A few weeks ago, my boss asked me the following: what country experienced the second highest number of World War II deaths? I got the answer wrong multiple times before giving up.
The Soviet Union had the highest casualty figures, with an inconceivable 24 million total deaths (civilian and military combined). Following the Soviet Union, surprisingly, was China, with an estimated 10 to 20 million total deaths. Chinese official statistics estimate 20 million dead and 15 million wounded - truly staggering figures. The overwhelming majority of Chinese casualties came at the hands of the Japanese, who invaded China beginning in the early 1930s. As World War II became a global war - waged on both the Pacific and European fronts - the China/Japan conflict (officially called the Second Sino-Japanese War) became a part of the broader strategic calculus. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: why did the Japanese invade China in the first place?
In 1927, the Japanese Emperor allegedly asked his Prime Minister, Tanaka Giichi, to develop a plan to take over the world. This plan, since referred to as the Tanaka Memorial, was based on the premise that global domination could only happen if China were conquered first. The strategy was first to invade the resource rich province of Manchuria. Following this would be a broader attack that would force China into surrendor, thereby guaranteeing Japan access to cheap Chinese labor. Japan would then move south to the Indies and would finally attack the US. The initial phase of this plan took place in 1931, and the Japanese were quite successful in taking Manchuria. The Chinese were in an almost hopeless position; Japan was economically and technologically advanced, while China was basically a country full of peasants. Politically China was divided, and the internal struggle to consolidate power prevented a unified leadership that could adequately defend the country. In short, Japan was a focused, organized, military imperialist regime fighting a diffuse, fractured and poor China.
While Japan continued its assault on China in the ensuing years, most historians agree that the war between the two countries did not start until 1937. By now, Japan was focused on phase two of the global domination plan - in other words, they wanted to crush the Chinese into submission. Perhaps the most noteworthy - and horrific - event was the Nanking Massacre, an attack on the Chinese capital that is also referred to as the Rape of Nanking. The Japanese army quickly destroyed Chinese forces, and went on to slaughter hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The city was bombed, large groups of people were buried alive, and many women were forced to become sex slaves. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Chinese women were raped by Japanese soldiers. This sickeningly barbaric display was a crushing military and psychological defeat for China.
One positive from the Japanese attack was that it dramatically accelerated Chinese unification, and Chiang Kai-shek was soon firmly in control of China and its war strategy. This strategy shifted significantly following the attack on Nanking. Aware of their inability to defeat the Japanese army, China developed a strategy based on two assets of which they had an abundance: land and people. First, the Chinese retreated to the west in what is now considered to be the largest mass migration in history. As they moved, they employed a scorched earth policy, destroying roads, bridges and villages. They were effectively trading space for time in an effort to slow the advance of the Japanese and give themselves the opportunity to regroup. Most incredibly, the Chinese military destroyed massive dykes in the Yellow River, causing a massive flood that by some estimates killed 500,000 Chinese civilians. The move was intended to slow the Japanese army, and in this regard it seems to have been successful. However, the decision to destroy the dykes without first informing its citizens (to maintain the element of surprise) has been justifiably criticized.
Once the Chinese leadership and people had migrated west, they launched a massive mobilization that included women and even children receiving military training. Additionally, millions of Chinese worked together to build new roads and underground factories, often by hand. In the more eastern areas (where Japan continued to have control), Chinese farmers often launched guerilla attacks on the Japanese and then blended back into their roles as farmers. By 1939, China had managed to reach a stalemate with Japan.
Eventually Japan decided to move forward with its global domination plan in spite of having not achieved its phase two goal of forcing China to surrender. With the US getting stronger every day, Moscow bogged down and Britain hurting, Japan could no longer wait to attack the US. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the US officially brought China into the Allied forces. Incredibly, at different times in its war with Japan, China was allied with Germany (earlier), the Soviet Union, and later the United States. With Allied technological support and air cover from the famous Flying Tigers, a group of US pilots who were given the mission to fly for the Chinese, the battle dynamics were significantly changed. The Flying Tigers recorded 300 destroyed Japanese planes, compared with losing only 12 of their iconic shark-faced planes. Obviously the Japanese had a significantly more difficult, global fight after atacking the United States. The war with China continued until the Japanese were defeated and forced to surrender at the end of World War II. This ended almost fifteen years of fierce, ruthless fighting on Chinese soil.
It is a very fine line to discuss war casualty statistics. Life is precious, and a number on a webpage of course does not do the meaning behind the number any degree of justice. However, reseraching this week's topic helped me remember how the proportions of these events can be lost on people. How can I even begin to give perspective on what 20 million deaths means? How can we as a society know so much about certain wars - in which total deaths can be measured by the thousands - and so little about one country's immense suffering in a war that ended not even a full generation ago? Is it any surprise that China continues to attack the Japanese Prime Minister for each year visiting and worshipping the country's war "heros"?
If you're so inclined - a simple moment of reflection or prayer on the unmeasurable pain experienced by those tens of millions of Chinese civilians, who like so many others unfairly became collateral damage in just one of humanity's many wars.