falkenhausen would go on to become the governor of Nazi-occupied Belgium during the Second World War, but would be praised after the war for having clandestinely saved the lives of many Jews.

Ever since the First World War, there had been a special relationship between those two fledgling republics, the German Weimar and the Chinese. Both were weak and not in full control of their own sovereignty. As part of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, the Germans had lost their extraterritorial rights on Chinese soil. That disadvantage meant that they could deal with the Chinese as non-colonialist equals, and therefore found themselves more welcome in many business and political circles than other westerners.

Hitler’s rise to power had not immediately broken the bond between the two countries. Chiang had no ideological affinity with Nazi Germany, but his government regarded it as a potential ally, and put significant efforts into trying to persuade Berlin to choose China and not Japan as its principal East Asian, anti-Communist partner. In June 1937 H. H. Kung had led a delegation to Berlin that had met Hitler and made the case for an alliance with China. The Japanese invasion of China changed all of that.

As the Germans left, the Japanese were beginning the campaign to capture the city, and some 800,000 Chinese troops had been gathered to oppose them. The Yellow River floods made it impossible for the Japanese to approach the city from the north. Instead, they decided to use the navy to approach the city along the Yangtze River, supported by some nine divisions of troops. The Chinese fought with bravery, but their defenses were simply too weak to resist the pounding from the technologically advanced Japanese navy.

The Chinese had only one welcome element of external assistance: Soviet pilots flying aircraft purchased from the USSR as part of Stalin's plan to keep China in the war against Japan. Between 1938 and 1940 some 2,000 pilots would offer their services to China. Japanese bombers furiously pounded the fortress at Madang, on the banks of the Yangtze, until it surrendered.

As at Shanghai, the ability to conduct combined naval, infantry, and air operations was important. Bombing drove Chinese troops into the hills from low-lying cultivated areas without natural protection. Naval artillery dislodged Chinese troops along the Yangtze and secured this supply line against which guerrilla operations could make little impact.

For the Chinese the next serious blow came when, under heavy Japanese pressure, they had to abandon the city of Jiujiang located 250 km southeast of Wuhan. The city’s population was then subjected to a spree of murder and rape by the invaders. The news of Jiujiang's terrible fate stiffened military resolve.

At this point Chiang gave a highly critical address to his troops:. 'Our achievement in our first year has been to bog down the Japanese,' he declared, pointing out that if Wuhan were lost, the country would essentially be split into north and south halves, which would cause great complications for moving men and supplies across the country. But Wuhan would also be 'a great spiritual loss', since the place had such strong connections to 'revolutionary history'.

Chiang was deeply concerned about the behavior of the Chinese troops. Men were not under the control of their officers; this was 'the suicidal act of a doomed country'. Raiding the population would destroy the trust between citizens and the military. 'Not only should you not steal,' Chiang declared, 'you should be giving things to the people.' Commanders must stay at their posts; he reminded his listeners that the commander who had let Madang fall had been shot. Chiang's message was aimed at the officers in particular.

The Japanese then had to fight much harder to advance up the Yangtze in August. Under General Xue Yue, some 100,000 Chinese troops pushed back Japanese forces at Huangmei. At the fortress of Tianjiazhen, thousands of men fought until the end of September, with Japanese victory assured only with the use of poison gas. The capture of Xinyang gave the Japanese control of the Ping-Han railway, which spelled the endgame for Wuhan.

Even now, top Chinese generals seemed unable to work with each other. At Xinyang, Li Zongren's Guangxi troops were battered to exhaustion. They expected that the troops of Hu Zongnan, another general close to Chiang Kai-shek, would relieve them, but instead Hu led his troops away from the city and the Japanese captured it without having to fight.

During the Battle of Wuhan, the Japanese navy functioned in some ways like a German Panzer force. It repeatedly broke through China’s defenses along the Yangtze River and advanced beyond their own infantry divisions operating along the shores as well as China’s defenders. It then could land forces to attack Chinese fortresses and troops from the flanks and the rear.

The Chinese were let down by their failure to build strong shore batteries along the Yangtze River. The loss of the Madang, Matouzhen, and Tianjiazhen fortresses were all key events. None was able to withstand Japanese combined arms operations for very long.

As the Japanese army approached the city of Wuhan, Chiang, knowing how desperate the situation was, combined encouragement with an acknowledgement that the city might soon be lost. At the same time, he had to make it clear that the defense of Wuhan would not be a defense to the death.

Mao Zedong, observing the situation from his far-off base at Yan'an, agreed strongly that Chiang should not defend Wuhan to the death. 'Supposing that Wuhan cannot be defended,' he wrote in mid-October, as the Nationalists made their last stand at the city, 'many new things will emerge in the situation of the war.' Among these would be the continued improvement of the relationship between the Nationalists and the Communists, a more intense mobilization of the population, and the expansion of guerrilla warfare tactics. 'The purpose of the struggle to defend Wuhan is to drain the enemy, on the one hand, and win time, on the other,' Mao continued, 'so that the work in the whole country will make progress, and not a last-ditch defense of a strong point.'

