A retelling of China’s war of resistance from 1937 to 1945 against a brutal and murderous Japanese invasion and how that experience helped shape the China of today.
“China,” writes Mitter (Modern Chinese History/Oxford Univ.; Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, 2008, etc.), “remains the forgotten ally.” China was the first nation to resist Axis aggression and for eight bloody years, never stopped fighting, at the cost of between 14 and 20 million deaths. Mitter focuses primarily on Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist Party leader who, in the 1920s, nominally unified China and tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy the Chinese Communist Party. The author offers a more nuanced portrait of a complex man with great ambitions for a modern China who faced bitter odds as the Japanese moved inexorably across China. Mitter shows a man both capable of inspiring intense national loyalty and also of committing acts of immense cruelty. In 1938, in an attempt to halt the Japanese advance, he ordered the destruction of the dykes holding back the Yellow River; 500,000 Chinese died. Chiang’s order to requisition grain from central China led to famine for millions of Chinese. Mitter traces the slow disintegration into “corruption, carelessness, and callousness” of both Chiang and the Nationalist Party as the war with Japan dragged on. During the war years, Chiang had created a national identity for China from which much was expected of the Chinese people but who, in turn, expected much from their government. The Nationalists could not keep their side of the bargain; in the end, the Communists could. There are many side tales and numerous other characters in the book, yet Mitter’s narrative élan, in the manner of David McCullough, creates a complex history that is urgently alive.
An important, well-told tale of China at war.