The Sino-Japanese War (抗日战争)Overview

Until very recently, there has been a historical consensus that the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 when a confrontation between Japanese and Chinese troops took place at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. A Japanese solider went missing but was found soon afterwards, apparently having wandered into a brothel. Japanese troops fired on Chinese forces in response. It is thought the Japanese concocted this incident as a pretext to attack Chinese military forces whilst making further territorial demands. At this point, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek stopped making concessions to the Japanese and war broke out. 

However, as early as 1931, the Japanese had demonstrated imperialist aggression in the hope of securing the territory of Manchuria in the North of China. As Stewart (2008: 61) notes: ‘It was relatively underpopulated in contrast to Japan and could be seen as a solution to Japan’s economic problems as both a place for settlement and colonisation and a source of raw materials.’ In a similar manner to the Marco-Polo bridge incident, the Japanese army feigned an excuse for military action. A Japanese Lieutenant detonated a small amount of dynamite onto a Japanese-owned railway line. The Chinese were subsequently blamed and Japan could set about conquering Manchuria. China appealed to the League of Nations, which was created after World War One to arbitrate in international disputes. The league were against this loss of Chinese sovereignty but powerless to do anything about Japan’s imperialist ambitions despite having created a raft of treaties designed to prevent such an incident occurring (Source 1). Japan walked out of the league leaving China with no international legislation or support to fall back on. Ostensibly, such circumstances may have contributed to Chiang Kai-Shek’s lacklustre approach to combatting Japanese imperialism in the build-up to fully-fledged conflict.


Source 1: Anon (1931) Cartoon depicting the Manchuria Incident

Source 1: Anon (1931) Cartoon depicting the Manchuria Incident

In response to the Manchurian Incident, the Chinese boycotted Japanese goods, instigating a trade war to which Japan retaliated by attacking Shanghai in 1932, causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians. In 1933, Chiang Kai-Shek signed the Treaty of Tanngu to formally accept Japanese control of Manchuria. It is in light of these circumstances, that in 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Education advocated 1931 as the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War. This is now the date that appears in all school history textbooks. A possible reason for this, apart from agitating present-day Japan, is arguably to highlight the role the Chinese Communist Party played in resisting the Japanese.  Indeed, the Communist Party formed a guerrilla army in 1931 to counter Japanese aggression. The Communists also wished to enter into a United Front with the Nationalists to resist Japan and it was only after the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-Shek in the Xi’an incident that the Nationalists eventually agreed to do so. However, it is clear that the Nationalist party engaged in far more armed conflict with the Japanese over the course of the Sino-Japanese war, providing the Communists with time to rapidly build up their base of support from the relatively isolated region of Yan’an.

Source 2: Ma Yingbiao (1937) Shanghai Refugees over the Garden Bridge to the Bund

Ma Yingbiao (1937) Shanghai Refugees over the Garden Bridge to the Bund

The first major battle of the Sino-Japanese war, the Battle for Shanghai, is a case in point. The city was defended by Chiang Kai-Shek’s National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Due to their base in Manchuria, the Japanese had already amassed considerable strength in the North and Nationalist forces stood little chance of victory there. Chiang Kai-Shek therefore wished to engage in urban warfare outside a Japanese stronghold. Furthermore, Shanghai was a cosmopolitan city of foreign concessions - a bloody battle in Shanghai could lead to outpourings of international sympathy.Crouch (2013) comments: ‘As a battleground, Shanghai offered the Generalissimo every military advantage. He gave less consideration to the millions of Chinese civilians living there.’ For example, on Saturday 16th August, Nationalist planes intended to bomb a Japanese warship however the bombs exploded off target killing 1740 civilians in the International Settlement.

Scores of refugees, over 1 million in total, sought refuge in both Shanghai’s international settlement and French concession as the Japanese had not declared war on these non-Chinese areas (Source 2). The luckier amongst the refugees would be granted admission to refugee camps.Shanghai was however, cut off from many supply lines for several months and the provision of food was scare at best, Henriot (2006:238) notes the rudimentary nature of a typical meal:

'As supplies became more and more unattainable and costly, most of the refugee camps were only able to provide wheat flour, cooked as steam bread, once a day as the sole form of food. With few or no vitamins, the inadequate nutrition of refugees led to the development of various diseases, especially beriberi. Many of these were of the severe acute type, requiring expensive medicine for treatment. Practically all the patients developed their diseases during their stay in the refugee camp.'

