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China in World War II, 1937–1945: Experience, Memory, and Legacy*


China's long war against Japan from 1937 to 1945 has remained in the shadows of historiography until recently, both in China and abroad. In recent years, the opening of archives and a widening of the opportunity to discuss the more controversial aspects of the wartime period in China itself have restored World War II in China (‘the War of Resistance to Japan’) to a much more central place in historical interpretation. Among the areas that this issue covers are the new socio-political history of the war that seeks to restore rationality to the policies of the Guomindang (Nationalist) party, as well as a new understanding in post-war China of the meaning of the war against Japan in shaping Cold War and post-Cold War politics in China. In doing so, it seeks to make more explicit the link between themes that shaped the experience of World War II in China to the war's legacy in later politics and the uses of memory of the conflict in contemporary Chinese society.

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1 In China, the official position on the War of Resistance since the early 2000s has been that it was a ‘fourteen-year’ rather than ‘eight-year’ war, that is, that it began with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Japanese scholars have long spoken of a ‘fifteen-year’ war. These papers will retain the ‘eight-year’ timing that was most common during the war itself; it seems to us that the total nature of the war after 1937 does make it significantly different from the events that came before.

2 On the death toll, see ‘Introduction’, in Lary, D. and MacKinnon, S. (2001). Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare on Modern China, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, pp. 317. On refugees, see MacKinnon, S. (2008). Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, pp. 4648. Other important works include: Peattie, M., Drea, E., and van de Ven, H., eds (2010). The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945, Stanford University Press, Stanford; MacKinnon, S., Lary, D. and Vogel, E., eds (2007). China at War: Regions of China, 1937–45, Stanford: Stanford University Press; Henriot, C. and Yeh, W-h., eds (2004). In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai under Japanese Occupation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Yeh, W-h., ed. (1998). Wartime Shanghai, London, Routledge; Wakeman, F. (1996). The Shanghai Badlands: Wartime Terrorism and Urban Crime, 1937–1941, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. In Chinese, a major single-volume history of the war is Zhang, X., ed. (2001). Zhongguo kangri zhanzheng shi (1931–1945) [History of the War of Resistance to Japan, 1931–1945], Nanjing daxue chubanshe, Nanjing. The key journal is: Kangri zhanzheng yanjiu [The Journal of Studies of China's War of Resistance against Japan], Institute of Modern History, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. Updates on research in English, Chinese, and Japanese on the Sino-Japanese War are regularly posted by Harvard University's Joint Study of the Sino-Japanese War, led by Ezra Vogel.

3 However, there have in recent years been important sets of publications dedicated to examining aspects of the war against Japan; among these are special editions of Modern Asian Studies 30:4 (1996) on ‘War in the making of modern China’, and Intelligence and National Security, 16:4 (Winter 2001) on ‘Secret Services in China in World War II’, both edited by Hans van de Ven; Journal of Contemporary China 18:59 (March 2009) on ‘New Discoveries from Chiang Kai-shek's Diary’, edited by Tai-chun Kuo; and Lary, D., Scars of War.

4 Johnson, C. (1962). Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937–1945, Stanford University Press, Stanford; Selden, M. (1971). The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. For a lucid account of the debate, see Pepper, S. (2004). The Political Odyssey of an Intellectual Construct: Peasant Nationalism and the Study of China's Revolutionary History—A Review Essay, Journal of Asian Studies, 63, 105125.

5 Mitter, R. (2005). Modernity, Internationalization, and War in the History of Modern China, The Historical Journal, 48:2, 536.

6 An important set of essays that reassesses the record of the Nationalist government, particularly in the pre-war years, is Wakeman, F. and Edmonds, R. L. (2000). Reappraising Republican China, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

7 Dryburgh, M. (2009). Rewriting Collaboration: China, Japan, and the Self in the Diaries of Bai Jianwu, The Journal of Asian Studies 68:3 (August), 689714; Zanasi, M. (2008). Globalizing Hanjian: The Suzhou Trials and the Post-World War II Discourse on Collaboration, The American Historical Review 113:3 (June), 731751.

8 Eastman, L. (1974). The Abortive Revolution: China under Nationalist Rule, 1927–1937, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

9 van de Ven, H. (2003). War and Nationalism in Modern China, 1925–1945, pp. 258–63.

10 Du Yuesheng funded early GMD state-building efforts, particularly in policing and intelligence, through a government-approved domination of Shanghai's opium market. See Wakeman, F. (2003). Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, p. 82; Du Yuesheng, ‘Choumou gongzuo gailun’, in Shanghai-shi dang'anguan. (1990). Shanghai-shi gejie kangdi houyuanhui (Relief associations in Shanghai resisting the enemy) (Shanghai-shi dang'anguan chuban, 1990), p. 516.

