Scotland/China articles

China commemorates the 1937-45 war

by Website Editor, 26 August 2015 (updated 3 September 2015)

On 3 September 2015, China commemorated the 70th anniversary of “the Victory of Chinese People's Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the Anti-Fascist War”. This article provides some background to these events, and highlights a few of the many Scottish connections with the conflict. See also our article here on a reception held at the Chinese Consulate in Edinburgh.

Left - Chongqing (then Chungking), China's wartime capital, burns after an air raid - it became known as the most-bombed city in the world during WW2 ; right - the 70th anniversary logo

The commemorations culminated in a large military parade in Beijing on 3 September, featuring Chinese troops, modern military weaponry, and foreign troops (a first – details here). In addition, Kuomintang (KMT) veterans have also taken part in the parade, another notable first, “fully recognizing the contribution by the KMT to China's victory”, as Xinhua notes. There are some photos and videos of the parade rehearsal here. The BBC previews the parade here.

For various reports on the parade, see the special Xinhua page here, and the BBC. President Xi Jinping's speech is notable for his announcement that the PLA will cut its numbers by 300,000 personnel, around 13% of its current active strength, by 2017 - for more detail, see here.

Events are also being staged in other parts in China. The day is to be an extra public holiday, and we understand that the school holidays have been extended to 5 September to allow greater public participation. There is also going to be a prisoner amnesty, see here.

The parade will be the first time China has marked the anniversary on such a large scale (there were smaller commemorations in 2005, see here). The country played a very significant role in WW2, fighting Japan not just from 1941-45 but also alone from 1937-41. Over the course of the war, it is estimated that China suffered more than 20m military and civilian dead, with military casualties reaching more than 3.8m, accounting for a third of the total casualties of WW2, according to this Xinhua report. A further 15m people were wounded and around 90m became refugees, and the economic damage to China's early industrialisation was immense.

Chinese forces also killed some 1.5m Japanese troops, and tied up perhaps 70% of Japan's total strength, which might otherwise have been deployed against the Allies in the Pacific War from December 1941. Contrasting with the reconciliation that has taken place in Europe between former foes, relations between China and Japan have remained strained to modern times, notwithstanding recent statements by Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese Emperor.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping said on 7 July at the Marco Polo bridge, site of the first Sino-Japanese fighting in 1937, "the great contributions made by the Chinese people to the world anti-Fascist war should be remembered”, adding “we must cherish peace while being cautious of the future”.

The official logo for the commemoration (seen above) highlights a striking, dominant red number "70" in the center. Above the "70" five doves fly over and behind it the Great Wall spreads in the shape of letter "V". As Xinhua explains, “the 'V' symbolizes victory and the unity of Chinese nation, while the five doves demonstrate the memory of history and the aspiration for peace, representing people from the five continents united and moving together towards a better future after experiencing 'blood and fire'”.

It is only the last 10-15 years that the full history of the war has started to be explored in China. As Professor Rana Mitter wrote in 2010, "over 60 years after it ended, the rediscovery of China's wartime experiece is big business in China, and in Chongqing in particular". Prof Mitter runs a special research project at Oxford into the war, and his book China's war with Japan is an excellent recent study of the conflict (see more on the wider historical aspects of commemoration at the end of this article).

There is a special Xinhua website with many stories, photos, and videos relating to the war and commemorations, here.

The Sino-Japanese War 1937-45 and the war in the East, 1941-45

The Sino-Japanese War lasted from 7 July 1937 to 9 September 1945, and was fought on a vast scale and with particular brutality by the Japanese – the Nanjing massacre of 1937 being the best known example amongst many atrocities. A summary of the war's course can be found on Wikipedia here, including links to many books, web resources, videos etc.

Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the Chinese fought Japan alone, although she received some diplomatic support, financial assistance and humanitarian aid from the UK, USA and other countries.

Left – a British aid organisation booklet ; middle – Japanese tanks at the gates of Nanjing, 1937 ;
right – a US aid organisation poster

After December 1941, China was allied to the UK, US and the other nations that became involved in fighting across Asia and in the Pacific. Chinese troops fought bravely alongside the British, Commonwealth and Americans in the fighting on what became known as the China-Burma-India theatre - some nine Chinese divisions took part in the initial battles in Burma in 1942, and two of these later moved to India to receive further training from the Allies before re-joining the campaign. Some 24 Chinese naval cadets even took part in the D-Day landings, see here.

Left – a US poster supporting China ; middle – the Burma Road, a remarkable feat of engineering built primarily by Chinese civilian labour, allowed the Allies to send supplies to China by land from early 1945 ; right – General Auchinleck British commander in India, watches Chinese troops under training

Scotland and China's war – the military

Scottish soldiers had a front line seat in the early days of the Sino-Japanese war, albeit as observers rather than participants. The 1st Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders were in Shanghai in 1938, manning defences around the International Settlement at the time of the initial Japanese attack on the city. As the photo below shows, they did so in close proximity to the Japanese forces, who would become their enemies just a few years later.

