In 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland, Chinese troops clashed with Japanese occupiers in the first battle of World War II. Joining with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, China became the fourth great ally in a devastating struggle for its very survival.
In this book, prize-winning historian Rana Mitter unfurls China’s drama of invasion, resistance, slaughter, and political intrigue as never before. Based on groundbreaking research, this gripping narrative focuses on a handful of unforgettable characters, including Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, and Chiang’s American chief of staff, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell—and also recounts the sacrifice and resilience of everyday Chinese people through the horrors of bombings, famines, and the infamous Rape of Nanking.
More than any other twentieth-century event, World War II was crucial in shaping China’s worldview, making Forgotten Ally both a definitive work of history and an indispensable guide to today’s China and its relationship with the West.
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As Close as Lips and Teeth: China’s Fall, Japan’s Rise
The clash between China and Japan did not begin in 1937. It had been brewing for decades. The story of the first half of China’s twentieth century is the story of its love-hate relationship with its smaller island neighbor. The hatred became more prominent as the years went on, reaching its climax with the devastation visited on China’s territory by the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. But in earlier years, Japan had been mentor as well as monster. It was an educator: thousands of Chinese students studied there. It was a refuge: when Chinese dissenters such as the prominent revolutionary Sun Yat-sen were threatened by their own government, they fled to Tokyo. And it was a model: China’s reformist elites looked to Japan to see how an Asian power could militarize, industrialize, and stand tall in the community of nations. For good or ill, a large proportion of the history of twentieth-century China was made in Japan. It became a commonplace in both countries that Japan and China were “as close as lips and teeth.”1
But if they were so close, how did the two nations come to fight one of the bloodiest wars in history? To understand the origins of their conflict, we must return to the late nineteenth century. To be Chinese during this period was to face a depressing range of political problems—floods, famines, and foreign invasions among them. And looming over all of these challenges was the greatest existential crisis in China’s history. The country’s elites had come to realize that they were no longer in charge of their own destiny. What had once been a self-confident civilization was now the victim of a new international system in which industrialization and imperialism shaped the world. That decline was doubly difficult for many Chinese to understand because it seemed to have come about so quickly. Just a century earlier, many observers in the West had felt that China’s empire was surely the greatest on earth: Voltaire, for one, had criticized his native France by comparing it unfavorably with China. For centuries China’s imperial dynasties had ruled over one of the most populous and sophisticated societies on earth, and for nearly a thousand years China had used a system of competitive examinations to recruit government bureaucrats, long before such a system operated in the West.
The cultural influence of China was at its zenith during this period. The orderly, conservative philosophy of Confucianism, which underpinned Chinese statecraft, spread across East Asia, shaping societies beyond China’s borders, including Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Chinese calligraphy, painting, and metalwork became renowned across the region, and the country developed a dynamic commercial economy: goods such as exotic fruits from the warm south made their way onto the sophisticated palates of the prosperous merchants in the cities of central and northern China. The rulers of Japan, in contrast, began to feel vulnerable. Concern about the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries eager to convert the Japanese to Christianity led the Tokugawa family, who ruled on behalf of the emperor, to impose a policy known as kaikin or sakoku from 1635: on pain of death, no Japanese were permitted to leave the country, and foreign trade was heavily restricted with Dutch, Chinese, and Korean traders permitted only on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor and on outlying islands.2 The Chinese court was much less concerned about the threat from abroad. When the British diplomat Lord Macartney attempted to open up trade between China and Britain in 1793, the emperor sent him away empty-handed, declaring loftily: “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your manufactures.”3 Still, despite this imperial insouciance, China was highly integrated with the world economy and was very far from being closed or isolated. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) the distinctive blue-and-white pottery of Jingdezhen in central China graced elegant homes in eighteenth-century Britain and France. The spread of New World crops such as sweet potato and maize enabled the Chinese to move west and cultivate large parts of their territory that had previously been considered barren. Between 1700 and 1800 China’s population doubled, from 150 million to 300 million people.4
The best example of China’s cultural power over its neighbors is the founding of the final dynasty, the Qing, in 1644. The dynasty was established by ethnic Manchus who rode into the Chinese heartland from the lands of the northeast. Even though the Manchus, like the Mongols and other non-Chinese invaders before them, had conquered China’s territory, they still respected China’s powerful social norms. The greatest emperors of the Qing, Kangxi (r. 1661–1722) and Qianlong (r. 1735–1796), sponsored large scholarly encyclopedias and wrote poetry to show how attuned they were to traditional Chinese culture (even though they maintained many customary Manchu forms at court and in wider society).
