Well before it battered London, a Blitz devastated the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing, China’s temporary wartime capital. At noon on 3 May 1939, Zhang Xiluo, a reporter for a local newspaper, was getting ready for lunch. Suddenly, he heard a sound whose terrifying significance he knew well. “At about noon, we heard a short alarm signal,” he recalled. “I didn’t even finish my meal, but got ready to go and hide away in the air-raid shelter in the newspaper office in Jintang Street.” Half an hour later, an even more urgent siren began howling in short, continuous bursts. The last few people left in the newspaper office ran down into the shelter. They were lucky; many of the city’s poorer inhabitants had only makeshift shelters much less able to withstand a powerful blast from the sky. One man later wrote that in his household, “when the air-raid siren sounded, our whole family of more than 10 people just hid under our table.”
At 12.45pm, 36 Japanese bombers appeared in the sky. From inside the shelter Zhang heard the noise of aircraft engines. The deafening sounds of bombing continued for an hour before the all-clear finally sounded. When Zhang went out, he saw that all across the city, from the docks to the residential districts, buildings had been gutted, bombed into hollow wrecks. Even hours later, as darkness fell, the city was filled with the sounds of moaning and screams for help. The journalist interviewed the wounded and relatives of the dead before rushing back to the office to file his report.
But the city had not escaped yet. The next afternoon the sirens sounded once more. At 5.17pm, 27 Japanese aircraft began to bomb Chongqing again. “It was like being in a tiny boat, constantly shaking,” recalled one survivor. “Outside, bomb shrapnel was flying, window glass was shattering and falling to the floor… and there were the sounds of the enemy planes buzzing and machine-guns firing.” When the all-clear signal sounded, just after 7pm, Zhang Xiluo’s newspaper office was still standing, but the buildings all around had been destroyed.
Chongqing would become used to devastation from the air. Between May 1938 and August 1941, there would be some 218 separate raids using incendiary and fragmentation bombs, resulting in nearly 12,000 deaths, mostly of civilians. The air-raid signals became part of everyday life. One man who spent his childhood in Chongqing recalled decades later: “The whole of my life, I have remembered the sound of the air-raid sirens howling in my ears. The whole of my life, I have retained the memory of the red air-raid warning balls hoisted above the Meifeng Bank building.”
Why was the city in flames? Nearly two years earlier, war had broken out between China and Japan. The confrontation would be the first salvo of the Second World War in Asia. For years, there had been tension between the two great nations of east Asia. Chinese weakness had come into confrontation with an ever-stronger Japanese imperialism, and from the late 19th century, more and more of China’s territory came under Japanese control. Taiwan fell in 1895, followed by parts of Manchuria in 1905, with the whole of the region succumbing after a lightning strike by the locally garrisoned Japanese in 1931.
By 1937, it became clear that the Japanese wanted to dominate north China. When fighting broke out on 7 July between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo bridge near Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Nationalist (Guomindang or Kuomintang) party that ruled China, decided that the time for compromise was over. Within weeks, China and Japan were locked in full-scale conflict.
The fighting lasted more than eight years. During the conflict, 14 million Chinese would be killed, a further 80 to 100 million would become refugees, and the tentative modernisation of roads, railways and industry that had been under way in the 1920s and 1930s was utterly destroyed. Yet the war also marked a turning point for China’s standing in the world. From 1941, after Pearl Harbor, China would sit alongside two of the great Allied powers, the US and Britain, in the fight against fascism in Asia, the only non-European power to do so.
The war would also change the face of Asia. It hastened the fall of the British and Japanese empires, and resulted in vastly increased American and Soviet influence across the continent.
Atrocities abounded: from the Nanjing Massacre (widely known as the Rape of Nanjing, December 1937 to January 1938), when Japanese troops murdered and looted in the captured Chinese capital, to the terror bombings of cities such as Chongqing. Although China under Chiang survived until 1945, the eventual victor in China was Mao Zedong, whose Communist party came to victory in 1949 after a civil war fought across the devastated landscape of China created by the years of war with Japan.
Yet today, many in the west hardly know that China took part in the Second World War. If they think of China at all, it is as a bit-part actor in a war in which the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain were much more important. But China was the first country to face an Axis power in 1937, two years before Britain and France, and four years before the United States. By holding down large numbers of Japanese troops (800,000 at their peak), China was a key part of the overall Allied strategy. If the Chinese Nationalists and Communists had not resisted Japan, all Asia might have fallen under Japanese control. The war marked a vital step in China’s progression from victim of global imperialism to its rise to the world stage as a sovereign power with wider regional and global responsibilities.
China’s leaders during the war with Japan had very different ideas of what the Chinese nation should be. At the heart of the conflict stood Chiang Kai-shek, the military leader who led China’s national government. Chiang was a ramrod-stiff figure, a believer in military force whose political pragmatism nonetheless meant that he never hesitated, in the words of a British journalist, “to forgive his enemies or betray his friends”.