Another unit, 2nd Battalion, The Royal Scots, was part of the Hong Kong garrison from 1940 and took part in the defence of the colony against Japanese invasion in December 1941. The unit lost 117 dead and 230 wounded in the battle for Hong Kong, and a further 62 died in Japanese hands as prisoners of war. A further 144 were lost as a result of the tragic sinking of the Lisbon Maru, a Japanese ship taking them to China, by a US submarine that was unaware it was carrying allied POWs. Another soldier captured at Hong Kong who spent the war in captivity, and indeed survived the Lisbon Maru, was Warrant Officer Thomas Nelson, Royal Artillery, father of SCA Glasgow Committee member Mike Nelson. An excellent source on this battle, and the fates of those who took part, is the website Hong Kong War Diary, and the associated books, by Tony Banham.

Left – the Seaforth Highlanders marching over Garden Bridge, Shanghai ; middle – Seaforths on the Shanghai defences, alongside Japanese marines ; right – The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Sai Wan, Hong Kong – 45 Royal Scots are buried here, and a further 217 are commemorated on the Memorial, including those lost on the Lisbon Maru

Scotland and China's war – the missionaries

There was a significant Scottish missionary presence in China at this time, and many missionaries and their families had their lives disrupted, or worse, by the conflict. The Church of Scotland had two main centres, in and around Shenyang (then Mukden), in Manchuria, and at Yichang (then Ichang) on the Yangtze, and other Scots worked for other denominations elsewhere in China. Many of these were interned by the Japanese and endured several years of captivity.

Those caught up in the war included at least one later SCA member - Betty Barr was interned in Lungwha camp in Shanghai, a story she tells in her book, Shanghai boy, Shanghai girl, still available from the SCA – see here for more details. Betty and her husband George have recently been interviewed by the BBC about their experiences, and there are now several items online, see video here, and some text here. There was also a longer video segment on BBC2 Newsnight on 2 September - the full programme is available here, with the China item running from about 30:40 minutes until almost the end of the programme. This will be online for 30 days from 2 September.

Perhaps the most well-known Scottish missionary caught up in the war was Eric Liddell, who worked in China as a missionary from 1925 until his untimely death in 1945, in a Japanese internment camp at Weifang (then Weihsien), Shandong province. In 1940, Liddell was in fact back in Scotland on leave, and given the international situation, could well have stayed. But he returned to China, and was thus interned by the Japanese when hostilities broke out with the UK and the US, initially at Tianjin and finally, in 1943, at Weifang. He threw himself wholeheartedly into camp life and was loved by his fellow internees, especially the children, many of whom had been interned from schools on China's east coast, without their parents who were still living in parts of the country not occupied by the Japanese (this BBC article tells the story of some such children). Liddell's death, to a brain tumour, was a blow to the whole camp community. Liddell's memory is of course maintained by The Eric Liddell Centre in Edinburgh. It was notable, and entirely appropriate, that Sue Liddell-Caton, Eric's niece, was invited, with colleagues from the Centre, to the Chinese Consulate reception in Edinburgh on 1 September 2015. In addition, a new statue of Liddell has recently been erected in Weifang, where he is buried, see this article.

The city of Weifang commemorated his life by laying a wreath at the memorial headstone marking his grave in 2005, as part of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the internment camp. A new film based on Liddell's life, The Last Race, went into production in China in 2015, starring Joseph Fiennes, and is expected to air in March 2016. This is expected to cover much more of his Chinese experience than did the earlier Chariots of Fire.

Left – dormitory at Pootung Camp, Shanghai ; middle – painting of the dining room queue, Lunghwa camp, Shanghai, by Deidre Eve, an Irish artist interned with Betty Barr and her parents, from Betty's book ;
right – dormitory at Lunghwa camp, Shanghai

Scotland and China's war – the home front

The war in China was followed closely by many in Scotland. Long-serving members of the SCA recall Roderick MacFarquhar, an early member of the Association, speaking of the widespread wartime sympathy for China during a visit the country in 1985. And it is very possible that Tom Murray, a founding member of the SCA and lifetime international socialist, was involved in local activities to support China, as there is a 1938 booklet entitled "Aid for China must go on" in his archives held by the National Library of Scotland.

A search in the online archives of The Scotsman (courtesy of the National Library of Scotland) for the terms “China” and “war” brings up over 5,000 entries of varying kinds. To select just a few :

    • 8 July 1937 - reporting on the outbreak of hostilities at the Marco Polo bridge the previous day, the paper noted “both sides are apparently anxious to localise the conflict” - sadly, of course, that did not happen
    • 10 November 1937 – the Glasgow Kino Film Group held a showing of Chinese and Spanish war films – one was 'War in China', on the recent bombing of Shanghai, and part of the collection went to Chinese medical aid
    • 13 October 1938 – the Chinese Ambassador, Dr Quo Tai Chi, attended a mass meeting for the Edinburgh Committee for China Relief – it was reported that over £800 had been raised in the city in the previous six months – the Ambassador said that “even as a Chinese, I am astonished at the will and fortitude of my people”
    • 8 January 1942 – by now, China was an ally of the UK, and a speech in London by the Chinese Ambassador, now Dr Wellington Koo, was reported, in which he said, “for 54 months [China] has continuously fought the formidable foe against overwhelming odds, and she is willing to fight an equally long period if necessary”