Although refugee camps were far from ideal, the support of the international community safeguarded many inhabitants from Japanese brutality and conditions gradually improved after the inital influx of refugees as managerial systems and more comprehensive forms of infrastructure could be implemented. Clinics were soon established and clothing would be shipped in from Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Outside these designtated zones, it is clear the Japanese held absolutely no regard for Chinese civilian lives as Harmsen (2015) notes that civilians: ‘rushed to escape with whatever possessions they could carry before their homes were overrun by the Japanese army. They took the same route as the troops, pouring over the Zhongshan and Jessfield bridges into the safety of the international zones. Some of them were not fast enough. Whilst they were still making their way across the party destroyed Jessfield railway bridge, a Japanese vanguard caught up with them. A machine gun swept the entire bridge, cutting down men, women and children.’  Shanghai fell to the Japanese in November 1937 as documented by this British Movietone film (Source 3). Here, the narrator comments on the final efforts of the Nationalist forces: ‘The Suicide battalion fights on its heroism admired by the world’. Whilst the Battle of Shanghai had indeed elicited sympathy amongst the international community as Chiang Kai-Shek had wished, no formal intervention would be made until 1941 when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought the United States into World War Two.

The first year of the Sino-Japanese War was characterised by successive Japanese victories and unspeakable violence. On December 13th 1937, Japanese troops captured the Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Spence (1991: 448) comments ‘There followed in Nanjing a period of terror and destruction that must rank amongst the worst in the history of modern warfare[…] The female rape victims, many of whom died after repeated assaults were estimated by foreign observers at 20,000; the fugitive soldiers killed were estimated at 30,000; murdered civilians at 12,000. Robbery, wanton destruction and arson left much of the city in ruins.’ In the wake of these tragic events, a group of Westerners, both businesspeople and missionaries, entered into negotiations with Japan to set up a safe zone. They also documented many events of the Nanjing Massacre so that Japanese denials of the atrocities would not be heeded by the international community. In this photograph (Source 4), Nanjing safe zone committee member Ernest Forster depicts the ruins of a house and shops owned by two brothers. According to Forster, their father died of fright when threatened with a sword by a Japanese soldier. Although the terms of the safe zone as a demilitarised area were frequently breached by the Japanese, it was still responsible for saving thousands of people with a population of around 250,000 refugees. After the fall of Nanjing, the Nationalists retreated to Chongqing which became China’s de facto capital during the war years.

Source 4 : The Nanjing Massacre Ernest Forster (1938) Photograph of the Nanjing Massacre March 13th 1938

Source 4 : The Nanjing Massacre Ernest Forster (1938) Photograph of the Nanjing Massacre March 13th 1938

During the second year of the Sino-Japanese war, public support of the Nationalist party waned as Chiang committed an affront to the Chinese civilian population when he decided to break the dams of the Yellow River. Chiang believed a flood would hold the Japanese up as they attempted to take Wuhan. Scientist Steven Dutch (2009) dubbed the event “the largest act of environmental warfare in history.” Lary (2001:191) notes: ‘A cataclysmic flood swept through the breach, killing by the lowest estimate half a million people and turning millions of others into refugees’. Here, (Source 5) war photographer Harrison Forman depicts a small community of Chinese Jews in the city of Kaifeng digging ditches in an attempt to protect themselves from the expected floodwaters. Chiang Kai-Shek was losing the hearts and minds of the Chinese people whilst Mao Zedong was rapidly gaining public support from his base in Yan’an. Indeed, Lary (2001:205) notes:

‘The Communists took a different tack and used the casualties as a sign of the evil nature of the Guomindang. While the Japanese war was still on they made little overt propaganda over the breach of the dyke, but later on, during the civil war and after they took over China in 1949, they used the scale of casualties in the flood as a symbol of the inhumanity of the Guomindang, which was presented as willing to sacrifice huge numbers of peasants.’