11 ‘Furumi Atsushi (Guhai Zhong) zhi bigong’ (4 July, 1954) in Zhongyang dang'anguan et al. (1991). Riben diguozhuyi qinhua dang'an ziliao xuanbian: 14, Dongbei jingji caituo (Selected documents on the Japanese imperialist invasion of China: 14, The Plundering of the Northeastern economy) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1991), p. 763. The author of the memorandum was a mid-level finance bureaucrat in Manchukuo's government; Barnhart, M. (1987). Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919–1941, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, especially pp. 150152.

12 Di-2 lishi dang'anguan (No. 2 National Archives, Nanjing): 787/1419/0140: ‘Xikang-sheng suiqing wenjian’, 1940.4 and 1940.3.12 reports.

14 For an account of this debate seen from the angle of the Chinese Communist Party, see Liu, X. (2003). Frontier Passages: Ethnopolitics and the Rise of Chinese Communism, 1921–1945, Stanford University Press, Stanford. On Chiang Kai-shek's view, see Lin, H.-T. (2009). War, Leadership and Ethnopolitics: Chiang Kai-shek and China's frontiers, 1941–1945, Journal of Contemporary China, 18:59, 201218.

15 Guojia lishi dang'anguan (National Historical Archive, Taipei, Taiwan): 0019–2: Saodangbao (junshi), 1938–1939 (Chongqing). Coverage during the defense of Wuhan, produced in Hankou, is in 0019–3.

16 See, for example, Lai, S. X. (2011). Springboard to Victory: Shandong Province and Chinese Communist Military and Political Strength, 1937–1945, Brill, Leiden, as an example of this more integrated history.

17 Sheng, M. (1997). Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin, and the United States, Princeton, Princeton University Press, pp. 3156.

18 Cai Dejin. (1986). Zhou Fohai riji [The diary of Zhou Fohai], Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, Beijing, especially entries for 1944–1945.

19 Takahashi, T. (2004). Shōgen no poritikkusu, Miraisha, Tokyo, p. 5253.

20 Ritsumeikan kokusai heiwa shiryōkan (Kaji Wataru): ‘Uchimura Akira’, ‘Nikki’, 1943.11.29, 12.1.

21 See Kikuchi Kazutaka interview with former GMD POW Matsuhara Kenji, in Kikuchi (2003). Nihon Hansen heishi to Nicchū sensō: Jūkei Kokumin seifu chiiki no hokuryo shūyōjo to kanren sasete [Japanese Veterans against the Second Sino-Japanese War: On the Chongqing GMD Government's POW Camps], Ocha no mizu shobō, Tokyo, p. 378. Kikuchi's interviews reveal the extent to which United States intelligence officers had penetrated Chinese rear areas, with ‘Nisei’ (second generation Japanese Americans) interrogators turning up in some of the most remote positions where Japanese prisoners were held by Chinese forces.

22 Baqianlilu yun he yue, 1947.

23 Cang Kejia (2002). Cong yinmu kandao le wo ziji [Seeing Oneself in the Cinema] in Wenhuibao (10 February 1947) reprinted in Ding, Y. ed. (2002). Bainian Zhongguo dianying lilun wenxuan [Texts and Theory on One Hundred Years of Chinese Cinema], v. 1, Wenhua yishu chubanshe, Beijing, pp. 300–301.

24 Nanjing's rise to prominence in post-war memory is covered at length by Yoshida, T. (2006). The Making of the ‘Rape of Nanking’: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States, Oxford University Press, Oxford. See especially Chapter 2, where he discusses Nanjing's comparative lack of centrality during the war itself.

25 See MacKinnon, Wuhan 1938.

26 Quanmin zhoukan shelun: zenme yang dadao quanguo guomin jingshen zongdongyuan [Social Theory for the People's Weekly: How We Should Mobilise All of the People of the Nation] from Quanmin zhoukan [People's Weekly], 1:15 (19 March, 1938), in Zhou Tiandu, ed. (2006). Jiuguohui shiliaoji [Documents of the National Salvation Society], Zhongyang bianze chubanshe, Beijing, p. 507.

27 Di-2 lishi dang'anguan (Nanjing): 787/15386: Author Unknown, ‘Di-64-shi Qinan yidai zhenzhong riji’, 1937.8.14.

28 Auge, M. (2004). Oblivion, trans. De Jager, M.. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

* This special issue features papers presented at conferences at the Università Ca' Foscari, Venice, St Antony's College, Oxford University, and the History Faculty of Oxford University, which were organized by the co-editors, with organization by Akiko Frellesvig. Funding was provided by a Leverhulme Research Leadership Award (China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University), the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the Oxford University Press John Fell Fund, and St Antony's College, Oxford. We are very grateful to all those who have offered commentaries and suggestions, including anonymous readers for Modern Asian Studies, as well as Guido Samarani, S. A. Smith, Hans J. van de Ven, and Barak Kushner. We also offer sincere thanks to Lily Chang for her extensive work in preparing the papers for publication. The China's War with Japan programme at Oxford University can be accessed at: [accessed 30 November 2010].

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
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