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    Essential History of China (Part 2): The Second Sino-Japanese War

    This week, we continue our Essential History feature on the history of China, and how the country was shaped by the Second Sino-Japanese War.

    Last week, in Part one of our Essential History feature on the history of China, we took a look at how China transformed from a dynasty into a Republic and ended off at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, which greatly affected how China would develop in the post-War era, specifically under the leadership of communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong.

    The Second Sino-Japanese War

    If you’d like a thorough explanation, in great detail, we suggest The Armchair Historian‘s animated video on the event for better context.


    The Sino-Japanese War is often regarded as the start of the Second World War in Asia.

    The factionalism, lawlessness, and foreign intervention in the Qing Dynasty led to the emergence of nationalist sentiments, which served as a foundation for the rise to power of the Republic of China in 1911. With warlords taking control of various different regions and KMT leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, ignited the Chinese Civil War in 1927 by attempting to suppress the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) amidst his attempts to win influence in the various parts of the country under divided leadership

    Japan, on the other hand, was an isolated nation, with a highly militaristic society. Ultranationalism, a centralised state and the import of military technologies from the West gave Japan an advantage over China, which allowed them to win the First Sino-Japanese war, and take control of the Korean Peninsula. China’s military technology and administrative efficiency was not up to Japanese standards and Japan’s expansion continued until they had control of the Pacific, as well as pockets of territories other parts of South-East Asia.

    Japan’s requirement for a growing population and expanding their military eventually started to put a strain on their economy and forced their hand to expand deeper into the Asian mainland. This led to Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in September 1931. Japan justified the invasion by blaming China for the destruction of a railway that they had bombed themselves.

    While China maintained a non-resistance policy, some warlords unsuccessfully resisted, and by February 1932 Japan had taken full control of Manchukuo, a puppet state. By the time China had asked the League of Nations (the United Nations’ short-lived predecessor) to intervene and the toothless international body had deemed it an unjustified invasion, Japan effectively ignored them and simply left the League of Nations.

    Chiang Kai-Shek then struck up an alliance with the CCP in 1936 to temporarily halt the Chinese Civil War. By the 7th of July 1937, Japan invaded the rest of China through the Marco Polo (or Lugou) bridge incident, which saw Japan cut off one of the most critical access routes to Beijing – the Second Sino-Japanese War had now begun in earnest.

    Wanping, Shanghai & Nanjing

    Japan began bombarding Wanping on 20 July 1937 and took control of Beijing and its surrounding areas by the end of the month. Initially satisfied with their territorial gains, Japan wanted a swift end to the war, but Chiang Kai-Shek was not going to simply concede and opened up a second front.

    He ordered soldiers and planes to launch an invasion of the Japanese area in Shanghai, with air fighters and the central government’s army causing over 3,000 deaths in an air-raid. Shanghai fell when Japan’s naval forces in the region were completely wiped out by Chinese forces, who also sustained massive casualties. Chiang then ordered his troops to move West in order to defend the capital of Nanjing.

    Between 13 December 1937, and late January 1938, an estimated 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese (mostly civilians) were killed or wounded by Japanese forces in what is now referred to as the “Nanjing Massacre”. Chiang then decided to evacuate his troops from the city, frustrating the Japanese, who in turned became more and more brutal with every frustrating move that China made. Rapes and executions occurred on a daily bass at an immense scale.


    By 1939, the Second Sino-Japanese War had reached a stalemate, with China refusing to surrender, despite massive casualties and territorial losses. Japan was boosted by the non-aggression pact signed between their allies, Germany and the Soviet Union, allowing them to feel more comfortable about Manchuria, which they had previously feared would be invaded by the Russians.

    Then on 14 September 1939, not even two weeks after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Japan would send 100,000 troops to capture Shangsha, the next target in their quest to reach the Chinese government in Chongqing. Two-hundred-and-forty-thousand Chinese soldiers were sent to repel the forces, with Japan retreating on 6 October, and regained some lost ground. Shsngsha became the first major city to successfully push back against the Japanese, leading to a major boost in morale.

    CCP resistance

    Following pressure from Chiang Kai-Shek to do so, CCP forces started to take offensive action, such as the 20 August mobilisation of 400,000 men to attack key infrastructure under Japanese control at the Northern front (the 100 regiments offensive). Despite a successful Japanese push-back, the CCP considered this offensive move a success due to the destruction of ±600 miles of railway tracks.

    The remainder of the Second Sino-Japanese War can be charecterised by Japan’s repeated unsuccessfl attempts to capture strategically important cities in China.

    A swift conclusion

    Near the end of the Second World War (9 August 1949), following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and overran the primary Japanese army in Manchuria. Japan surrendered on the 15th, Japan surrendered, ending the Second Sino-Japanese War, as well as Chinese occupation.

    Within a year, the Chinese Civil War restarted and it is in next week’s Essential History feature that we will be looking at the post-war history of China.

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