Can the sheer brutality of an invasion—the vast, inhuman destruction of civilian lives and property—serve to unify a country? Read on to find out how Japan’s World War II occupation united China and sowed the seeds of patriotism in its rural population.
The Japanese Prime Minister’s Apology
When Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China in 1972 to mark the normalization of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations, he made a point of apologizing to his Chinese host, Zhou Enlai, for Japan’s destructive World War II occupation of China.
But Zhou shrugged off Mr. Tanaka’s apology, observing that if it hadn’t been for Japan’s invasion, “We might still be living in caves in Yan’an.” While perhaps a bit hyperbolic, Zhou’s response nonetheless contained a substantial grain of truth.
It speaks of the time when the Communist party was yet to assert itself and gain an undisputed stronghold in Chinese politics. It was a time where both the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, as well as the Nationalists, led by Chiang K’ai-shek, vied for position and control of China.
The Seeds of Sino-Japanese War
On July 1, 1937, a minor confrontation took place involving Guomindang and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, a few miles west of Beijing. By the month’s end, Japanese forces had decisively seized the bridge which prompted the government in Tokyo to ominously call for a ‘fundamental solution of Sino-Japanese relations’.
Chiang K’ai-shek responded to the Japanese action with a call to war. “The only course open to us now,” he said, “is to lead the masses of the country, under a single national plan, to struggle to the end.” (J. Crowley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy, pp. 338–39).
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Japanese Assault
The massive Japanese assault that followed saw Chiang’s forces suffering more than 250,000 battlefield deaths and losing over half of their most battle-ready troops. Most of the fatalities occurred during the Nationalists’ unsuccessful defense of Shanghai, which fell to the invading Japanese in the autumn of 1937.
The Japanese next trained their sights on the Nationalists’ capital of Nanjing.
The debacle began when the Guomindang general, without warning, simply abandoned the city. This left Nanjing’s civilian population completely vulnerable, both to the attacking Japanese and to the suddenly leaderless and demoralized Nationalist troops.
The violence that followed was among the worst in modern recorded history with total civilian deaths ranging from a low of 90,000 to a high of 300,000. Though the Japanese assault on Nanjing began as a conventional military operation, it quickly degenerated into uncontrolled havoc.
As the Japanese Emperor Hirohito had personally renounced the international convention governing humane treatment of enemy prisoners, the distinction between captive Chinese soldiers and civilian non-combatants was routinely disregarded by the Japanese invaders. As a consequence, tens of thousands of disarmed Guomindang troops were slaughtered outright; and an equal number of civilians were killed on suspicion of being disguised combatants. By the end of January 1938, widespread looting, robbery and arson had left much of the Guomindang capital in ruins.
Unchecked Looting and Corruption
Still fighting a losing battle, the Guomindang forcibly conscripted millions of young men for the war effort. They were paid small, fixed salaries which had meagre purchasing power. Unable to support themselves and their families, hundreds of thousands of impoverished Guomindang conscript soldiers deserted; countless others survived by preying on civilians in the countryside.
Popular morale steadily eroded, while corruption rose to dangerous levels. To make matters worse, a number of well-positioned Guomindang industrialists and financiers, including even members of the Soong family, reaped huge windfall profits by cornering supplies of war-scarce commodities.
Learn more about China’s descent into political chaos.
Communists Encourage Anti-Japan Sentiment
In order to focus popular hostility against Japan, class warfare against the rich was temporarily halted.
In their rural Yan’an headquarters, the Chinese communists escaped the brunt of Japanese attacks. Mao Zedong and his comrades utilized this time to substantially alter their land reform practices. In place of confiscating and redistributing the land and property of landlords and rich peasants, the party now adopted a moderate policy of uniform rent reduction.
Designed to avoid antagonizing landlords and rich peasants, the new policy was intended to facilitate the mobilization of the broadest possible anti-Japanese patriotic front, including all rural classes and economic strata, including even big landowners.
Learn more about Mao’s socialist vision.
Surge of Patriotism in China
In the effort to counteract growing communist influence in the villages of north China, Japanese commanders pursued a scorched-earth policy of ‘kill all, burn all, destroy all’. Entire villages, suspected of harboring communist agents, were burned to the ground, their inhabitants slaughtered. As a result of this policy, a deep and abiding rage against Japan took root among the northern peasants, uniting China.
To mobilize peasant support, the Red Army, now named the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), paid great attention to the political indoctrination of its recruits, so that they would not exploit local farmers, or steal food and supplies, or molest peasant women. In this respect, their wartime behavior compared quite favorably with that of their undisciplined and increasingly predatory Nationalist counterparts.
Consequently, Yan’an served as a magnet for patriotic Chinese from all parts of the country. Between 1937 and 1942, tens of thousands of people made their way to the communist base area to join the anti-Japanese resistance.
Thus, the communists successfully used the Japanese attack and the rage that people felt against the aggressors as a glue to unite China.
Common Questions about the War that United China
On July 1, 1937, a minor confrontation took place involving Guomindang and Japanese troops. By month-end, Japanese forces had decisively seized the bridge which prompted Chiang K’ai-shek to declare war.
The international convention governing humane treatment of enemy prisoners during World War II was not followed by the Japanese as the Japanese Emperor Hirohito had personally renounced it.
The new land reform practices introduced by Mao Zedong were that in place of confiscating and redistributing the land and property of landlords and rich peasants, the party now adopted a moderate policy of uniform rent reduction.