Scenes from Shanghai were now repeated, nearly a year later, in Wuhan. The government made frantic moves to ship the most important industrial plant upriver before the Japanese reached the city.

As he had done in Nanjing, Chiang remained in command until the very last day. Chiang called his senior officers and told them to depart. 'You must go first,' Chiang told them, 'I'll leave soon after.' That evening, at 10 o'clock, Chiang and his wife Meiling travelled to the city's airfield and left for Hengyang, 450 km south of Wuhan. As they were leaving, guns boomed and Wuhan burned. They had departed just in time: the next day the city was surrounded on all sides, and fell to the forces of the Imperial Japanese Army.

There was one further tragic consequence of Chiang's hasty judgement that the Japanese would not only take Wuhan, but swiftly drive further inland. He decided that the city of Changsha, to the south in Hunan, was vulnerable. Local officials consequently set fire to Changsha, and it burned for two days. But the Japanese did not reach the city: they stopped nearly 80 km away at Lake Dongting.

The fighting exposed the tactical and logistical weakness of the Chinese forces. In November 1938, at the first Nanyue Military Conference in Hunan, Chiang launched a scathing attack on the assembled high-level officers. He stated that large numbers of troops had deserted and that in many areas where the National Army operated the locals had fled. He criticized the use of outmoded defensive tactics. Chiang was irate about staff work: Staff officers had failed to rotate troops in a coordinated way, so that parts of a front had been left empty as replacements had not arrived after a particular unit had withdrawn.

Rather than building up a position in depth, he stated, officers had created just a single defensive line, knowing nothing better than simply building up the numbers. According to Chiang, orders had frequently not been implemented, commanders had been unable to deploy units quickly and flexibly, and they had failed to gather intelligence about enemy movements. Plans had not been kept secret and no sentry posts had been set out, so that the Japanese could easily reconnoitre Chinese positions. Opportunities for counter-offensives had been lost because commanders threw in reserves too quickly.

Staff officers had failed to file battle reports, war diaries, and divisional accounts, so that higher level officers did not know what equipment and ammunition had been spent where, what had been allocated to what units, and how much remained.

Communications within divisions had usually been good, according to Chiang, but it had not been uncommon, he lamented, for divisions not to lay telephone and telegraph cables to higher command centers or neighboring units. This was one way of avoiding orders to attack.

All eyes now turned to the new center of resistance, the temporary capital at Chongqing. Chiang's 'Free China' now meant Sichuan, Hunan and Henan provinces, but not all Jiangsu or Zhejiang. The east of China was definitively lost, and along with it China's major customs revenues, the country's most fertile provinces, and its most advanced infrastructure. The center of political gravity moved far to the west, into country that the Nationalists had never controlled. In the north meanwhile, the Japanese and the CCP were in an uneasy stalemate. Mao's army could make it impossible for the Japanese to hold the deep countryside, but the Communists could not defeat the occupiers.

On the map, it might have looked as if much of China was still under Chiang's control. But vast swathes of the north and northwest were very lightly populated; the bulk of China's population was in the east and south where the Nationalists had either lost control or held onto it only very precariously.

Repeatedly, observers had predicted that each new disaster must surely see the end of Chinese resistance and a swift surrender, or at least a negotiated solution in which the government would have to accept yet harsher conditions from Tokyo. But even after the defenders had been forced from Shanghai, from Nanjing and from Wuhan, China was still fighting. Yet it was fighting alone.

For years, the west of the country, particularly Sichuan province, had been at the outer edge of what was considered to be China, and had never been properly under Nationalist control. Now it was the center of government operations while the eastern heartland was under occupation. The forced move west turned the government's mind to solidifying unification with areas like Tibet and Xinjiang, both of which had edged out of Chinese influence because of the weakness of the Republican governments.

The first phase of the war illustrated the strengths of the Japanese military. They had the navy, the artillery, the tanks, the amphibious skills, and airforce to deploy rapidly and massively. It also showed a severe weakness: the Japanese lacked a clear military strategy. The battle of Taierzhuang formed a good illustration of the fact that the Japanese found it difficult to impose a common strategic view over forces operating at different fronts. Individual divisional commanders, eager for glory, had a tendency to rush forward beyond their supply lines, endangering the cohesion of the whole front.

Virtually all major cities were in Japanese hands by the end of 1938. Yet still the Chinese did not surrender. Japan’s military strategy was to seize the cities and key lines of communication and transportation. From this network of points and lines, control would expand into the countryside, through Chinese agents. Most of the active collaborators were local elites or sometimes bandit gangs. Yet Chinese resistance continued. Local collaborators proved ineffective or even secretly anti-Japanese while genuine collaborators were subject to assassination by partisans.