The Perils of Writing Popular History: Chongqing and the Yangtze in World War II, 1937 – 1945

Rana Mitter’s book China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945: The Struggle for Survival [2013, also published as Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937 – 1945 (2014)] was widely greeted as a welcome addition to the literature dealing with what is arguably the most neglected theater of the Second World War. Mitter, who is director of the University China Centre of Oxford, attempts to restore to their rightful importance in the historical record the activities of the Nationalist Guomindang [Kuomintang] Government under Jiang Jie-shi [Chiang Kai-Shek] in resisting Japanese attacks.

Mitter’s revisionist theses have their parallels in publications in Mainland China and his book is becoming, faute de mieux, a standard in English speaking countries for conflicts in China during World War II.

It is not my intention to dispute here his interpretations of the important events he describes. His work details, among other things, the colossal losses suffered in campaigns directed by the Nationalist government, occasionally noting that some at least were due to the practice of putting the troops of warlords who might develop into rivals into exposed forward positions, and abandoning them to Japanese attacks without resupply, much less reinforcements. The best Nationalist troops were often held back to preserve them for later use against the Chinese Communists.

When the Guomindang leaders and troops retreated up the Yangtze River after a series of defeats by the Japanese in eastern China, their days of power were numbered, as they were effectively cut off from the support of Western governments. The Nationalists did not enjoy widespread popularity among the peasants who constituted the vast majority of the Chinese population at that time.

The Guomindang forces in turn demonstrated a cavalier indifference to the well-being of Chinese civilians. One notable example among many is the Guomindang breaching of the Yellow River dikes near Kaifeng and Zhengzhou in 1938 in an attempt to slow down Japanese offensives. According to official postwar Guomindang analysis, more than 800,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Millions more were made refugees. Other estimates run about 500,000 dead with millions of refugees. The Japanese military advance was not significantly hindered.

A casual comment in Mitter’s book regarding an airfield in wartime Chongqing caught my attention:

The English-language magazine China at War, managed by the shrewd head of Nationalist propaganda, Hollington K. Tong, told tales for a neutral American public of brave Chinese fighter pilots seeking to land on Chongqing’s precarious Shanhuba airfield, a sandbar exposed only at high tide. [China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945, Chapter 10, A sort of wartime normal, pp. 172-173, Penguin Books.]

That Chongqing is a hilly city, with less flat land for airfields than might be desired, is not in doubt. There were however 7 airfields serving the city in World War II.

The Shanhuba airfield was intended for civilian flights, and considered unsuitable for landing during the rainy season, which generally occurs June through September. During the rainy season, planes that would otherwise use Shanhuba typically landed at the Baishiyi Air Force Base.

Shanhuba island is more substantive than a sandbar. But I am at a loss when it comes to understanding how a high tide could expose even a sandbar. Usually high tides cover low lying land. What Mitter reports that Tong wrote certainly merits explanation if not correction.

But I was even more astonished at the implication that the Yangtze River is estuarial some 900 miles [1700 km] upstream from the sea. I traveled the navigable length of the river twice before the Three Gorges Dam was fully implemented [1983 and 1987], and I failed to notice any tidal bores racing upriver to reach Chongqing.

I expected better of a distinguished Oxford scholar and his editors. When they cannot get the details right, it is difficult to trust them on important points.

Mitter did not respond to a request for comments.

Further Reading:

• Rana Mitter’s China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945: The Struggle for Survival is a useful corrective in restoring the importance of the Nationalist government’s role in resisting Japan’s attacks, but it does not provide a balanced view of China’s anti-Japanese efforts.

• Lyman P. Van Slyke’s Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River provides a concise high level introduction to the geography and history of the region.

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