Word War6 min read

Rana Mitter reviews a revisionist new book and TV series on China’s WWII

The 75th anniversary of the end of World War II has fallen in 2020 – on May 8 in Europe after the German surrender, and September 2 in Asia with the surrender of Japan. Yet, in China as in the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic meant a muted commemoration. Five years ago, Beijing pulled out all the stops with a huge parade in Tiananmen Square commemorating the Chinese role in the Allied victory. This year, television documentaries and a speech by Xi Jinping on 3 September had to fill the gap.

One element that has not changed much in the past five years, however, is the continuing near-invisibility of China’s wartime experience in the global narrative of the conflict. Evident also is the macho way that the conflict is portrayed on Chinese film and television screens, as in Hu Guan’s thrilling but unsubtle blockbuster movie The Eight Hundred, and the hit television spy thriller Cicada of Autumn. In these productions, Chinese soldiers fire bravely at the Japanese in a doomed defence of a Shanghai warehouse, Hong Kong youths in 1941 prove more amenable to nationalistic feeling than their 2020 successors, and jingoistic gore flows aplenty.

Two new works – an American book and a Chinese television series – show that there is room for more nuance in the wider understanding of China and Japan’s World War II experience. They also demonstrate that, at a time when China and the West are failing to find areas for any kind of fruitful dialogue, western historians can play a role in helping to create shared historical space in both China and the West.

The slow but unmistakable way in which views are changing of China’s World War II role can be seen in Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War (Volume I: July 1937-May 1942), the first volume in a projected trilogy on the war in Asia by Richard B. Frank. Frank is one of the most respected and widely-read historians of the Asia-Pacific War, who has received much praise for his previous books on the a major battle between the US and Japan (Guadalcanal, 1992) and his analysis of the last days of the war against Japan (Downfall, 1999). His new book takes a step that is still unusual for a general history of this period: it begins not with Pearl Harbor in 1941, but the outbreak of war between China and Japan in July 1937.

At a time when China and the West fail to find fruitful dialogue, western historians can play a role in creating shared historical space”

Frank’s book is a model of fine writing, with an immense gift for being able to combine the telling moment and the wider sweep. His image of the propeller of the sinking warship Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor “thrust skyward about the water like an askew cross over the graves of 415 men” is hard to put out of one’s mind. But it is Frank’s placement of China’s war effort that makes the book’s revisionism stand out. It is important that a historian of Frank’s standing can write, of Japan’s ultimate catastrophic defeat in World War II: “The underlying cause of all of this measureless folly was China – a nation that defied a century of its recent history to mount four and one-half years of sustained resistance.” In a historiography where China’s role is generally considered marginal in the global conflict, this sort of judgement is an important step in changing perceptions.

Perceptions in China can also change, even in nationalistic times. A recently-released Chinese television documentary screened by the Shanghai Media group, Asia-Pacific Wartime Trials (亚太审判) – viewable on Youtube in English, with subtitles for non-Chinese speakers – refuses to play the game of portraying one-dimensional, evil Japanese versus heroic Chinese, and instead suggests that imperialist violence destroys all those whom it touches. Of the eight episodes, three are fronted by a renowned Cambridge historian of Japan, Barak Kushner, whose 2015 book Men to Devils, Devils to Men on war crimes trials won the American Historical Association’s Fairbank Prize for best book in Asian history. The documentary team, based in Shanghai, were clearly given permission to allow a credible western narrator, and the approach pays off. Kushner is an empathetic and highly-informed narrator, and his academic chops complement his narrative skills in telling a story.

One example is in the episode which exposes the poison gas campaigns undertaken by the Japanese army in the field. At one point in the episode, Kushner interviews a Chinese victim of a chemical attack on the village of Beituan. But he also takes time to speak to a Japanese man, now in his nineties, who was part of the forced labor brigade in the Japanese factory that made the deadly chemical weapons. Kushner also points out that justice for the victims came first not from the Chinese Communist Party but their Nationalist (Kuomintang) predecessors, who put the Japanese officer in charge on trial and sentenced him to life. In the current climate in China, where history is becoming ever more politicized, it’s worth noting that series like this can still be made – and ought to be seen.

There has been a worrying turn in the way that recent military history has been celebrated in China over the past month or two. For much of the summer, the emphasis has been on the message of unity and international alliance symbolized by World War II. This autumn, however, there has been a rise in discussion of the Korean War (1950-53), including new documentaries stressing the sacrifice of Chinese “volunteers” fighting on the frontline (in fact Chinese soldiers who could not be officially acknowledged in case their official presence started World War III). The reason for this becomes apparent when recalling the Chinese term for the Korean War – kangmei (抗美), the “war of resistance to the USA.”

It may be hard to imagine Donald Trump as the new Harry Truman, but there is no doubt that current China-US tensions have made yet another war politically useful to the Chinese government, which is keen to find historical analogies. It’s worth remembering that the Korean War ended in a bloody stalemate in 1953, and mutual stubbornness between Mao’s China and Eisenhower’s US meant that the two nations would have to wait over a quarter century to establish diplomatic relations – a breach which made the Cold War even chillier than it could have been. A subtler understanding of World War II, ending as it did in a clear Allied victory, seems a better path to take – as Richard B. Frank’s superb book and the Shanghai Media Group’s compelling series show. ∎

Richard B. Frank, Tower of Skulls: A History of the Asia-Pacific War, Volume I: July 1937-May 1942 (WW Norton, March 2020).
Header: Chinese soldiers enroute to India, transported by the US air force in a DC-3 airplane (Library of Congress via pingnews/Flickr).