Relief map of

China was the most populous country in the world in 1941, with a population of some 400 million persons. China also has one of the oldest civilizations in the world, but the Renaissance in Europe left China behind, and Europeans equipped with firearms were able to progressively nibble away at the Chinese Empire. The corrupt and ineffective Qing Dynasty, which dated back to 1644, was unable to effectively resist the British during the Opium War of 1839-1842 or the British and French during the Lorcha War of 1857-1860. The Qing court was forced into accepting unequal treaties with Britain, France, and the United States that effectively reduced China to semi-colonial status. 

Much of the country was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1865, which was led by a charismatic visionary, Hung Hsiu-chuan (Hong Xiuquan), who proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Qing were forced to devolve military authority to local officials in order to raise enough forces to defeat the Taiping, which planted the seeds of warlordism. 

A number of Han Chinese leaders attempted to strengthen China by reinforcing traditional Confucian values while modernizing China's military and infrastructure. However, Japan joined the Western powers in exploiting Chinese weakness during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, when she successfully challenged China's position as the leading power in the Far East, detaching Korea from China and annexing Formosa. This led to a movement among younger Chinese scholars to reform the administrative and educational systems of China. The young Emperor, Kwang Hsu (Guangxu), was persuaded to support these reforms in 1898 but on 10 September of that year, the ultraconservative Empress Dowager, Tz'u-Hsi T'ai-hou (Cíxǐ Tàihòu), led a coup that put the Emperor under house arrest and abolished all reforms. The xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1900 had the covert support of the Empress Dowager but was put down by a joint military expedition by the Western  powers who had interests in China.

The failure of the reform movement led Sun Yat-sen, a foreign-trained physician from Canton, to form a revolutionary movement in 1905 which became the Kuomintang ("National People's Party"). Sun and his allies launched their revolution on 10 October 1911 at Wuhan and proclaimed the Republic of China at Nanking on 1 January 1912. However, Sun rejected the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and with the collapse of the Qing court, north China came under the control of Yuan Shih-k'ai, a general of the old Imperial Army. Sun persuaded Yuan to depose the last Emperor of China, the six-year-old Pu-yi, on 12 February 1912, and accept the office of President of the Republic. Sun acted to avoid a civil war, but Yuan intended to make himself Emperor. He was unable to do so before his death on 6 June 1916, but he left China politically fragmented and in economic ruin, with most areas controlled by local warlords.

Following the First World War, the new Soviet government in Russia saw an opportunity to instigate a Communist revolution in China, and the Chinese Communist Party was founded in July 1921 under the tutelage of Russian advisers. Sun had sought first British, then American, assistance in maintaining control of China, but was rebuffed, and found a more receptive ear in the person of Stalin. Russian advisers pressured the Communists into joining with the Kuomintang, which with the death of Sun on 12 March 1925 soon came under the control of Chiang Kai-shek. When Chiang began his first expedition against the warlords in July 1926, the Communists took advantage of his absence to organize in the countryside and win over the support of a number of Kuomintang division and regiment commanders. However, Chiang struck first, on 12 April 1927, and drove the Communists underground. The Kuomintang then attempted with some success to unify and modernize the country; for example, total paved road mileage doubled from 20,000 miles (30,000 km) to 40,000 miles (60,000 km). However, resistance from the remaining warlords and the Chinese Communists prevented complete unification, and the Japanese invasion in 1937, following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident at Peiping, led to a brutal three-way war.

Japanese expansion in China. Japan was awarded Russia's lease of Port Arthur following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, along with the right to garrison the rail system of southern Manchuria. Korea was annexed outright by the Japanese Empire in 1910. During the First World War, in which Japan fought on the Allied side, Japan seized the German concession at Tsingtao and then presented the young Chinese Republic with what became known as the Twenty-one Demands. These would have reduced China to a Japanese protectorate, but the growing sense of nationalism in China and diplomatic pressure from Britain and the United States forced Japan drop most of its demands.

Japanese policy towards China was muddled throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in no small part because Japanese leaders were attempting  to square the circle. American historian Arthur Waldron concludes that "Tokyo hoped for ... a Chinese government at once strong enough to keep order, abide by the treaties, and unify the country, yet weak enough to confirm to Japanese wishes" (quoted in Peattie et al. 2011).

In 1919, the Jaspanese Kwantung Army was activated to garrison the Kwantung Peninsula and the Southern Manchurian Railroad. As the largest Army formation outside the Empire proper, the Kwantung Army soon became a law unto itself. It became increasingly involved in local politics and arranged the 1928 assassination of Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin. However, the government of Premier Hamaguchi adopted a policy of friendship towards China in July 1929 and received a favorable response from the Kuomintang, raising the possibility of a rapprochement on Manchuria. This was brought to ruins by the twin blows of the Great Depression, which worked in favor of Japanese ultranationalists and militarists, and the assassination of Hamaguchi on 14 November 1930. Kwantung Army staged the Mukden Incident the next year as an excuse to seize control of Manchuria. This led to further Japanese penetration of north China, interrupted only by the Tangku Truce of May 1933. The Japanese continued to work to undermine the Kuomintang through such practices as widespread smuggling ("special trade"), which both undermined Kuomintang authority and deprived it of customs revenues.

