World War II has been cemented of the national consciousness as a “good war” in the Allied nations – America, Britain, Russia – for decades now. However, the fourth major partner of the Allies – China – has only recently embraced this narrative and until fairly recently, even downplayed its importance. This shift is the crux of Rana Mitter’s new book China Good War.
Rana Mitter’s previous book, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, is one of the most complete accounts of the Sino-Japanese War in English. Most books about the war either treat it as a prelude to World War II, ending in 1941 after the Pearl Harbor attack or treat it as an unimportant sideshow. Notable exceptions being Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking and Peter Harmsen’s Shanghai 1937. However, these focused on specific events during the war, not the war as a whole.
But tucked away toward the end of Forgotten Ally, Mitter mentions that the perception of the war changed in China. For example, for decades, discussion of the Nanking Massacre was downplayed in the People’s Republic of China, with memorials to the dead actually being torn down after the Communists seized power in 1949. The reason? That was the enemy’s capital, the city of the Nationalists, the Kuomintang, with which the Communists had just finished fighting a brutal war with.
While there was talk of the Nanking Massacre on Nationalist-controlled Taiwan and even in Japan, Maoist China mostly ignored it. Popular culture reflected this too. While movies and the Revolutionary Operas of the Cultural Revolution depicted the Japanese Army as brutes and invaders, real venom was reserved for the Nationalists, who still posed a threat to Mao’s – and Communist – rule. This is the seed from which China’s Good War grew.
The Communist narrative went like this – in the 1930s, the Japanese invaded China, and only the Communist Party’s armed forces – the Eighth Route Army and the New Fourth Army – fought them through guerilla warfare. The Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek retreated and didn’t fight, or in many cases, actually collaborated with the Japanese occupiers. The role of America in the Pacific and the bombing of Japan was largely downplayed, if not ignored entirely.
The truth is less flattering for the Communist Party. The Japanese Army regarded them as a mere nuisance, whereas the Nationalist Army was always seen as the primary enemy. Of the twenty-two major battles that took place during the Sino-Japanese War, the Communists participated in only two. In fact, when Japanese diplomats reestablished relations with China in 1972, Mao personally thanked them for invading China saying,
“(Japan) doesn’t have to say sorry, you had contributed towards China, why? Because had Imperial Japan did not start the war of invasion, how could we Communists became powerful? How could we stage the coup d’état? How could we defeat Chiang Kai Shek? No, we do not want your war reparations.”
But a myth took shape in many Westerners – thanks to men like General Joseph Stillwell and historians like Barbara Tuchman – that in fact, the Communists were the only Chinese truly fighting the Japanese, while the Nationalists hid and waited for America to defeat Japan.
This narrative was the dominant view through the Mao Era (1949-1976). The change, Mitter argues, came in the 1980s. New, more moderate leadership took power in China under Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to modernize the country after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Deng opened up new Special Economic Zones in the south, the beginning of China’s move from a centrally planned economy to the mixed behemoth it is now. If you wonder why so many products are made in China now, you can either thank or blame Deng Xiaoping.
In the 1980s, flush with cheap loans, Japan’s economic power soared. Japanese companies went on a buying spree, flooding the world with their electronics, cars, and popular culture. For the first time, Japan wasn’t just the dominant economic power in Asia, but quite arguably, the dominant economic power in the world, save only the United States. This alarmed China, which was just beginning to modernize. While Sino-Japanese relations were far better in the 1980s than they are today, Chinese leaders still saw unchecked Japanese power (be it military or economic) as a threat.
Mitter argues that a new version of the Sino-Japanese War was created, one that finally included the Nationalists. This started with the 1986 movie The Bloody Battle of Taierzhuang. Recreating a major battle from 1938, arguably the first major Chinese victory of the war, it portrayed Nationalist troops as patriots and heroes, a far cry to the collaborationist cowards of the Mao Era.
There was an added political dimension to this strategy. Chinese leaders wanted (and still want) to control Taiwan, preferring peaceful unification rather than a military takeover. By including Nationalist heroes in their popular culture, it was like extending an olive branch to Taiwan, which was still under a Kuomintang dictatorship.
Of course, this came at the expense of the Japanese. While the Japanese invaders were always portrayed as villains, over the decades they have become more and more cartoonish. This culminated in the “anti-Japanese dramas” that infest Chinese television today, which I wish Mitter had spent more time with.
Seriously, these shows are hilarious in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Even many Chinese audiences watch simply to laugh at them. The unintentional comedy consists of over-the-top action scenes featuring ridiculous kung fu stunts, 1930s characters dressed like they’re from the Matrix, and cartoony action like ripping a Japanese soldier in half with bare hands and throwing a grenade at an airplane, destroying it instantly.
Mitter does discuss how renewed interest in the war allowed parallel research. For example, the Henan famine of 1942 was largely forgotten until recent research. It also allowed carefully worded criticism of the much more destructive 1960s famine of the Great Leap Forward, which is forbidden in China today.
The other aspect of this anti-Japanese propaganda was to unite Chinese people around a new form of patriotism. Modern Chinese are cynical of Communist slogans and promises, and are far more interested in making money and enjoying life than “making revolution.” There is also the dicey matter of portraying China’s ugly past under the Communists. Few movies or TV shows have been made about the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward.
Instead, the Sino-Japanese War offers a great opportunity to show Chinese people fighting against a brutal enemy that resulted in a decisive victory. This fantasy version of the war is largely a myth, reflecting modern Chinese values and hopes rather than what actually happened between 1937-1945. This patriotism is fuel for what Chinese leaders want, a populace solidly united behind Communist Party leadership, ready to take their role as the dominant superpower.
China’s Good War details a phenomenon that I noticed years ago but failed to put into words. Luckily, Rana Mitter has.