The War in China, 1937-45

How much do you know about China’s war against Japan during the 1930s and ’40s? I recently read a new book, Images of War: China and Japan at War, 1937-1945, by Philip Jowett, and found that I knew less than I had thought. I have a graduate degree in Japanese history, and I have informally studied the Western Allies’ war against Japan for years and years. I know the names of numerous World War Two Japanese generals and admirals, and I could tell you about many of their battles and campaigns with a fair degree of detail. If you are here reading this, perhaps that sounds familiar in one way or another to you, too. But I could tell you far less about the longer and, in many ways, larger war between China and Japan from 1937-1945 — even though it was the fundamental catalyst for Pearl Harbor and everything famous that followed. As a history teacher, I was aware of the underlying reasons for the Japanese invasion of China, and I had a grasp of the broad outline of events, but did I know the names of any Chinese war leaders other than Chiang Kai-Shek or Mao Tse Tung? Nope. Weapons used by the Chinese armies? Very few. Distinct battles? Only some. As a self-styled WW2 buff, I was a bit surprised. Reading this one slender volume went a long way toward addressing that lack of familiarity for me.

IMG_0400While China and Japan at War certainly addresses Japanese strategy, political hopes, and military gear, what really opened my eyes (and what Mr. Jowett ultimately spends more time discussing) were the sections treating the Chinese side of the conflict. Jowett’s chief accomplishment is to bring into focus the Chinese military experience of the War with far greater granularity than any book I had seen before.

As the Pen and Sword series title, Images of War, would suggest, the book is highly visual, with page after page of photographs I had never seen, showing in great detail the propaganda, uniforms, weapons and moods of Chinese and Japanese soldiers alike. Photo captions are exhaustive in their naming of equipment, and with most photos Jowett furthermore offers insightful image analysis. Although I personally did not find that every interpretation rang completely true, and though I was surprised to see the classic error of calling Japanese rice wine saki (“sah-key”) instead of sake (“sah-kay”), as it should be, the overall effect of Jowett’s keen observations is instructive and perception-altering.

A chronological chapter-by-chapter structure of concise narrative summaries provides a healthy and informative balance to the mass of images. The first introductory summary is an extremely clear explanation of the underlying causes of Japanese aggression in China. In subsequent chapters the reader learns about the key factors that shaped this war: the lingering disunity on the Chinese side, with Chiang Kai-Shek struggling to hold together formerly independent warlords while keeping an eye on Mao and his Communist forces; the perennial Chinese shortage of heavy weapons, aircraft, vehicles and artillery — not to mention standardized small arms — which made it difficult to combat the Japanese invaders, despite the Chinese superiority in numbers; and, not least, the stunning determination of the Chinese to wait out the Japanese onslaught rather than negotiate a bad peace, no matter how much Chinese territory or how many individual Chinese lives had to be sacrificed, a ruthless strategy captured by Chiang’s dictum, “The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground.” (143) Jowett goes on to cover the changes brought to the conflict by Pearl Harbor and then continues the narrative right up to the surprisingly peaceable repatriation of Japanese troops in 1945.

Before reading China and Japan at War, my image of the conflict was that it was basically a military walkover by an Imperial Japanese Army that ran amok across China, committing atrocities, including the infamous Rape of Nanking, and grabbing territory almost at will until it got bogged down into a stalemate in the vast hinterlands of the country. My perception of the Chinese armies and civilian population was blurry at best, I now realize. Mr. Jowett’s work puts real faces to those people and their titanic, eight-year struggle, making it not only more poignant but also, for the modelers and military historians among us, much more interesting.

Finally, this review has of course gotten me to thinking about any and all aspects of my collection of games and miniatures that relate to the Chinese war effort against Japan. It isn’t much, but I offer a gallery here for anyone’s interest or inspiration.



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