Full-scale warfare broke out in 1937 following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The war expanded further with Japanese landings at Shanghai following clashes between Japanese and Chinese forces near the International Settlement. Initially, the Japanese encountered stiff resistance from German-trained Kuomintang divisions at Shanghai, and the Chinese Republican Air Force (whose ranks included foreign mercenaries and Russian "volunteers") inflicted heavy losses on unescorted Japanese bombers. Chiang committed the bulk of his forces at Shanghai, in part because he knew this was the center of Western interests in China and he hoped for Western intervention. But no such intervention was forthcoming, and the defeat of the Chinese forces at Shanghai meant the destruction the best Chinese army formations. Meanwhile, improved Japanese fighters swept Chinese air forces from the skies. Thereafter the Japanese were able to go pretty much wherever they wanted. Nanking was conquered in December 1937, followed by an orgy of destruction in which perhaps as many as a quarter of a million Chinese were murdered. Hankow (Wuhan) followed in April 1938, after which the Japanese were able to advance as far as the Yangtze Gorges at I’chang. The top Chinese commanders too often moved their own forces around like chess pieces, prevented effective concentration and cooperation between neighboring units, whose commanders had often never met each other and were quite unable to establish proper liaison.

The Japanese advance then bogged down under its own logistical difficulties. The Chinese simply refused to give up, describing the war as Kangzhan daodi, "War of Resistance To the End." (The war is still known as the War of Resistance in China today). The Kuomintang actually reduced the sized of their army by about a third after the loss of Wuhan in order to concentrate on training of the remaining troops. The Japanese Army was heavily dependent on the rail system, which was still quite limited in China and tended to dictate the avenues of advance.  With Japanese operations thus canalized, the Chinese had numerous opportunities for surprise attacks and harassment, though these were seldom exploited very effectively. Chiang therefore began emphasizing Fabian tactics, including guerrilla warfare, over regular warfare. The notion of bogging Japan down in a war of attrition was not new; it had been a theme of Chinese military planning throughout the 1930s, and the actual course of the war was not far different from what the Chinese anticipated.

The WInter Offensive and Stalemate. The most serious effort by the Kuomintang to regain lost territory was the Winter Offensive of 1939-1940. This was to be a coordinated attack by 80 divisions along a front extending from Shansi to Kwangsi. However, the offensive sputtered out almost before it began, with Yen Hsi-shan cutting a deal with the Japanese that took Shansi out of the fighting and the Japanese launching a spoiling offensive against Nanning which, though successfully repelled, disrupted preparations for the Winter Offensive. Launched on 12 December 1939, the offensive was called off on 20 January 1940.

The Japanese advance on Changsha was defeated by the Chinese in the spring of 1941, and the Kuomintang regime in Chungking held out under aerial bombardment. There followed an undeclared truce, punctuated by a vengeance campaign in the Chuchow area in April 1942 following the Doolittle Raid. The Japanese contemplated following the Chuchow offensive with an offensive against Chungking, but this was canceled due to the deteriorating situation in the Pacific. There were no further major campaigns in China until the Japanese Icho-go offensive of 1944. The Japanese controlled the railroads, rivers, and major cities of north and central China; the Communists controlled much of the countryside of north China; and the Kuomintang controlled the south and west. Australian observer Rhodes Farmer wrote (Hastings 2009):

The campaigns the Japanese waged between 1938 and 1944 were foraging expeditions rather than battles. They had no greater strategic objective than to keep the countryside in terror, to sack the fields and towns, to keep the Chinese troops at the front off-balance, and to train their own green recruits under fire.

The Japanese termed these limited campaigns "cut short operations". Romanus and Sunderland (1953) note that the Japanese Army in China was shipped just 5000 155mm artillery rounds in 1942, and stocks of Type 38 rifle ammunition were maintained at just 60 million rounds. This was judged sufficient for a single battle. The general supply arrangements were those of an army of occupation, not one engaged in active operations.

Casualties for both sides were immense. The Japanese had suffered over 180,000 dead (including 48,344 dead from illness) and over 323,700 wounded (including 36,470 permanently disabled) by October 1941. Some 70% of Chiang's junior officers were lost in the battles of Shanghai and Nanking alone. This forced Chiang to rely on regional forces and their warlords, at a heavy cost in his political capital.