Yet China’s success contained the seeds of its future problems. Although the country’s territory expanded during the eighteenth century, its bureaucracy remained small, as did its ability to extract taxes. The lack of government revenue meant that military spending was low. This problem would be highlighted when a new threat appeared in the early nineteenth century: imperialism from the West. The new arrivals were different from previous conquerors who had established new dynasties. They did not share a Chinese view of the world, nor of China’s central place within it. They were led by the British, who were invigorated by the economic gains of industrialization and their final defeat of Napoleonic France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. British traders had established the East India Company in 1600 and now sought a market for the products that emerged from their possessions in southern Asia.5
One crop that grew particularly well was the opium poppy, which produced a sticky black paste that could be smoked for a powerful narcotic effect. The drug quickly took off when introduced to China. Opium had in fact been known in China for centuries, used largely as a medicine and aphrodisiac by elite consumers. Mass-market opium was a British innovation. The imperial court became convinced that a powerful and destructive force was being unleashed upon the population, and Lin Zexu, a high official of the Qing, was sent to the port of Guangzhou (Canton) to destroy the stocks of the drug held by the British traders there. Lin was successful in the short term, capturing the opium after besieging the traders in their “factories,” but he unwittingly provoked a war. Lord Palmerston, the British foreign secretary, authorized the use of force to punish the Chinese for their supposed insolence toward the British Crown, and the first Opium War (1839–1842) began. Chinese defenses turned out to be no match for destructive British firepower, backed up by gunboats, and the court was forced into humiliating surrender.
In 1842 representatives of the Qing dynasty signed the first of what are still known today as the “unequal treaties,” the Treaty of Nanjing. It forced open new ports for foreign trade, including Shanghai, and ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain, without any reciprocal benefits for the Chinese themselves. The treaty marked the start of the “century of humiliation,” during which China lost control of its sovereignty and was at the mercy of foreign powers; even today, the phrase has the power to call up collective memories of a dark period in China’s history. Over the next few decades the Western powers—first Britain, then the United States and France—would launch further wars against China, each victory gaining them greater concessions and territory. For the Chinese, the greatest source of resentment was the establishment of “extraterritoriality,” a provision designed to overcome the supposed inadequacies of Chinese law. It decreed that foreigners from nations covered by the treaties could not be forced to settle legal disputes or face criminal charges in Chinese courts, even if the events in question had taken place on Chinese soil. Instead, the two sides would have to go to a “Mixed” court under foreign authority.6
Shanghai was the key. A small trading city for most of China’s history, and eclipsed for all that time by nearby Nanjing and Yangzhou, modern Shanghai was created by imperialism. Trading rights there were granted under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which had followed the first Opium War. Although the treaty was a humiliation for the Chinese, it allowed the growth of a unique port. At the center of the city were two “concession” areas (that is, territory under foreign sovereignty). The French Concession was a small French colony within the city. The International Settlement was more complex. Not a formal colony, it was controlled by the Shanghai Municipal Council, to which until 1928 no Chinese could be elected; the majority of its councilors were British (although Americans, and then Japanese, also served). The settlers, who called themselves “Shanghailanders”(as if the city were its own country), were not directly accountable to London but were widely identified with British interests. Outside the concessions, the Chinese government of the day had control. Gangsters took advantage of the split sovereignty of the city to maximize revenues from drugs, prostitution, and gambling, most famously the notorious Green Gang under Du Yuesheng. Yet the city’s colonial history also provided an opportunity for young nationalist Chinese to see modernity at close quarters. The neon lights and fancy department stores of Shanghai became legendary, even many thousands of kilometers inland.