China must resist
If Chiang is remembered at all, it is as a corrupt and incompetent leader whose greed led his American allies to nickname him ‘Cash-my-Check’. Yet it was Chiang who made the decision early on that China must resist Japan, if necessary, alone. As he wrote in his diary, the war was “the turning point between survival and obliteration”.
Within weeks, Chiang had withdrawn his government to the far-off inland city of Chongqing, which was relatively safe from Japanese invasion. He also made a powerful last stand at Shanghai, China’s greatest port city, pouring some half a million of his best troops into the battle, of whom 187,000 would be killed. The British writer WH Auden, who was there shortly afterward, described the devastated city as a “moonscape” and a “charnel-house”.
Although the Chinese could not keep control of eastern China against a technologically superior enemy, Chiang made it very clear that the Japanese could only win China battle by battle and at an immense price in lives.
The American correspondent for Time magazine, Theodore White, reported from Chongqing. He was a strong critic of Chiang, whom he regarded as undemocratic and brutal, but he acknowledged that the defence of the capital in exile came from a desire to “hold the land” against the enemy as a sign of “China’s greatness”.
However, the price the Nationalists paid to maintain the war effort was also huge. Their regime became increasingly impoverished, corrupt and tyrannical as they struggled to maintain control.
Two men sought to fill the gap in authority left by Chiang. In the north-west of China, Mao Zedong, Chiang’s wary ally against Japan, strengthened his grip on China’s Communist party (CCP) and instigated the social reforms that would provide a blueprint for revolution across all China just a few years later.
Less well-remembered is Wang Jingwei, a former rival of Chiang’s for the leadership of the Nationalist party in the 1920s. By 1938, Wang became convinced that China’s desperate and isolated position doomed it to defeat. Only collaboration with Japan could provide some sort of peace with dignity. In December 1938, he made a secret flight to Hanoi, from where he announced that he would co-operate with Tokyo, and in March 1940, he was installed as the president of a “reorganised” Nationalist government in Nanjing. There was a terrible poignancy to this decision after the devastation of the city by the invading Japanese troops.
Until recently, accounts of the Second World War in the west routinely dismissed the contribution of Chiang and the Nationalists to the Allied war effort. On the Chinese mainland too, after Mao’s victory in 1949, the only politically acceptable viewpoint was that the Communist party had taken the leading role in winning the war against Japan. In recent years, the situation has changed radically. Chinese scholars have been given greater leeway to examine the war with more nuance, in part because politicians thought that being more favourable toward Chiang Kai-shek’s memory might aid reunification with Taiwan.
There has also been a wealth of new materials made available to scholars both inside China and elsewhere. In Chongqing itself, I have been just one of a wide group of western historians working with local scholars to use archival materials that have only become available in recent years. At the Hoover Institution, the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek have been opened to scholars and are forcing a reconsideration of the wartime leader’s decisions as more rational than had previously been acknowledged.
The war was a tragedy for China. Yet, somehow, the country resisted and survived to the end. In 1945, because the Americans and British had to acknowledge China’s wartime resistance to Japan, Chiang Kai-shek was able finally to shake off the colonial-era treaties that had bound his country in a submissive relationship with the west ever since the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Now China was invited to the top table of global diplomacy, the only non-western country to sit permanently in the new UN Security Council.
The legacy of that first Chinese rise in 1945 remains crucial in Asia today. At the end of the Second World War, China could have been brought into the world community, but the chance was lost as it remained isolated from the west after the communist revolution of 1949. Seven decades later, the rediscovery of China’s experience in the Second World War could be valuable both for China and for the west. For China, it would mean that the Chinese contribution to the Allied war effort would at last be acknowledged. And the shared history of China’s co-operation with the Allies at a time of peril could be used to shape a new partnership in the Asia-Pacific region.
Nine key moments in China’s war with Japan, 1937–45
7 July 1937
Japanese and Chinese troops clash at the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing, leading to all-out war
August – November 1937
Last desperate stand by Nationalist Chinese troops at Shanghai. The writer WH Auden describes the scene as a “charnel-house”
December 1937 – January 1938
Japanese troops capture the Chinese capital of Nanjing, and commit horrific massacres and sexual assaults
A rare moment of Chinese joy as Nationalist troops defeat the Japanese at Taierzhuang in eastern China
In desperation to stop the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek orders the destruction of dykes on the Yellow river. The floods halt the Japanese advance but drown and starve tens of thousands of Chinese
Late 1940 – early 1941
The uneasy co-operation between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists begins to fall apart as both sides jockey for power
8 December 1941
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US and Britain into the war on China’s side, but relations between the three partners remain uneasy
The Cairo Conference on a postwar settlement sees Chiang Kai-shek participating as an equal Allied partner with Roosevelt and Churchill
Spring 1944 – January 1945
Operation Ichig¯o, a Japanese campaign involving half a million troops, devastates large parts of central China
Rana Mitter teaches Chinese history at Oxford University. His book China’s War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival is published by Penguin.