Curiously, the war between China and Japan remained undeclared until Pearl Harbor. There were legal niceties involved: Formally declaring war would place a number of restrictions on the belligerents under international law and restrict trade with the United States under the Neutrality Acts. As a result, the Japanese routinely referred to this Second Sino-Japanese War as "The China Incident." However, the Japanese presented a harsh ultimatum to Chiang on 13 January 1938, and when Chiang did not reply within three days, the Japanese Government announced that "Hereafter, the Imperial Government will not deal with the National Government" (quoted in Mitter 2013). This was more than a formal breach of diplomatic relations; the Japanese regarded it as 'stronger even than a declaration of war' (ibid.)

With the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was no longer any advantage to clinging to the legal fiction of nonbelligerency, and Chiang finally formally declared war on Japan. The declaration was anticlimactic: The Chinese now counted on the Americans to win the victory, and one American observer in Chungking sourly noted that "Pearl Harbor Day in America was Armistice Day out here" (quoted by Larrabee 1987).

The Chinese contribution to victory in the Pacific War is difficult to assess. It is likely, of course, that there would have been no Pacific War in the 1940s were it not for the Japanese actions in China. When war broke out, the Japanese allocated just 11 divisions to the Centrifugal Offensive against the Allies, out of an army of over fifty divisions. Most of the rest remained in China or Manchuria. This supports the view that China was a quagmire that kept the Japanese from deploying their full strength to the Pacific, but it seems likely that the shortage of Japanese shipping would have been a serious constraint in any case. Certainly the contribution of China was far less than American strategists had hoped for at the start of the Pacific War.

Probably the sharpest disagreement between the British and Americans, who were otherwise remarkably close allies during the Second World War, was over the role of China. The Americans were determined to open a supply route to China to equip and train a huge modern army that would crush the Japanese. The British, with their experience of the Raj in India, believed that it was unrealistic to expect to raise such an army from such a backwards country in time to make any difference in the Pacific War. They agreed to support the airlift across the Himalayas and ground operations to open of the Ledo Road to China largely to placate the Americans. Churchill's real interest in southeast Asia was to restore British prestige by reconquering Singapore, a program the Americans were completely unwilling to support.

American diplomacy with China was extraordinarily clumsy. Part of the reason for this was that American leaders were divided in their views towards China. At one extreme was a clique of Far East specialists in the State Department, led by Stanley Hornbeck, who saw China as the most important issue in U.S. foreign policy and who blinded themselves to Chinese weakness. At the other extreme were American personnel based in China itself, led by Ambassador Clarence Gauss, who characterized favorable American propaganda about China as "rot" (Smith 1985). Their views were reflected in one report sent to the War Department at about the time of Pearl Harbor (Romanus and Sunderland 1953):

... (a) Several Chinese officers have stated to me that they believe China might be able to win this war without further fighting. They expected international diplomatic pressure to force Japan out of China. I feel that this attitude combined with many months of inactive defense has created a non-aggressive attitude in the soldiers that will take time to overcome.

(b) The general idea in the United States that China has fought Japan to a standstill, and has had many glorious victories, is a delusion. Japan has generally been able to push forward any place she wanted to. She has stopped mostly because of the fact that a certain number of troops can safely hold only a certain number of miles of front without allowing dangerous holes to exist in it....

(c) Many small things all pointing in the same direction have caused me to have a feeling, stronger than a suspicion, that the desire of the Chinese for more modern matériel was not, before December 8th, for the purpose of pressing the war against Japan, but was to make the Central Government safe against insurrection after diplomatic pressure by other nations has forced Japan out of China....

In the middle was Roosevelt and his advisers, who found Hornbeck's words useful for propaganda purposes but whose actions towards China reflected doubts about how great a role she could play in defeating Japan.

The choice of Stilwell as Chiang's chief American military adviser was a particularly poor one, but better diplomats were equally unsuccessful in persuading Chiang to reform his government and fight more aggressively against the Japanese. Chiang seemed to hold the high cards: The threat of the Kuomintang coming to terms with the Japanese, thereby freeing the Japanese Army to move large forces to the Pacific, was a powerful one. American distaste for imperialism provided a strong incentive to direct American assistance to independent China rather than to colonial areas such as Burma. But, in the end, Chiang's intransigence led the Americans to turn to Stalin to eject the Japanese from mainland Asia.

Vice-President Henry Wallace visited China in June 1944 and came away with perhaps as accurate an impression as any American wartime leader: "Chiang, at best, is a short-term investment. It is not believed that he has the intelligence or political strength to run post-war China. The leaders of post-war China will be brought forward by evolution or revolution, and it now seems more like the latter" (Smith 1985).

Chinese suffering during the war is almost indescribable. A recent careful estimate based on Chinese archives suggests a figure of four million military and eighteen million civilian dead (Frank 1999). Another 95 million Chinese are estimated to have become refugees. Japanese casualties in China totaled 410,000 killed and 920,000 wounded.

