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 WWII.
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 moving on.
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 novel understanding.
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 Allies.
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)