by Cameron Evans
On July 7th, 1937, the uneasy peace that had existed between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Empire of Japan since the 1931 invasion and occupation of Manchuria had all but disintegrated as Japanese and Chinese troops exchanged fire in what would be known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The following eight years of conflict would be defined not only by the brutality but also by the scale of destruction, with tens of millions killed and wounded and entire regions devastated. The War of Resistance had begun.
It is crucial first to examine the political situation in China in the 1930s to understand the Chinese effort to resist the Japanese invasion. The ROC, while nominally controlled from Nanjing under Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist party, otherwise known as Kuomintang (KMT), was plagued with warlordism. Provinces like Shanxi and Guangxi were run as virtually independent states in all but name. At the same time, other warlords (such as those in Sichuan and Yunnan) cooperated to varying degrees with the central government in Nanjing. Furthermore, the KMT had been locked in a violent conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The civil war between KMT and CCP eventually stopped when the anti-Japanese 2nd United Front was created in December of 1936 following the Xi'an Incident until after WW2. Such levels of political and organizational division and the resulting lack of cohesion and trust would come to define many aspects of the Chinese war effort, compounded by their poorly trained military and large deficits in modern equipment. By contrast, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) was a modern, well-equipped, and well-trained force that lacked any such impediments.
As such, the early stages of the conflict went particularly poorly for the Chinese 2nd United Front. In just over a month, the Japanese would seize Beijing and Tianjin while continuing south towards Taiyuan and, by November, had repulsed a major KMT's attempt to push out the Japanese garrison from Shanghai. The Battle of Shanghai would heavily sap the strength of the KMT in the area, a fact that the Japanese would quickly exploit to devastating effect due to its proximity to the ROC capital Nanjing, which would fall to the Japanese just a month later. The rapes, pillaging, and killings that would occur afterward would come to be known as the Rape of Nanking and would come to symbolize the abhorrent atrocities and criminal acts committed by the Japanese during the occupation of Chinese territory.
The Chinese would get their first taste of victory during the 1938 Battle of Tai'erzhuang. They not only repelled the pursuing Japanese divisions but inflicted heavy casualties, providing a significant morale boost and shattering the Japanese image of invincibility and total military superiority. As a result, the Japanese would change strategy and focus on capturing the critical political, logistical, and military hub of Wuhan. Chiang, seeking to prevent this and well aware of his weakening position on the back of several Japanese victories in the months following Tai'erzhuang, mediated with his advisors and chose to open the dikes of the Yellow River, thereby flooding the entire region in hopes of blocking the Japanese advance. This act would kill over 400,000 Chinese civilians and some Japanese soldiers and displace millions more while devastating the region. Despite this sacrifice, the Japanese would manage to circumnavigate the flooded areas and capture Wuhan on October 27th, 1938, forcing the ROC to relocate their capital again, this time to Chongqing.
At this point, the war would enter a new phase, with the Japanese experiencing several localized defeats at the hands of the Chinese but repulsing larger counterattacks. Experiencing growing problems with administering the conquered areas and unable to create lasting gains against the Chinese, the Japanese decided to focus on blockading the Chinese and seized many coastal ports in the south of China in 1938 and 1939. While these landings were successful, other attempts by the Japanese to break the emerging stalemate bore little fruit, the Battle of Changsha and the attempted invasion of inland Guangxi being key examples. It was during this time that the Chinese tried to counterattack, but this achieved limited success and was called off in late 1940. Both sides continued to enact scorched earth policies during this time both in order to deny resources to their opponent and, in the IJA's case, to punish local Chinese for the guerrilla campaigns being conducted by the CCP (the largest being the Hundred Regiments Offensive) and isolated Chinese cells across the occupied territory. The war would thus remain stalemated until the entrance of the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
The entrance of the Allies into the war, while considerably impactful to Japanese operations, initially did little to change the stalemate in China. Efforts by the Japanese to break the stalemate continued to fall well short of their objectives, and as time went on, more and more Allied supplies and advisors began to arrive in China, allowing Chiang to equip, train and expand his forces considerably. However, the alliance between the CCP and KMT had broken down significantly, with both of them now dually focused on out-maneuvering and thwarting the other while simultaneously fighting the Japanese by this time. This was clearly a warning sign of what was to come following the defeat of Japan. The IJA's final effort to improve its position in China would be Operation Ichi-Go, which, while successful in accomplishing all its objectives, did little to improve the situation on the ground for Japan, stretching out its forces further and failing to prevent continued Allied bombings from further inland.
As 1945 began, KMT's efforts to reverse these gains began to bear fruit, and Chinese forces began to plan for wider liberation efforts in the north. However, with the atomic bombings of Japan, such operations remained on the planning board, the war ending with Japan's unconditional surrender on September 2nd, 1945. The death toll of the eight years of resistance was devastating. By the war's end, the total military casualties alone were estimated to be 15-22 million. The Imperial Japanese Armed Forces suffered approximately 3-3.6 million military casualties. The KMT suffered estimated 3-10 million military losses, while the CCP suffered an estimated 3.8-10.6 million military casualties.
Gordon, David M. "The China-Japan War, 1931-1945." The Journal of Military History, vol. 70
no. 1, 2006, p. 137-182. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jmh.2006.0052.
Taylor, Jay. The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China.
Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press, 2009.
Zarrow, Peter. China in War and Revolution, 1895-1949. London Routledge, 2005.
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