With the Japanese surrender in 1945, a full-scale civil war broke out between the Kuomintang and the Communists. The Russians, who previously had backed Chiang, had seized Manchuria in the closing days of the Pacific War and now switched their support to Mao. Communist control of Manchuria proved fatal to the Kuomintang. Meanwhile the United States, which was determined to establish a coalition government, embargoed arms to the Kuomintang. The civil war ended in 1949 when the remaining Kuomintang forces were forced to retreat to Taiwan (Formosa).

Chinese Government and Politics

By the time war broke out in the Pacific, three different Chinese regimes competed for control of China. The Kuomintang nominally controlled the largest area of China, and was the government recognized by the Allies and most neutral powers. The Communists controlled large areas of northern China, and while they were nominally part of a United Front with the Kuomintang, the reality was that both sides expected to engage in open warfare for control of China once the Japanese left. The collaborationist regime of Wang Ching-wei was nominally in control of areas of China well behind Japanese lines, but was little more than a puppet of the Japanese.

The three regimes were strikingly similar in a number of respects. All claimed to be progressive, but none was pluralistic. All were nationalistic, the Communists in spite of the internationalism of Communist theory and the Wang regime in spite of its dependence on Japan. All three attempted to maintain control through a secret police system: the Kuomintang through the secret service run by Tai Li; the Communists through the Rectification Movement masterminded by Kang Sheng, who had been trained by the head of the Soviet NKVD, Genrik Yezhov; and the Wang regime through the security service run by Li Shih-ch'ün, with some support from the Japanese Kempeitai.

Tai Li was an old associate of Chiang who was a committed anti-Communist. His organization had the innocuous title of Military Investigation and Statistics Bureau or MSB, but became an instrument of state terror. But because it was also the intelligence arm of the Kuomintang, the Americans sought to work with MSB. Because of Chiang's distrust of the U.S. Army, likely arising from the toxic relationship between Chiang and Stilwell, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) was set up between the MSB and the U.S. Navy. Although this made some sense in the context of coast watchers on the long Chinese coast, it also led to such anomalies as U.S. Navy officers participating in guerrilla operations in Inner Mongolia, where they also collected weather observations for the Navy's meteorological service.

SACO was supposed to oversee OSS operations in China, but once again the poisonous relationship between Stilwell and Chiang interfered. OSS was run by William Donovan, who was an Army officer. Tai and Donovan got into a shouting match on 2 December 1943 in which Tai threatened to kill Donovan's agents and Donovan in turn threatened to assassinate Chinese generals in retaliation. Tai also felt a strong personal animosity against the British, who had once arrested him in Hong Kong, and so SOE and SIS were unable to get much foothold in China.

Wang's government never gained much popular support and was riven with factions. It is notable that not a single prominent military leader defected along with Wang and his civilian colleagues, and several of the latter eventually re-defected to the Kuomintang. One of Wang's closest followers, Chou Fo-hai (Zhou Fohai), who had originally helped Wang defect, had a change of heart and became a Kuomintang mole within the Wang government. He was offered a million Chinese dollars to assassinate Li Shih-ch'ün, but the Japanese beat him to it, inviting Li to a banquet at which he was fed poisoned fish.

Kang Sheng's rectification program followed the pattern of accusing loyal Party members, extracting confessions under torture, then using these to make accusations against more Party members. One party member recalled (quoted by Mitter 2013):

One victim recalled the process with terror more than half a century later. "Do you believe in the Party?" she was asked. She replied that she did. "Then if ... we say you're a problem," came the reply, "you're a problem." She remembered that at the time, she felt as if she had wanted to jump off a cliff.

There was no easy escaping from this twisted logic.

The Kuomintang came closer than the Communists or the Wang regime to being pluralistic, but not necessarily by choice. Chiang had united most of China under his leadership only because the Japanese threat made the need for unity obvious to his rivals. Chiang had succeeded in neutralizing the Manchurian warlord, Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang Xueliang), who was put under house arrest after the Sian incident; but Chiang had only uncertain support from former warlords like Feng Hu-hsiang (Feng Yuxiang), the "Christian General" and former warlord of Honan; Yen Hsi-shan (Yan Xishan), warlord of Shansi; Sung Che-yuan (Song Zheyuan), a lieutenant of Feng Hu-hsiang who had thrown in his lot with Chiang; and Lung Yun (Long Yun), warlord of Yunnan. Many of Chiang's best generals were Paoting graduates associated with the Southern Clique, such as Hsueh Yueh and Chang Fa-kuei.

