Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945

Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945

by Rana Mitter


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An Economist Book of the Year
A Financial Times Book of the Year

“A book that has long cried out to be written.” — Observer (UK), Books of the Year

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.

Prizewinning 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. Mitter 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.

“In the manner of David McCullough, [Mitter] creates a complex history that is urgently alive.” — Kirkus Reviews

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544334502
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 165,685
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

RANA MITTER is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Oxford and the author of several books, including A Bitter Revolution. He is a regular contributor to television and radio in Britain and around the world. His writing has appeared in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt



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 commonplace in both countries that Japan and China were "as close as lips and teeth."

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. 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." 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.

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.

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 assaults 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.

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. 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."

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.

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." 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." 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."


Excerpted from "Forgotten Ally"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Rana Mitter.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Dramatis Personae,
Pronunciation Guide,
Prologue: City on Fire,
The Path to War,
As Close as Lips and Teeth: China's Fall, Japan's Rise,
A New Revolution,
The Path to Confrontation,
Thirty-seven Days in Summer: The Outbreak of War,
The Battle for Shanghai,
Refugees and Resistance,
Massacre at Nanjing,
The Battle of Taierzhuang,
The Deadly River,
Photos 1,
Resisting Alone,
"A Sort of Wartime Normal",
Flight into the Unknown,
The Road to Pearl Harbor,
The Poisoned Alliance,
Destination Burma,
Hunger in Henan,
States of Terror,
Conference at Cairo,
Photos 2,
One War, Two Fronts,
Showdown with Stilwell,
Unexpected Victory,
Epilogue: The Enduring War,
Further Reading,
Photo Credits,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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