Amid the commemorative events held this year across the UK to
mark the end of the Second World War in the Far East, something was
disturbingly missing. Not only British soldiers who fought in the
Far East have earned a reference as the "forgotten army," but also
the Chinese, who fought eight years of resistance against Japanese
invasion, were barely mentioned. It is quite obvious that the
general public in Britain knows little about the war that raged in
the Asian theatre at that time.
This is also reflected in the latest research undertaken by the
Royal British Legion, the leading charity in the UK dedicated to
the service of war veterans. It revealed that only 2 percent of
11-to-18-year-olds could correctly identify the date of the Victory
in Japan (VJ) Day anniversary, let alone the Chinese War of
Resistance Against Japanese Aggression from 1937 to 1945.
What is encouraging, however, is the increasing attention from
Western historians in the last few years to the Asia theatre in
World War II, and Chinese battlefields in particular, as they start
to reflect on how China's endeavors contributed to the end of
In his article "Remembering the Forgotten War" published by
History Today in August, Dr. Rana Mitter, lecturer in
Chinese history and politics at Oxford University, wrote: "The
achievement of the Chinese, and particularly of the Nationalist
(Kuomintang) government, in holding down close to a million
Japanese troops in China has been underplayed in later historical
accounts, even though the conflict became a part of the wider world
war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941."
Mitter, whose special research interest is Sino-Japanese
relations in the Manchurian period, estimates the number of Chinese
killed in the war at between 15 and 35 million, which is
"comparable to the huge loss of life in the Soviet Union." He also
puts the number of refugees within China at 80 million.
In Mitter's view, without China's efforts in diverting the
Japanese troops, the warfare would have been more "hazed" with
other unfathomed changes in the European war field. In fact, he
said, "China was the first country that entered the war, holding
down some one million Japanese troops. In doing so, China had been
engaged in 137 local wars, which is amazing."
The Oxford researcher admitted that only in the last decade
scholars from Europe and the US have started to realize China's
contribution to WWII. He gave two reasons for the slow recognition.
One is that people's attention has been mostly concentrated on
Germany and Europe as a whole. Secondly, there have been few
discussions within China on the war in the last 20 years. With
improved cross-Straits relations, and more interaction between the
Kuomintang and Communists on the war, understanding of that period
of history has become more integrated and mutual.
But to the wider Western world, it was the book Rape of
Nanking that accelerated interest in China's anti-Japanese war.
The book, written by Chinese-American author Iris Chang, topped
international best-seller list for weeks and captured Western
attention to China's eight-year war of resistance.
Such interest has increased in the last 10 years with Western
scholars and students alike keen to study China's modern history as
a way to understand its past.
"Some of my students even visited the Chinese People's Museum of
the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression at Lugouqiao
(Marco Polo Bridge) when they traveled to China. And they were very
interested! I also enjoyed my research at the Shanghai Municipal
Archive, which is very keen to help Western researchers study the
history. China has opened up its historical documents for scholars
to study, although it's a pity that some documents had been
destroyed," said Mitter.
He believes that the China's resistance war is not only a
national war, but also an international one. It is good to see that
over the years, new and powerful understanding of the history has
emerged. But he cautioned that anger should not overwhelm
understanding. Understanding the past and passing it onto future
generations as a lesson is a good way for reconciliation before
Like Mitter, Dr. Hans van de Ven with Cambridge University is
also one of the Western scholars intrigued by China's resistance
against Japanese aggression, and indeed one of the forerunners in
studying the military aspect of the history. In his book War and
Nationalism in China (1925-1945) published in 2003, he dwells
on details of the resistance, as well as the roles played by
Kuomintang and Communists in the war.
In his latest paper titled "The Sino-Japanese War in the Context
of Chinese Military History," van de Ven tackles the difficult and
complex military aspects of the war and brings forth some of his
In his opinion, the fact that China's war of resistance was
largely ignored by the West has much to do with the Western
assessments of China's pursuit of the war. These judged the
Kuomintang by the yardstick of China's ability to wage modern
offensive warfare and the habit of discussing the military in terms
of the material culture of war, specially technology prowess.
However, "Chinese resistance illustrated the limits of modern
warfare and made clear that a society's potential to resist an
invader is not just a function of having well-trained armies and
advanced weapons. There were important cultural, political and
military resources in the Chinese past on which the Nationalists
could draw as they pursued their war with Japan," he said.
Some moves and operations undertaken by the Chinese "were not
necessarily evidence of feudal backwardness but can also be read as
sensible ways of pursuing a difficult war in an agrarian empire
with limited resources and a weak state."
Despite China's contribution to WWII, van de Ven noted, the war
efforts of the Chinese troops were not taken seriously by the
In 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, "Britain
made use of Chinese forces to protect its own armies and recover
its colonial possession in Burma, while the US compelled Chinese
forces in Yunnan to enter Burma at the same time that Japanese
forces pushed deep into South China. China was a bargain basement
partner of whom was demanded much at little cost."
Nonetheless, he said, "Burma was the only place where the
Nationalists could fight with the British and the US against Japan.
Although ultimately of little strategic consequence, the most
significant tactical defeats inflicted on Japan on the Asian
mainland took place in Burma."
Van de Ven therefore believes "China is a serious and major
component of the Second World War" and its role in the conflict
needs to be "reassessed."
(Xinhua News Agency September 3, 2005)