When Chiang called a military conference on 7 August 1937 to seek the support of his rivals, all stood for fighting against Japan. Liu Hsiang, warlord of Szechuan, declared that "... in the past, I have fought bitter civil wars, but now we have the opportunity to join in the war against Japan. We must do our best for the nation so that history may record our positive contributions to its welfare" (quoted in Peattie et al. 2011). This new unity was further reinforced by the decision in January 1938 to execute Shantung warlord Han Fuju for cowardice. His execution was widely supported both by Chiang's rivals among the warlords and generals and by the popular press.

The Chinese Army

The first Chinese army organized and equipped along Western lines was the Pei-yang Army (Beiyang Army) created by Yuan Shikai under the Qing Dynasty in the late 19th century. This became a fairly disciplined, capable, and well-equipped force, and its officers were trained at the Pei-yang Officers Training Academy at Paoting (Baoding). Although the Pei-yang Army fragmented after Yuan's death, and its remnants were largely defeated by Chiang during the Northern Expedition of 1926, most of the best generals of the Kuomintang forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War were Paoting alumni rather than graduates of Chiang's Whampoa Academy.

Nevertheless, the Chinese Army was beginning to be a credible force by 1937. Some 15,000 officers had been trained under German advisers at the Central Military Academy, successor to the Whampoa Academy, and some fifty divisions were reasonably well organized and equipped along Western lines. The worst deficiencies were in artillery and other heavy weapons. The remainder of the Chinese army was still quite primitive, however. For example, most of the warlord forces were trained to fight in close formation, suitable for forces lacking firepower, and suffered heavy casualties against the relatively well-equipped Japanese. The quality of the warlord forces was mixed: Those from Kwangsi, the northwest, and the northeast were highly regarded, as were the Kwangtung and Shansi armies, but the Yunnan and Szechuan armies had a poor reputation.

The rank and unit structure of the Kuomintang Army was inflated relative to Western and Japanese armies. Divisions had an official strength of 10,983 men, but most had an actual strength of just 6,000 to 7,000 men, except for a few divisions organized and trained by German advisers before 1937. There were about 300 divisions active in December 1941, of which the vast majority were made up of lightly armed and poorly trained men capable of terrorizing the Chinese peasantry but not of being maintained in combat for any length of time. Total manpower was 3 million men. 1,200,000 men (about 176 divisions) were under Chiang, of whom 650,000 were directly controlled and 550,000 under nominally loyal warlords. The best 31 divisions, "The Generalissimo’s Own" (300,000 men), had been trained and equipped by the Germans prior to the signing of the Tripartite Pact, were led by officers educated at the Central Military Academy in Nanking, and were relatively capable. Foreign observers noted with astonishment that their ranks were actually more literate, on average, than civilian Chinese. However, they were constantly held in reserve against the Communists and rebel warlords (including the Muslim warlords of the northwest), who Chiang regarded as the real long-term enemy. The remaining 145 divisions were under regional warlords or the Communists.

The Kuomintang inducted some 14 million men between 1937 and 1945. However, peak strength never exceeded 6 million men, which gives the reader some idea of the casualty rate (which likely included a vast number of desertions.) The great majority of those inducted were peasants, since recruiting was notoriously corrupt and the middle class could buy their way out of the draft. Xu Yongqiang, a Kuomintang interpreter in 1944, gives us some idea (Hastings 2007):

Most recruits came simply as prisoners, roped together at bayonet point. They had so little training that it was easy to see why they were no match for the Japanese, who for years had been schooled to kill. It was inhuman! Inhuman! There were no such things as civil rights in China. For eight years, it was the peasants who had to fight the Japanese, both for the Communists and the Kuomintang. The middle class stayed at home and made money. The big families did nothing at all.

As Marvin Williamsen has observed, "For these men life in the ranks was nasty, and apt to be brutish and short as well" (Hsiung and Levine 1992.)

The reluctance of the middle class to enlist was not necessarily due to lack of patriotism. Over most of its long history, warfare in China was mostly fought by mercenaries, and Confucianism was disdainful of the profession of arms: "Good iron is not made into nails; a good man does not enlist as a soldier" (quoted in Harmsen 2013). This was reflected in remarks by Chinese civilians caught up in the battle of Shanghai: "Why are the soldiers so lazy? They get paid so well now, and it's unbelievable that they still haven't thrown out the Japanese" (ibid.) The notion that wars were something you paid someone else to win was deeply entrenched, particularly among older Chinese.

The Chinese peasant soldier did have certain strengths. Terrible as life was in the ranks, it was often better than life as a peasant farmer or urban refugee. The Chinese soldier showed an astonishing capability to endure hardships and was sometimes tenacious in defense. However, there was a tendency for battered Chinese formations to simply disintegrate and for retreats to turn into routs.