Granted its status as the war-time capital of China, Chongqing became a primary target for Japanese aerial bombardment between 1938-1943, withstanding 268 air raids and over 11,500 bomb blasts in total. After their construction,  air raid shelters (Source 6) would soon become an integral part of everyday urban existence; businesses, factories and military operations moved their bases into these hand-carved cave dwellings. Ferlanti (2012) notes of a resurgence of Chiang's New Life Movement (see Nanjing decade) in Chongqing. Women played a particularly vital role in the relief effort after air raid attacks. Due to the New Life movements links with the Christian movement, foreign missionaries were also mobilised. However, the co-existence of public and private air shelters exacerbated social distinctions and tensions between native Chinese inhabitants.  On the 5thJune 1941, the Japanese relentlessly bombed the city for three hours. In the carnage that ensued, four thousand Chinese were asphyxiated or trampled to death whilst attempting to return to air-raid shelters. 

Source 5: Harrison Forman (1938) China, Men and Boys Digging Ditches  China Yellow River Flood <br />

Source 5: Harrison Forman (1938) China, Men and Boys Digging Ditches China Yellow River Flood

Source 6: 2.	Anon (1938) Chongqing: Building air raid shelters in caves

Source 6: Anon (1938) Chongqing: Building air raid shelters in caves

Whilst the Communist party rarely launched offensive attacks against the Japanese, their successful military strategy still affected the outcome of the Sino-Japanese war, unwilling to allow the Japanese presence in the North to further expand.  In the ‘Hundred Regiments Offensive’ of 1940, 400,000 Communist troops destroyed numerous Japanese garrisons and 600 miles of Japanese railway lines. When the Japanese counter-attacked and the Communists suffered heavy losses, they refrained from engaging in offensive strategies but rather focussed on protecting their territory.  Despite a supposed National Front, Chiang Kai-Shek also renewed his attack on the Communists in their weakened state. Boorman (1966: 180) helpfully summarises the Communists successful strategy of guerrilla warfare: ‘The Communists adopted neither the strategy of battle nor that of abandonment. Rather, they conducted a planned and large-scale retreat into the base area with the enemy in pursuit and then made a decisive counter-attack when conditions for such a move appeared favourable.’ In this photograph , (Source 7), American photojournalist Agnes Smedley photographs a candle-lit night meeting of a guerrilla army creating a romanticised impression of Communist fighters, working late into the night. Indeed, many international observers were invited to stay with Communists in Yan’an and harboured favourable impressions of Communist troops in comparison to their Nationalist counterparts in terms of their morale, organisation and military strategy. By this stage, the Nationalists were losing the propaganda war as well as military battles.

Source 7 : Communist Party Guerrilla Warfare Agnes Smedley (1930s) ‘Night welcome meeting. New 4th Storm Guerrilla Detachment in Central China, North Hankou'

Source 7 : Communist Party Guerrilla Warfare Agnes Smedley (1930s) ‘Night welcome meeting. New 4th Storm Guerrilla Detachment in Central China, North Hankou'

Indeed, it was certainly not Nationalist military strategy that can be deemed responsible for China’s eventual victory over Japan in the Sino-Japanese war but the entry of a powerful ally into the arena: the USA. On the 7th of December 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii and the US entered into conflict in the Pacific. The Americans set up air bases in China and gave Chiang Kai-Shek’s government copious amounts of aid (Source 8). In this poster, the US dubiously associate the Nationalist party with ‘struggling victoriously towards democracy.’ During the Chinese civil war however,  the US government would eventually refuse to give aid to the Nationalist party as they refused to instigate democratic reform. In 1941 though, as Ma (2000:41) notes , Washington's primary aim was to "keep China in the war" in order to tie up millions of Japanese troops until the ultimate Allied victory in Europe.’ Chiang Kai-Shek’s American-educated wife Soong Mei-Ling would visit the US in 1943 and receive a highly favourable welcome but relations were more strained with US military general Joseph Stilwell who viewed many of Chiang’s entourage as incompetent. The new alliance also enabled the lifting of the United States’ discriminatory immigration policy ‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ enabling a small quota of Chinese labourers to emigrate to the US. 

