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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.