The peak strength of 6 million men, out of a population of 400 million, represents a mobilization of about 1.5% of China's population. This contrasts with about 17 million Americans mobilized into the armed forces out of a population of about 132 million, or nearly 13%. This reflected the agrarian economy of China, where most of the population was still engaged in near subsistence farming on small acreages, and mobilization of farmers risked widespread famine. It also reflected an induction system plagued with corruption and perverse incentives. Chinese commanders received a cash allowance for rations based on their reported strength, which meant that a soldier's actual food allowance depended rather heavily on his commander's honesty and skill at bargaining with food merchants. It also meant that commanders had a strong incentive to pad their reports on combat strength, continuing to carry dead men's names on their rosters instead of replacing them. The Chinese forces in Yunnan (Y-Force) were reported to be at only 55% of authorized strength in March 1943.

Chinese military leadership was abysmal. At the very top, Chiang's headquarters proved unable to coordinate the operations of its huge armies and unwilling to delegate authority to subordinates. The former is unsurprising given the backwardness of 1940s China. The latter is perhaps understandable given China's recent history of wardlordism and lack of national unity. This is not to absolve Chiang of all responsibility for his failures of command, but the challenges he faced were all but insuperable. Leadership at the army and division level was characterized by its ineptness. Except for a core of elite officers trained at the academies at Whampoa or Nanking, most general officers were amateurs, and all suffered from the lack of a competent staff. Staff officers had no authority to transmit orders, which had to come personally from the commander, and when not given in person had to bear the commander's kwan-fang or official seal ("chop"). Abysmal communications equipment exacerbated the problem: A Chinese division could only defend about 12 miles (20 km) of front without losing contact with its own headquarters.

The country was divided into war areas (twelve in number in late 1941) that were simply too large and carried too many civilian administrative responsibilities. The war area commanders were often warlords of dubious loyalty, and a few of Chiang's better divisions were stationed in each war area to ensure loyalty to the central government, squandering their value in fighting the Japanese. The longer troops were stationed in an area, the more they became involved in local politics. Chiang set a poor example by issuing many order directly to war area commanders, bypassing the Chun-ling-pu (Ministry of Military Orders). Chiang was fond of giving detailed orders by telephone, often based on 1:1,000,000 scale maps that were full of cartographic errors.

Chinese generalship was characterized by long debate over strategy by officers bound by a complex web of social connections as much as by formal chains of command. Junior officers showed little capacity for independent thinking even in the better Chinese formations, as the German advisers with Chiang's best divisions noted in 1937 (Harmsen 2013). Junior officers died in large numbers early in the fighting, making the same mistake the Allies had during the First World War of trying to overcome firepower with valor. By June 1940, the Chinese Army had suffered 24,806 officers killed and 42,991 wounded -- over a third of the prewar professional officer corps. Large numbers of replacement officers of questionable ability were promoted out of the ranks, and only 27% of the replacement officers had any formal academic military training. Many traveled with their families. Against this background, and contrary to much Western finger-pointing, Chiang himself must be rated one of the more capable Chinese officers, one of the few with any grasp of modern military science, and with a record of victories in the civil wars of the 1920s. Most of the generals suggested as alternatives to Chiang had in fact proven to not be his equal during this time period.

The entire Chinese Army had perhaps 6,000 trucks, of which half were serviceable. This may not have mattered much, since fuel was extremely scarce and paved roads and sturdy bridges lacking. When 93 Army was sent from Szechwan to Kwangsi in late 1944 in response to Ichi-go, it took two months to arrive. Likewise, 97 Army took twenty days to reach Kweichow from Chungking in what was a life-or-death situation. Even pack animals were in short supply: Of the estimated 10,647 horses and 20,688 mules needed for twenty Kuomintang divisions, only 6,206 horses and 4.351 mules were available in 1935.

Equipment was very poor, and it was an unusually well-equipped division that had anything more than rifles and light machine guns. 80% of hand grenades failed to explode. There were only 457 artillery pieces in the entire Chinese Army in 1935. The following table illustrates the difficulty (Hsiung and Levine 1992):

Weapons in the Chinese Army


Machine guns
Trench mortar
Artillery pieces

As can be seen from the table, there were not even enough rifles to equip most of the soldiers. Nor was their sufficient ammunition: Production in unoccupied China was just 15 million rifle rounds, enough for just fifteen rounds per rifleman per month. (The American allowance was 150 rounds per month.) Logistics were also poor, often being put in the hands of a civilian businessman who met the minimum requirements and pocketed the rest of the funds. There was often only enough transport to supply rice to the front line, which took priority over ammunition. Troops responded to supply shortages by pillaging the local civilian population, habit of which the British were aware and which made them most reluctant to accept Chinese forces in Burma. Slim took this philosophically (Allen 1984):

After all, if I had belonged to an army that had been campaigning for four or five years without any supply, transport or medical organization worth the name and had only kept myself alive by collecting things from other people, I should either have had much the same ideas on property or have been dead.