The Qing dynasty had to reconsider its whole strategy of dealing with the Western world. Two years after the Treaty of Nanjing was signed, the senior courtier Qiying tried to reinterpret the situation for the Daoguang emperor in terms suited to the old imperial world. The foreigners “are constantly making arbitrary interpretations of things,” he explained, “and it is difficult to enlighten them by means of reason.” The court must not “fight with them over empty names,” but rather aim to “achieve our larger scheme” of making them behave according to Chinese norms.7 Qiying hoped that the British could be conciliated as previous foreign invaders from central Asia and the steppes had been appeased in centuries past. But it became clear that this tactic underestimated the fundamentally different nature of the new threat. The imperialists sought to occupy not just land, but minds.
The treaties allowed Christian missionaries to travel extensively in the interior of China. Missionaries were not always welcome, as their presence was often backed (implicitly at least) by the presence of foreign gunboats. Yet Christianity did find many converts in China, particularly as the faith also brought new educational and medical teaching in its wake.
However, nobody could have foreseen the terrible consequences of one particular conversion in the 1850s. A young man named Hong Xiuquan from Guangdong province had repeatedly failed the examinations for the civil service bureaucracy. After his fourth failure, he fell into a trance, in which he recalled various Christian tracts distributed by an American missionary many years previously. Hong’s visions led him to believe that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent to earth to drive the Manchus from China and establish the Taiping Tianguo—the “heavenly kingdom of great peace.” Hong founded a movement that became known as the Taiping, and despite its unpromising beginnings, it snowballed into the greatest civil war that China, and perhaps the world, has ever seen. Between 1856 and 1864 the Taipings established what was effectively a separate state within China; its capital was at the great city of Nanjing, and millions of people lived under its rule. The Taiping was nominally a Christian regime, but it espoused variations in doctrine (such as acknowledging Hong Xiuquan as Jesus’s younger brother) that put off most missionaries and other foreigners from joining forces with it. The Taiping also enacted strict reforms such as the abolition of opium and made moves to redistribute property and land. “Nowhere will inequality exist,” one Taiping notice declared, “and no one not be well fed and clothed.”8
The Qing dynasty was desperate to put the rebellion down. But decades of atrophy meant that the official Qing armies, inheritors of the Manchu warrior tradition, were no longer capable of defeating a large and fanatical rebel group. Instead, the court decided to contain the problem by putting it in the hands of trusted local officials, who raised “New Armies” to defeat the Taiping. The New Armies were highly successful, and the rebellion was finally defeated, although not without massive bloodshed: some 100,000 people were reported killed at the last Battle of Nanjing, in 1864. The Qing had also exacerbated another weakness in their rule. Although the immediate problem of the Taiping was solved, the devolution of military authority from the center to the provinces had laid the grounds for a culture where autonomous militarists, often known as “warlords,” rather than a central Chinese government could lay down the law.9
This fractured, militarized China would become more and more vulnerable, creating a political system that opened the way for the eventual war with Japan. Without the diffusion of power in the years after 1860, it seems far less likely that Japan would have invaded in the 1930s. Militarization and the loss of control by the central government led to a wider culture of violence that rocked the country for the last fifty years of the Qing dynasty’s rule. That violence found one target in the increasingly resented foreign imperialist presence. Although China never formally lost its own sovereignty, foreigners were free to roam across its territory with little fear of legal consequences for actions they took, and this led to many troubling encounters between the Chinese and the intruders. In the streets of Shanghai scenes of rickshaw drivers being abused by British customers were everyday occurrences. In 1900 the Boxer uprising broke out, a peasant rebellion that gained its name from the religiously influenced martial arts practiced by its proponents. The rebellion was spurred on by a great drought that came on top of widespread, grinding poverty, and it saw immense violence against foreigners and Chinese Christians in the villages of north China, culminating in a two-month siege of the foreign legations in Beijing. The rebels whipped up feeling in drought-ridden districts with xenophobic slogans such as “When the foreign devils have all been killed, a heavy rain will fall.”10 Drought and famine also increased the level of local violence, as militias formed in communities that no longer trusted the state to defend them against marauding bandits or corrupt officials.
