The Japanese Occupation of China 1937-45: The Divided Opposition and its Consequences by David White


During the eight years of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), China suffered continual crushing and humiliating defeats at the hands of Japan and was subject to a devastating, brutal occupation of much of the nation. Japanese behaviour in the conflict was the principal factor which distinguished the occupation from other wars of recent memory. Not since medieval times had such barbarity and brutality been witnessed. Most significantly, it was the deliberate targeting of the civilian population for murder, rape and terror which made this episode so different and so shocking. The Nazis would repeat this in Eastern Europe and Russia, but the Japanese preceded them by several years.[1]

Japanese attitudes towards China governed Japanese behaviour towards the Chinese. Belief in their own racial and cultural superiority and the influence of the Bushido code of conduct allowed the invaders to justify their treatment of Chinese people. Iris Chang has written that, “Teachers [in the 1930s] instilled in boys hatred and contempt for the Chinese people, preparing them psychologically for a future invasion of the Chinese mainland.”[2] Japan had already fought and defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), annexed her colony of Korea and the island of Formosa, taken over the German concession ports at the end of the First World War, and in 1931 occupied the vast northern region of Manchuria which became an imperial possession with a puppet Chinese emperor.[3] Repeatedly, China proved incapable of resisting Japanese aggression.

China’s inability to defend her own sovereign territory was linked to her lack of national unity. Unlike Japan’s reaction of unity and modernisation, China’s response to predatory European imperialism was division, the collapse of the Qing dynasty, descent into warlordism, economic stagnation and recurrent civil war. Widespread belief in Confucianism further contributed to a reluctance to embrace change, even when it was necessary for self-preservation.[4] This began to alter as the century progressed, but the country was bitterly divided internally over what sort of change should take place. A civil war between the Communists and the nationalist Kuomintang which began in 1927 prevented a united front forming to oppose the Japanese when they occupied Manchuria.

When the Japanese launched their 1937 invasion, there was another attempt at a united front, but Chiang Kai-Shek, the Kuomintang leader, was always far more concerned to ensure that he had sufficient forces to defeat the Communists when the opportunity arose.[5] His overarching strategy throughout the following eight years was to withdraw in the face of Japanese advances and try to avoid military confrontations. Despite huge American aid from 1942 and the urgings of General Stilwell, commander of US forces in China, to engage and tie down Japanese forces, he repeatedly refused to do so.[6]

Chiang Kai-Shek posing as the heroic generalissimo

Chiang was so self-obsessed and inflexible that when the Communist forces offered to give up their autonomy and fight under the direction of the Kuomintang government, he interpreted this as a surrender to him and tried to act as a victor over the Red Army rather than a partner and ally. Consequently, the Communists chose to carry on their own campaigns against the Japanese. Although these were much more aggressive, they did not achieve as much as they could have if the Nationalist forces had co-operated or had also gone on the offensive.[7] Stilwell, who was no friend of communism, said in 1944, “The cure for China’s troubles is the elimination of Chiang Kai-Shek. The only thing that keeps the country split is his fear of losing control. He hates the Reds and will not take any chances on giving them a toehold in the government. The result is that each side watches the other and neither gives a damn about the war.”[8]

Chiang’s decision to attack the Japanese area of the Shanghai International Settlement using his best troops caused the Japanese to escalate their campaign in China. More of their military forces were drawn in than they could afford, and this overstretching contributed to their defeat.[9] Chiang’s motive may have been to draw in the Japanese and bog them down, to trade space for time,[10] but it was equally likely that he saw this as a war of attrition. The Chinese greatly outnumbered the Japanese and so could outlast them. This would be in keeping with Chiang’s regard for the Chinese masses as resources rather than people valuable in their own right. Chiang also wanted to show his allies, particularly the Americans, that he was a leader worthy of support who was willing to resist the Japanese.

Chinese soldiers heading off to the front

However, this strategy led to repeated defeats for Chiang upon whom the Japanese now concentrated their military campaigns,[11] allowing the Communists to benefit. Chiang’s inept leadership and his profligate waste of life despite his cautious strategies were starkly illustrated in this campaign. An astonishing 250,000 casualties were suffered by the elite troops committed to the battle, numbers which even the Chinese could not afford to lose. The following year, Chiang ordered the dikes of the Yellow River to be blown up to slow down a Japanese advance. Given no warning, 4,000 villages were destroyed and tens of thousands of Chinese peasants were drowned by their own countryman’s actions. This greatly tarnished his reputation in the eyes of many Chinese.[12]

Chinese divisions went deeper than just Communist against Nationalist. Many of Chiang’s commanders were semi-autonomous warlords who would not always listen to his orders.[13] He also ran several competing intelligence agencies, fearful of rivals and enemies usurping his power.[14] Chiang’s intransigence was so intense that on one occasion he threatened to make a separate peace with the Japanese unless the highly effective but critical Stilwell was removed. So un-cooperative was Chiang and so determined that the Allies should give no help whatsoever to the Communist resistance, that eventually Roosevelt gave up on him and secretly negotiated at Yalta with the Russians for their entrance into the war in the late summer of 1945.[15] The consequence was that the civil war was prolonged, Russian influence was increased in Chinese affairs, and Chiang’s prestige and power were further eroded.