Some 'Scotsman' reports on aid to China and Chinese visitors - left to right, 29 September 1942 ;
10 January 1944 ; 7 March 1944

    • 29 September 1942 – an Edinburgh branch of the United Aid for China Fund was formed as part of a national appeal launched by Lady Cripps (wife of Sir Stafford Cripps, the UK politician) in July 1942 – this was a merger of various other funds that had been running for several years – the paper noted that “Scotland had a special interest in China”, because “many of her sons occupied key positions in the Treaty Ports ; the railways depended on Scottish accountants to manage their affairs, and many industrial and commercial houses were staffed by Scots” - it also noted that one of the organisations that would receive the funds was the Chinese Red Cross, “headed by Dr Lim, of Edinburgh University” - this was Dr K. S. Lim, who went to school at George Watson's College and graduated in medicine from Edinburgh, served with the British Army during WW1 and was, by 1942, Director of the Medical Relief Corps and the Chinese Red Cross Training School
    • 5 February 1943 – Sir Stafford Cripps made a major speech on China in Edinburgh's Usher Hall, and explained how China had moved much of its industry from the coastal cities into the interior of the far west, through “feats of carriage and of engineering which Western engineers have given up as hopeless have been carried out by teams of coolies with no other apparatus than bamboo poles and a piece of rope”- he added, “the Chinese have revealed a patience and courage not of a martial race, but of a peaceful race inspired by a high ideal”, and concluded that China was “a full and equal ally in the fight for victory and a full and equal partner in the world building that must follow”
    • 10 January 1944 – a Chinese official mission visited Edinburgh and Glasgow during a wider tour of the UK – their aim was “to convey the greetings and homage of the Chinese people ; to study the British war effort ; and to explain to the British people the hopes and aspirations of the Chinese people”- Dr Wang Shih Chieh, the leader of the delegation and former Minister of Education, said it had “become the deep conviction of the Chinese people that when China had been economically and industrially developed, she would be both a stabilising force for peace and a tremendous market for world trade” - he also noted the vast increase in literacy and education that had been achieved in China during the war years

An article from a British China aid booklet explaining the expansion of education during the war

  • 7 March 1944 – a “China Week” was held in Edinburgh, at the Hall of the Edinburgh Merchant Company, with a exhibition of Chinese art and pictures – the city's target was £10,000
  • 6 March 1945 – another “China Week” was held in the capital, and one speaker, Lord Teviot, reported that he had received a letter from Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, in which the Chinese leader had spoken “of his great friendship for this country and his hopes that, after the war was over, the two countries would really get together in trade and cultural which would be of mutual benefit to them”
  • 3 September 1945 – noting that the Japanese surrender in China was set for 6 September, the paper's correspondent in Chongqing reported discussions about whether Japanese forces could surrender to the Communist armies as well as to the KMT, adding that if this was agreed, “it will be the first important step on the road to unity and an encouraging sign for the future”

Commemoration before 2015 and wider historical aspects

The 1937-45 war has been seen in a number of different ways in China in the last 70 years. Professor Rana Mitter reflects on this at the end of his excellent book mentioned earlier, China's war with Japan - a few of his comments are given below, from pages 380-388.

  • ”Mao's China had no place for any description of the Nationalists except as enemies who did little to defend China against Japan and had rightly been routed in 1949”
  • on the opening of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial in 1985, “it is remarkable that it took some four decades after the war had ended for such a site to be erected”
  • in the 1990s Chonging took advantage of the new openness to discuss the war, as Mitter says, “of all the Allied capitals it was the only that had no chance to celebrate its resistance and mourn its losses”

Left – the museum at the site of the notorious Japanese Unit 731, near Harbin, a covert biological and chemical warfare unit that carried out lethal human experimentation on Chinese civilians ;
middle – names of the dead at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial ;
right – a display at the private Jinchuan Museum near Chengdu featuring handprints of Chinese veterans

  • ”more noticeable within China, and more significant in the longer term, is the use of the war to unite people within China and to position the country as a co-operative rather than a confrontational actor in world politics”
  • the term “anti-fascist war” has been more recently added to “the war of resistance” to describe the 1937-45 conflict to stress China's role as part of Allied collective resistance to the Axis powers - as Mitter notes, ”the implication is clear - at an earlier time when its contribution was needed, China delivered, and it should now be trusted as it seeks, once again, to enter international society playing a wider role”
  • ”China remains the forgotten ally, its contribution only slowly being remembered as its experiences fades out of living memory”
  • ”without Chinese resistance, China would have been a Japanese colony as early as 1938” and “without the China quagmire, Japan's imperial ambitions would have been much easier to fulfil”

In this context, it is interesting to this Xinhua article, which notes that "while most in the western world believe World War II started with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, there are a growing number of historians who believe the official date should be amended to 1937".