Foreign aid was therefore an important part of China's military effort. Prior to 1939, this came from several sources. According to British sources, in the first half of 1938, these included Germany, which supplied 70 percent of China's artillery shells and 113,250,000 rounds of small arms ammunition; Czechoslovakia, which supplied 5500 machine guns and 26 million rounds of small arms ammunition; Sweden, which supplied 40 percent of China's antiaircraft guns, 90 percent of China's mortar shells, and 117,670,000 rounds of small arm ammunition. The United States and Britain supplied mostly aircraft and spare parts, while Britain also supplied 25 percent of all dynamite and gelignite. The wide variety of weapons in a Chinese division multiplied logistical difficulties.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Burma and closed the Burma Road, leaving China with no access to the outside world except by hideously expensive air transport. Nevertheless, the United States Congress granted China a $500 million loan, no strings attached, on 6 February 1942. Since it was estimated that a Chinese division could be fully modernized and equipped for about $1 million, the sum was ample. However, because there was no way for China to bring in purchased goods from abroad and there was little for the Chinese government to purchase in China, the loan simply exacerbated the wartime inflation, and much of it disappeared into corrupt channels. Allied efforts to supply China over "The Hump" were costly and largely ineffective. The campaign to reopen the Burma Road from Ledo was successful too late to make much difference.

Chinese strategy and tactics suffered from a tendency to try to cover all points evenly, leaving inadequate reserves, and to commit such forces as were available in a piecemeal fashion, inviting defeat in detail.

One American observer estimated that a Chinese division had one-third to one-sixth the combat effectiveness of a Japanese division. Peattie et al. estimate that one hundred Chinese divisions at the front line were a rough match for twelve Japanese divisions. Sawada Shigeru estimated that a Japanese company could successfully attack a Chinese division and a Japanese battalion could defend against a Chinese division. This unusual reversal of the strength required for attack vesus defense may be biased by the Japanese emphasis on the offensive, but it may also reflect the lack of mobility of Chinese formations.

See also: Kuomintang Order of Battle

Chinese abroad

Many Chinese had emigrated to southeast Asia, particularly to British-controlled territories (via Hong Kong). Here they had become a financially successful middle class that remained ethnically distinct from the local population. Their success bred resentment among Asian nationalists, and Thai dictator Phibul explicitly likened them to the Jews of Europe. From a social and economic perspective, this was a reasonable analogy. Thus Hastings (2007) describes the Japanese persecution and murder of ethnic Chinese in occupied Asia, carried out partially to win favor with local nationalists, as pogroms. One of the worst of these occurred at Singapore, where it is estimated that at least 2000 Chinese were slaughtered following the Japanese victory.

Chinese abroad were in fact active in opposition to the Japanese. For example, Lim Bo Seng was an ethnic Chinese living in Singapore who helped organize guerrilla operations against the Japanese after the fall of that city. He had previously helped organize anti-Japanese boycotts and raise money for the Kuomintang from the ethnic Chinese community.

American aid to China

Some of the most bitter disputes within the American military leadership were over the proper way to aid China so as to make it an effective ally against Japan. The dispute eventually came to revolve around the persons of Stilwell and Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers and later of 14 Air Force. Stilwell believed China could contribute to the Allied cause only with a secure line of supply to the Western Allies and extensive reform of the Chinese Army. This meant clearing Burma of the Japanese so that supply shipments could resume through the port of Rangoon and the Burma Road. Chennault, on the other hand, made extravagant claims for potential of American air power in China, which he claimed would make reform of the Chinese Army unnecessary.

Stilwell had the better case, but he was a poor diplomat, came to despise Chiang and the Kuomintang, and had a tendency to lapse into a damaging silence when dealing with his own political leaders. Chennault was careful to cultivate the friendship of Chiang and especially Madame Chiang, and he was articulate and persuasive when dealing with American political leaders. Chiang was extremely reluctant to attempt reform of the Chinese Army, which would doubtless prove politically dangerous. He was also aware that China was exhausted and demoralized after years of absorbing defeat after defeat from the Japanese: By 1943, the Kuomintang government was spending just 25% of what it had spent in 1937 for military and civilian purposes. The prospect of letting the American Air Force fight the war for him was highly attractive. Roosevelt, too, fell under Chiang's spell, and in any case the President was a strong advocate of air power and its potential. Roosevelt ignored Stilwell's warning that the Japanese would simply overrun the Chinese airfields if the air campaign became too annoying, taking the side of Chennault in disputes over strategic priorities.