Mao with visiting American officers

The horrendous Japanese behaviour mentioned earlier was graphically displayed early in the war. After the fall of Shanghai in November 1937, the capital of Nanking, was vulnerable to a Japanese attack. Chiang ordered that the city must be defended and held.[16] However Chiang himself and the government left for Wuhan before the Japanese arrived,[17] yet another example of his indifference to the fate of his countrymen. He appeared to be more concerned with China as an idea than as a reality of living, breathing, suffering people – a characteristic of many extreme nationalists of the twentieth century.

During a six-week reign of terror between December 1937 and January 1938, 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in Nanking, few of them during actual combat.[18]

Chinese dead litter the street after Japanese forces stormed Nanking

Orders went out from the headquarters of the Japanese military commander, Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, to “kill all captives”.[19] Tens of thousands of Chinese troops who had surrendered were murdered in batches of 50 or more.[20] Simultaneously and then for weeks afterwards, civilians, including women, children and the old, were indiscriminately slaughtered. The methods of killing were particularly gruesome and frequently designed to inflict the maximum pain and terror, including disembowelling, beheading, bayoneting, burying alive, setting on fire, suspension on meat hooks, crucifixion, tearing apart by dogs, bludgeoning and drenching in acid.[21]

Prisoners being buried alive

Widespread rape of women of all ages was practised, most frequently gang rape, often followed by the murder of the victims.[22] A former soldier who took part in the atrocities said, “We took turns raping them. It would be all right if we only raped them. I shouldn’t say all right. But we always stabbed and killed them. Because dead bodies don’t talk.”[23] The Japanese high command became concerned about the proliferation of mass rape, not out of concern for the welfare of the Chinese women, but because they feared the loss of discipline among their own troops, the spread of venereal diseases, and international condemnation. Their “solution” was to force up to 200,000 women into state-sponsored prostitution, herding them into sordid military brothels where they were treated like disposable chattels and abused relentlessly.[24]

Japanese atrocities continued throughout the war years, ranging from torture to indiscriminate aerial bombing to the killing of prisoners and the random massacres of civilians. With scant regard for the humanity of the Chinese, chemical, biological and bacterial weapons were deployed hundreds of times, including several occasions when fleas infected with bubonic plague bacilli were dropped from the air on Chinese towns causing epidemic outbreaks.[25]

The consequences of such barbarism are difficult to assess. For some Chinese it seemed it was safer to collaborate. This was what the Japanese wanted, aiming to install compliant puppet regimes wherever possible. Wang Jingwei, a former ally of Chiang, agreed to be set up in Nanking by the Japanese as head of the “New Government of China” despite his hostility to the invaders.

Wang Jingwei with Chinese and Japanese officers

Japan’s offer of membership in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme was dependent upon participants accepting subordination to Japanese policies, priorities and directions. The sham nature of this arrangement was encapsulated in her pseudo-racial appeal as fellow-Asians resisting European imperialism, while at the same time practising her own brand of blatant oppression of her neighbours based on an unambiguous assertion of racial superiority.[26] 

Many Chinese soldiers, especially in Chiang’s forces, were terrified of facing the Japanese. Repeatedly, Kuomintang armies melted away in the face of Japanese advances.[27] Such reluctance, however, does not appear to have infected the Communist forces. Communist resistance became widely seen as more proactive and committed, much of it taking place behind enemy lines in occupied territory. Perhaps it was a difference in motivation which caused such divergent reactions, suggesting that the Kuomintang was an inspiration for few, while Communist appeals were able to overcome the fear generated by Japanese atrocities, and may have even have harnessed outrage at such depravities to mobilise resistance.