Source 8: US Military Assistance United China Relief Poster

Source 8: US Military Assistance United China Relief Poster

It was, ultimately, the dropping of the atomic bomb onto the Japanese city of Hiroshima that would end the Sino-Japanese war and indeed World War Two. At the time, China was broadly divided into two halves: the Nationalists controlled much of Southern and Western China from their Chongqing base whilst the Communists controlled much of the countryside in North and North-eastern china out of their base in Yan’an. Since the Japanese troops were predominantly located in areas controlled by the Communists, Nationalist troops had to be airlifted by American aircraft to receive their surrender. The official surrender of all 47 Japanese divisions in China symbolically took place in Beijing’s Forbidden City (Source 9).

Source 9: John Stanfield (1945) Hiroshi Nemoto signing the Japanese surrender documents 10th October 1945 , Forbidden City, Beijing. <br />

Source 9: John Stanfield (1945) Hiroshi Nemoto signing the Japanese surrender documents 10th October 1945 , Forbidden City, Beijing.

It is perhaps Rana Mitter (2014:5) who most adeptly summarises the devastating toll of the Sino-Japanese war: ‘Conservative estimates number the dead at 14 million at least (The British Empire and the United States each lost over 400,000 during the Second World War, and Russia more than 20 million)’. Whilst the military contribution to the war effort was far greater on the part of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-Shek simultaneously disregarded civilian lives. The breaking of the Yellow River Dam certainly comprised a significant proportion of this estimated death toll. As Mitter (2014:6) puts it ‘In the end, Chiang won the war but lost the country.’ Indeed, the real winner of the Sino-Japanese war was undoubtedly Mao Zedong: ‘When the war broke out, he was the head of a small party on the run who had been forced into a hideout in the dusty hill country of north-west China. By the end of the war, he would control vast areas of China with its population of some 100 million people as well as an independent army of one million men’ (Mitter: 2014:6) The Sino-Japanese war was therefore arguably the most vital factor in the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This was something Mao Zedong recognised himself when meeting the Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972 stating in a characteristically blunt manner:

 "Japan doesn't have to say sorry, you had contributed towards China, why? Because had Imperial Japan not started the war of invasion, how could we communists become mighty and powerful? How could we stage the coup d'état? How could we defeat Chiang Kai-Shek? How are we going to pay you back? No, we do not want your war reparations!"


Boorman, H. L. and Boorman, S. A. (1966) 'Chinese Communist Insurgent Warfare, 1935-49'. Political Science Quarterly 81 (2), 171-195.

Crouch, G. (2013) 'The Shanghai Gambit: When China Lured Japan into Urban Combat in 1937, the Result Revealed the Empire's Strengths--and its Liabilities'. World War II 28 (1), 52.

Dutch S.I. (2009) 'The Largest Act of Environmental Warfare in History'. Environmental and Engineering Geoscience 15 (4), 287-297.

Ferlanti F. (2012) 'The New Life Movement at War: Wartime Mobilisation and State Control in Chongqing and Chengdu, 1938-1942'. European Journal of East Asian Studies 11 (2), 187-212

Harmsen, P. (2015) Shanghai 1937 : Stalingrad on the Yangtze. [online]

Henriot, C. (2006) 'Shanghai and the experience of war: the fate of refugees' European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006), pp. 215-245

Lary, D. (2001) 'Drowned Earth: The Strategic Breaching of the Yellow River Dyke, 1938'. War in History 8 (2), 191-207.

Ma, X. (2000) 'The Sino-American Alliance during World War II and the Lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Acts'. American Studies International 38 (2), 39-61.

Mitter, Rana. (2014) Forgotten Ally : China's World War II, 1937-1945.

Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Stewart, Geoff. (2006) China : 1900-1976. Oxford: Heinemann.

Taylor, J. (2011) The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China.

The Sino-Japanese War Overview