Stilwell had to settle for training a small Chinese corps at Ramgarh, in India, while training and equipping a larger force in Yunnan using the trickle of supplies that could be airlifted over "The Hump."  With Chennault given priority on airlift tonnage, Stilwell found his own allocation of supplies pitifully inadequate, declaring that his task was like "trying to manure a ten-acre field with sparrow shit" (quoted in Tuchman 1972.)  Corruption was pervasive in China. Romanus and Sunderland (1953) discuss at some length the difficulties of the U.S. advisers trying to set up an artillery training center, who found themselves dealing with everything from the arrest of their construction foremen by the local Chinese commander to being blackmailed into purchasing supplies at tremendously inflated rates to having their electrical system blown out when another commander ran a galvanized iron wire to his house to steal electricity.

Stilwell felt compelled to order construction of the Ledo Road through northern Burma to bypass the Japanese in Rangoon. This project proved as futile as the airlift.  The carrying capacity was small and the road could not be completed in time to make any difference in the outcome of the war. Stilwell could take scant comfort in being proven right by the Ichi-go offensive, in which the Japanese easily overran the Chinese airfields from which Chennault's pilots were operating: By then Stilwell had been recalled, at Chiang's insistence.


The largest operation attempted by the Japanese in China during the Pacific War was the Icho-go offensive of 1944, which involved up to 400,000 Japanese troops and 800,000 Chinese troops. Of these, the Japanese admitted about 30,000 casualties, while the Chinese suffered nearly 300,000 casualties.

Ichi-go consisted of three main phases. The first, Ko-go, which commenced on 17 April 1944, was an advance across the Yellow River into Honan by 400,000 Japanese troops against about 100,000 defenders. The second phase, To-go, was an advance into Hunan in June 1944 by a force of 360,000 Japanese. The Chinese eventually reinforced the defending forces to a maximum strength of 800,000 troops, but were unable to hold Changsha. The second phase of To-go and final phase of Ichi-go was an advance into Kwangsi in August 1944 by 100,000 Japanese troops against a roughly equal number of Chinese warlord troops, though the Chinese rapidly reinforced the defenders at Tushan with five armies from 8 War Area that had previously been keeping watch on the Chinese Communists. By the end of the year, the Japanese had secured the railroad between Hengyang and Canton.

The Ichi-go offensive attained almost all of its objectives. The American airfields were put out of action, though by the end of 1944 this no longer mattered much, since the Americans had recaptured Clark Field in the Philippines and sealed off Formosa Strait from the east. The rail link across central and southern China was secure. Nationalist China lost the best 10% of its troops (over 500,000 men) and 25% of its remaining industrial base, as well as the manpower and agricultural resources of Honan, Hunan, and Kwangsi, putting it effectively out of the war. Again, at this point this no longer mattered much, since American forces were closing in on Japan from the south and east.

In spite of its stunning success, Icho-go appears to have exhausted the strength of the Japanese Army in China. Army chief of staff Umezu Yoshijiro reported to the Emperor in June 1945 that the combat strength of all Japanese troops in China was equivalent to that of about eight American divisions and that munitions reserves were sufficient for only a single battle.

Operation Iceman/White Tower

Following Ichi-go, Chiang attempted to rally his forces for a counterattack against the Japanese in the spring of 1945, named ping-jen ("Iceman") or pai-t'a ("White Tower"). The objective was to retake the ports along China's southwest coast in preparation for Anglo-American landings. Alpha Plan, an agreement between China and the U.S. for the latter to equip and train 36 divisions, was making progress and would supply the needed forces. In April 1945 the first counteroffensive was launched and recaptured Kweilin and Lichou. The second phase of the counteroffensive, Operation CARBONADO to recapture Canton, began in late July 1945 but was rendered moot by the use of nuclear weapons.

The surrender surprised the Chinese, who were unprepared even to arrange transportation for Japanese surrender delegations. Chiang felt compelled to ask the Japanese to stay in place and maintain order until Chinese troops could arrive. The disruption of rail lines by vast numbers of refugees meant that Kuomintang troops were delayed in reaching north China and Manchuria, which had serious implications for the postwar power struggle with the Communists.

Provinces of China (click on map for articles)

Map of China showing province boundaries Anhwei Chinghai Hupeh Kansu Kiangsu Ninghsia Sikang Sinkiang Szechuan Chekiang Honan Kiangsu Shantung Kwangsi Yunnan Chahar Fukien Hopei Shansi Shensi Suiyuan Kwangtung Hunan Kweichow


Allen (1984)

Browne (1967)

Collingham (2011)

Craig (1967)

Domes (1985)

Dorn (1974)
Drea (2009)

Frank (1999)

Gilbert (1989)

Hastings (2007)

Harmsen (2013)

Hoyt (1993)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Johnson (1983)

Kehn (2008)

Larrabee (1987)

Liu (1956)

Mitter (2013)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953; 1954, accessed 2011-6-18)

Sih (1977)

Smith (1985)

Tuchman  (1972)

Wilson (1982)

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