It was into this vulnerable, post-Taiping China that Chiang Kai-shek was born in 1887. Chiang remained an enigma even to many of his closest associates for the whole of his life. He was stubborn, manipulative, and callous, but also had firm commitments coming from his experience as a Bible-reading Confucian firmly committed to revolutionary anti-imperialism. From his earliest years, he was seized by the conviction that China must be reunited, and that the power of foreign imperialism must be eradicated from its territory. All his military and political life was spent in pursuit of this goal. But his tactics could lead him to adopt intricate and often deceptive strategies: Chiang was a master at playing off his colleagues against one another. Chiang, observed one British journalist in the 1930s, “has never hesitated to forgive his enemies . . . or to betray his friends.”11 Born to a family of salt merchants near Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, the prosperous central coastal area around the Yangtze delta, Chiang received an education which was highly traditional in many ways, and learned the values of the Confucian system of thought, including ideas of propriety, righteousness, and shame. But he would also be shaped by a very new institution in the early twentieth century, the military academy. In addition he would be China’s first leader to have experience of the outside world: a youthful visit to the newly formed Soviet Russia shaped a lifetime of visceral hatred for communism, and a Japanese military academy gave him insights into the enemy he would face one day. During the Second World War itself, his visits to India and Egypt would shape his conviction that a postwar China must fight imperialism and stand tall among the family of nations. Li Zongren, an ally with whom Chiang would have a turbulent relationship, confirmed that he had one key quality for leadership: “he loved to make decisions.”12
In the second half of the nineteenth century, while China floundered, its traditional “little brother” had taken a very different path. After the first Opium War, it was Japan’s turn to confront the West, this time led by the United States. In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor, requesting that Japan abandon its centuries of near-isolation and open itself to a wider range of trading partners. Perry’s demand was politely issued, but it was backed up by the force of gunboats. The next decade and a half saw a major crisis in Japan as the shoguns, the Tokugawa family who acted as regents on behalf of the emperor, found they had no solutions to offer to ward off the foreigners. One scion of the family, Tokugawa Nariaki, advocated all-out war. “If we put our trust in war the whole country’s morale will be increased,” he claimed, “and even if we sustain a defeat we will in the end defeat the foreigner.”13
But few agreed with him, and the political turmoil caused by the foreign threat led not to a war against the Americans but to a coup against the shoguns. After a short civil war in 1868, the Tokugawas were replaced by a very different sort of aristocratic elite, who decided that the way to repel Western imperialism was to embrace wholesale modernization. “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world,” declared the Charter Oath of the new regime, “so as to invigorate the foundations of imperial rule.”14 The reformers carried out their actions in the name of the emperor, whose reign title was Meiji (“brilliant rule”), and the period has therefore become known as the “Meiji restoration.” In reality, it was nothing less than a revolution. Japan had been a feudal aristocratic society, largely agrarian, with little foreign contact. Christianity and firearms, both dangerous influences that might upset the social order, had been outlawed. By 1900, within just three decades, Japan had been transformed. It had a disciplined, conscripted army, and a constitution and parliamentary system. It was Asia’s most heavily industrialized society, exporting goods around the world. By the start of the twentieth century, Japan had nearly 60,000 kilometers of railway tracks and 700,000 tons of shipping. Its leaders had created a modernized, industrialized state in record time.15
Table of ContentsContents ix
Dramatis Personae xi
Pronunciation Guide xiii
Prologue: City on Fire 1
Part I: The Path to War 25
1. As Close as Lips and Teeth: China’s Fall, Japan’s Rise 27
2. A New Revolution 43
3. The Path to Confrontation 56
Part II: Disaster 77
4. Thirty-seven Days in Summer: The Outbreak of War 79
5. The Battle for Shanghai 98
6. Refugees and Resistance 109
7. Massacre at Nanjing 124
8. The Battle of Taierzhuang 145
9. The Deadly River 157
Part III: Resisting Alone 171
10. “A sort of wartime normal” 173
11. Flight into the Unknown 197
12. The Road to Pearl Harbor 211
Part IV: The Poisoned Alliance 237
13. Destination Burma 239
14. Hunger in Henan 263
15. States of Terror 280
16. Conference at Cairo 296
17. One War, Two Fronts 315
18. Showdown with Stilwell 335
19. Unexpected Victory 345
Epilogue: The Enduring War 365
Further Reading 429
Photo Credits 439