While Chiang, keen to keep the political loyalty of powerful landowners, offered no incentives to the peasantry to put their faith in him and alienated millions by brutal conscription methods,[28] Mao Zedong, the Communist leader, used these years to develop his own brand of Marxism which emphasised the role of the peasants as the class which would usher in revolution and a just society. This theoretical elevation of the peasantry was matched by actions. Whenever the Communists overran/liberated an area from the Japanese, they expelled or killed landlords suspected of collaboration and redistributed the land to the tenant farmers. Other landlords were forced to reduce rents and cancel debts. Grateful peasants, freed from two sets of oppressors, quickly became supporters of the Communists.[29]

While Mao sought a socialist revolution, he also appealed to Chinese nationalism. This was particularly effective during the occupation, declaring that the aim of the Party was, “long-term co-operation with all those classes and strata, political groups and individuals who were willing to fight Japan to the end.”[30] Communist success and popularity can be measured by the increase in Party membership from 40,000 in 1937 to 1,000,000 in 1945.[31] Nevertheless, Mao’s ideology and practices were as authoritarian as Chiang’s. Conformity, strict discipline and severe punishments were the hallmark of the Chinese Communist Party whose doctrine became so identified with its leader that it was labelled Maoism. In the nightmarish years 1937-45, such harshness was commonplace – but in this case it actually produced positive results. Importantly too, it offered to many (especially peasants) the only path at the end of which there lay a real possibility of better times.[32]

The simplest summary of the effect of the Japanese occupation on Chinese society was death – 10,000,000 deaths – and unimaginable suffering for many more tens of millions. China was hugely impoverished and her pre-war social and economic problems magnified. Chiang’s and his Kuomintang government’s failure to resist the Japanese effectively, their continued corruption, their unwillingness to offer anything to the downtrodden peasantry, and their disregard for the lives of their subjects in a quest for a China which was a projection of their own ambitions and elite-centred nationalism, undermined their credibility and support. Increasingly it was the Communists who were seen as the active resisters, more willing to put aside their differences with the Nationalists in the interests of national liberation, and fighting for a fairer as well as a patriotic cause. Although the Communists achieved relatively little militarily, their willingness to fight won not just credibility, but also large additions to their own forces and the tacit but critical support of the majority peasantry. When civil war resumed in earnest in 1946, Kuomintang effectiveness quickly disintegrated, many of their troops deserting to the Communists. Vast amounts of weaponry supplied by the USA  wound up captured and turned against Chiang’s diminishing forces.[33] Total Communist victory came in 1949, and one of the principal contributory factors was the differing reactions to Japanese occupation displayed by each side.





Barenblatt, Daniel. A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan’s Biological Warfare Program. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. Kindle Edition. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Eggenberger, David. An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present. New York: Dover Publications, 1985.

Kennedy, David M. “The Horror – Review of ‘The Rape of Nanking’.” The Atlantic Online. April 1998. (accessed March 3, 2016).

Lawrence, Alan. China since 1919 – Revolution and Reform: A Sourcebook. Routledge: London, 2004.

Lynch, Michael. China: From Empire to People’s Republic 1900-49. 2nd ed. London: Hodder Education, 2010.

Paterson, Thomas, and Garry Clifford. America Ascendant: U.S. Foreign Policy Relations Since 1939. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1995.

Stewart, Geoff. China 1900-76. Harlow: Heinemann, 2006.



[1] Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 5.

[2] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 30.

[3] Geoff Stewart, China 1900-76 (Harlow: Heinemann, 2006), 17-29, 36; Michael Lynch, China: From Empire to People’s Republic 1900-49, 2nd ed. (London: Hodder Education, 2010), 103-04.

[4] Lynch, China, 2-6.

[5] Lynch, China, 107.

[6] Alan Lawrence, China since 1919 – Revolution and Reform: A Sourcebook (Routledge: London, 2004), 60.

[7] Lawrence, China since 1919, 65-69; Lynch, China, 111.

[8] Lawrence, China since 1919, 76.

[9] Stewart, China 1900-76), 67.

[10] David Eggenberger, An Encyclopedia of Battles: Accounts of over 1,560 Battles from 1479 B.C. to the Present (New York: Dover Publications, 1985), 95; Lynch, China, 82.

[11] Lynch, China, 116.

[12] Stewart, China 1900-76, 69.

[13] Thomas Paterson, and Garry Clifford, America Ascendant: U.S. Foreign Policy Relations Since 1939 (Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1995), 24.

[14] Lawrence, China since 1919, 75.

[15] Paterson and Clifford, America Ascendant, 28.

[16] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 69.

[17] Stewart, China 1900-76, 68.

[18] Lynch, China, 108; Chang, Rape of Nanking, 99-104 .

[19] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 40.

[20] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 42-46, 82.

[21] Lynch, China, 108-09; Chang, Rape of Nanking, 46-48, 86-88.

[22] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 48-49, 60, 88-99.

[23] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 49.

[24] Chang, Rape of Nanking, 52-53.

[25] Daniel. Barenblatt, A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan’s Biological Warfare Program (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), espec. 220-21.

[26] Lynch, China, 105, 112.

[27] Stewart, China 1900-76, 75.

[28] Lawrence, China since 1919, 73; Lynch, China, 117.

[29] Lynch, China, 85-89.

[30] Lynch, China, 90.

[31] Lynch, China, 91.

[32] Lynch, China, 92-94.

[33] Lynch, China, 125, 127, 133, 140-41.