Chinese soldiers fight against Japanese invaders during the Songhu Battle in Shanghai on August 13, 1937 (XINHUA)
September marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (WWII) in Asia. A few months after hostilities ceased in Europe, the war against Japan ended with its surrender after the dropping of two atomic bombs, one on Nagasaki and the other on Hiroshima. A war that had started in the Asian theater earlier than its European equivalent ended a little later. It had been one of the most destructive conflicts humanity had ever seen in terms of casualties and the numbers affected. Conservative estimates place Chinese fatalities alone at 20 million, with as many as 50 million made homeless.
It is often forgotten, but China was one of the key battlefronts in the struggle against fascism in WWII. While the conflict in Europe has been exhaustively documented and memorialized, that in Asia is far less recognized and understood, in the English-speaking world at least. This is a pity. China in particular made huge sacrifices, and its people suffered profoundly.
Only in recent years through the work of historians like Rana Mitter in Oxford has this story been better understood amongst English-speaking audiences and readerships. As his work shows, had Chinese armies not fought so valiantly, and made such colossal efforts, then the Japanese imperial forces may well have been freed up to offer support to their allies in Germany.
The consequences of this would have been disastrous. The simple fact is that Japan never resolved its tactical position during its attempts to conquer China, and was unable to deeply penetrate into the country's vast rural areas. It remained from the beginning to the end of the larger war tied down and absorbed in the war in China. Its attempts to broaden the theater of WWII to the rest of the Pacific region and America were doomed largely because of this preoccupation.
WWII, for China at least, showed a largely agrarian and undeveloped economy pitted against a modernized, industrial one. Since the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s, Japan had imported Western technology, and undertaken a modernization process that meant that by the 1930s, it had accrued formidable military resources. This sense of simply being technologically stronger and more advanced, married to a huge sense of nationalistic arrogance and ambition, was the toxic mix that encouraged it to first engulf Northeast Asia, and then, over the coming years, the rest of the region after 1937 in what was a cataclysmic battle.
China, politically and economically divided and weakened during this period, took the full brunt of the onslaught. The first phase of the war after 1937 consisted of provocations and viciously powerful military strikes from the northeast of China by Japanese forces, which effectively annexed a third of the country and made the rest a war zone. Japan used the labor and economic resources of the country to fuel its own ambitions elsewhere in Asia. Its response to initial Chinese fightbacks was brutal and ruthless, pursuing tactics of total annihilation that saw whole communities and physical stretches of China decimated.
With the massacre of more than 300,000 civilians and disarmed combatants in Nanjing, the then capital of China, in 1937, Japanese armies committed one of the most egregious and inhumane acts of war in modern times. Eyewitness accounts by foreigners based in the city at the time tell of widespread butchering of men, women and children, rape and inconceivable suffering on the part of the population left to the mercy of the Japanese forces arriving in Nanjing.
To this day, the continuing existence of some in Japan who refuse to accept the extent of the devastation visited on Nanjing provokes profound resentment and anger. This is understandable. To deny the extent of the suffering that happened in Nanjing in late 1937 only heaps more injury on an already gargantuan injustice. It is an offense to the memory of those who died over this period in the city, to their relatives and to those who remember them.
In Shanghai, Japanese forces created a battlefront within an urban, densely populated region. Photos from the time show children badly burnt and abandoned by parents who had themselves been wounded or murdered. Another shows the searing image of Chinese prisoners being herded into pits in the ground while Japanese soldiers stand by, watching them being buried alive.
In his magisterial biography of Adolf Hitler, the British historian Ian Kershaw talks of the ways in which Nazi Germany saw a collapse of civilization in what had once been a civilized, cultivated country, and the perversion of its values through the hateful, inflammatory ideology of the Nazis. Violence in deed and speech became almost the default measure of the Hitler era in Germany, with a worship of brute force and a heedlessness with respect to the value of human life. Imperial Japan was directed by the same lack of humanity. For leaders of the regime in Tokyo, the ambition was to create a vast "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," a scheme that possesses eerie likeness to the Nazi concept of Lebensraum (living space). At its heart, this simply masked the self-interest of a regime that was focused only on domination and subscribing to ideas of racial superiority that fueled their cruel treatment of neighboring populations.
The years up to 1945 saw one of the great struggles to fight back against the pernicious Japanese imperial worldview, and the brutal methods it was using to enforce same. Millions of Chinese paid the ultimate price in this struggle. Many were killed in war, but a frightening number died after maltreatment as prisoners or enslavement by the imperial forces. Take the tragic issue of "comfort women" (a Japanese euphemism for about 200,000 sex slaves it forcibly recruited in WWII), one that lingers 70 years after the war and remains as much a cause of contention and anguish as it was decades before. That so many women were taken and used so cruelly, and under such harsh conditions to boot, almost beggars belief. And yet it was part of the reality of the war in Asia in the 1940s.
Lessons from the past
After the invasion, China itself underwent further turmoil through a civil war that the former has interrupted. After 1949, the long process of reconstruction commenced. China today is almost unrecognizable from the country that had seen so much of its transport infrastructure destroyed from 1937 onward. The dreams of a modernized China that had started to emerge toward the end of the Qing Dynasty before 1911 have now been partially realized. Cities like Shanghai and Beijing that were battlegrounds before 1945 are now dominated by modern skyscrapers, and a globally important emerging middle class that count amongst the most aspirational and prosperous in the Asian region.
Now, it might seem that WWII is a distant memory to modern Chinese. Only for a few does it still figure in their living memories. The sites of some of the most traumatic wartime events, such as Nanjing, have been wholly reconstructed. Japanese companies and tourists visit China, and the two countries invest in each other and have huge, multifaceted links.
But WWII still looms large in the nation's collective memory and remains an event remembered and discussed amongst the Chinese public, rendered in the popular imagination as a time of great hurt and loss. For most, it needs to be remembered to ensure that the senseless loss of life and physical destruction of the war period never happens again. More profoundly perhaps even than in Europe, the Chinese saw their country under an attack so virulent and remorseless that many wondered if it ever would be able to recover. Had they ultimately prevailed, the imperial Japanese armies would have brought in the same terrifyingly inhumane policies that they had partially implemented before their defeat in China and elsewhere.
For this reason, the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Asia is as much a cause for celebration throughout the rest of the world as it is within the Asian region. It marked the defeat of one of the most negative and savage war machines the world has ever seen, not just for the Chinese, but for the whole of the human race. The Chinese stood beside the allied forces in the titanic struggle against Fascism, and paid a price as high—perhaps higher—than any others. That contribution to the prosperity and stability of the modern world should never be forgotten, and the heroism and sacrifice of the Chinese people should be celebrated—and acknowledged—loudly and proudly.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney
Copyedited by Eric Daly
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