by Mark Witzke
In the late 19th century, as China declined in the face of internal struggles and foreign intrusion, Japan was on the rise. As the world moved on to the 20th century, China’s loss of influence over Korea and the stunning victory of Japan in the Sino-Japanese War confirmed that China was no longer the premier power in the Pacific.
(continued) With this victory, Japan, the former tributary state to the Chinese Empire, followed the example set by the Western powers and claimed territory from China. They forced China to sign another humiliating unequal treaty (Treaty of Shimonoseki 1895), which ceded Taiwan, the Penghu islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula to the Japanese Empire. This was the beginning, but far from the end of Japanese conquest in China. This conquest would eventually become one of the most destructive conflicts in world history, engulfing China in a storm of chaos and destruction and causing the deaths of millions and the loss of much of China’s territory.
In the years following the 1st Sino-Japanese War, China continued to be weakened by internal instability. The fall of the Qing Empire in 1911 was soon followed by the Warlord Era, a time where a central authority in China barely existed. Eventually, beginning in 1926, Chiang Kai-Shek led both the Guomindang (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Northern Expedition, which restored some resemblance of order. However, his betrayal of the Communists soon after in 1927 during the Shanghai Massacre ensured that a fully united government had no hope of continuing. As the two Chinese parties struggled, Japan saw its chance for conquest and in the 1931 Mukden Incident created a staged explosion as a pretext to invade Manchuria and establish a puppet regime, naming it Manchukuo. At this point, Chiang Kai-Shek, the ruler of most of China, felt the military was too weak to effectively resist Japan and instead continued to fight the Communists, hoping to gain strength and eventually fight off the Japanese. However, with the loss of Manchuria the Japanese now dominated much of China’s northeastern territory. Although the conflict ended with a truce, the GMD refused to recognize Manchukuo as a legitimate state.
In the years following from 1931-1937, guerilla warfare and skirmishes were common but much of the GMD’s troops and resources were allocated towards fighting Communists rather than Japanese. In the south of China, the GMD fought to eliminate the CCP once and for all and began to encircle the last of the Communist territories. The CCP broke out from this containment in late 1934 and began an epic retreat to the northwest of China in Shaanxi. This “Long March” saved the Communist party and consolidated Mao Zedong’s role as the undisputed leader of the CCP. In 1936, the Xi’an incident led to the capture of Chiang Kai-Shek and forced him to once again form a United Front with the Communists. The GMD and Communists prepared for war and it would soon arrive.
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident began as misunderstanding followed by a small exchange of fire. Although both units’ commanders apologized, reinforcements were called in for both sides, tensions escalated and within a week the war had begun in earnest. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese flowed into northern China, quickly pushing the Nationalist forces back and leaving only Communist guerilla insurgencies remaining. Beijing and Tianjin soon fell to the Japanese armies and the Japanese continued marching southward. Although the GMD took a determined stand with its most well-trained and equipped army divisions in the defense of Shanghai, that city too soon fell to the onslaught of the Japanese military. The Japanese continued on slaughtering and pillaging as they went, including the horrific Nanjing Massacre. By the beginning of 1938 Japan had extended its territory from the north of China into Shanghai, Nanjing, Xuzhou, Wuhan and vast areas of the middle and coastal areas of China.
Description: Japanese troops march through Beijing, August 13, 1937
The Japanese had soundly defeated the GMD and the CCP forces and conquered many of China’s most populous and industrious cities. The GMD was forced to flee to the southwest of China and establish a headquarters in Chongqing while the CCP hid in Shaanxi and conducted guerrilla warfare behind Japanese enemy lines. As 1938 turned to 1939, the Japanese advance slowed and this Sino-Japanese conflict became part of an even greater one—World War II. The remains of Free China held out against sustained bombing campaigns as it hoped to outlast Japan. In this chaotic time, world politics was in flux and soon China would find itself a member of the Allies, joining with Britain, the Soviet Union, and later, the United States against Japan, Germany, and Italy.
Stuck in a stalemate on the Chinese mainland, Japan turned towards the seas and moved its fleet out, conquering islands and spreading throughout the Pacific. During this time Japan also consolidated their gains in the south of China, taking both Chinese and foreign administered cities; including, Canton, Xiamen, and Hong Kong. The GMD and CCP were both ineffective in their counterattacks while shock and awe campaigns in southern China killed thousands and reduced buildings to rubble. In CCP infiltrated areas, Japan carried out the “three-alls policy” a campaign of “Kill all, burn all, loot all”. Villagers throughout China were slaughtered, their food stolen, and their homes burned to the ground.
By 1942 the Japanese Empire had reached its greatest extent. It dominated the northern cities of China, controlled the puppet state of Manchuria, administered Taiwan, and ruled the prosperous southern port cities. Japan had possession of roughly 25% of China’s enormous territory and more than a third of its entire population. Beyond its areas of direct control, Japan carried out bombing campaigns, looting, massacres and raids deep into Chinese territory. Almost no place was beyond the reach of Japanese intrusion. However, at this peak the tide began to turn. Despite the death and destruction, Japan in the end could not defeat the last of Chinese resistance. Meanwhile, although the British had failed to effectively defend Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma, as the United States entered the War in the Pacific, Japan began to know defeat and eventually was on the run. After many years of struggle and hardships, all of China would soon be free of Japanese rule.