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Five Years: China's Great Fight For Freedom

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 134, Page 102, August 7, 1942.

On July 7 China entered upon the sixth year of her heroic resistance to the Japanese invader. The struggle to which the Japanese referred to at first half-contemptuously as an "incident" has developed into one of the longest and most bitterly contested wars of modern times.

Not many of us worried about China in those summer months of 1937 when the Japanese, having spent half-a-dozen years in digesting Manchuria marched into the northern provinces of China proper. Reading of the skirmish between little parties of Japanese and Chinese troops at Marco Polo Bridge, a few miles from Peiping, we thought that it was just a skirmish, one more inconsiderable clash in a long period of Sino-Japanese friction. Yet those few shots fired in the half-light five years ago had led to the death and mutilation of millions, the devastation of provinces as big as some European countries, the burning of great cities and of an uncountable multitude of villages, death and rape and arson on a scale hardly approached in all the many bloodstained and fire scorched pages of history.

That was on July 7, 1937. Five years have passed, and the sound of those few shots is still reverberating through the hills and across the seemingly boundless plains of China. At the outset it looked as if the Japanese would have it all their own way; vastly superior in equipment and training, if not numbers, they drove the undisciplined hordes of Chinese levies before them, and by the end of the war's first month claimed to be in full possession of Tientsin and Peiping. But as the months passed Chinese resistance stiffened. For five tremendous weeks they strove desperately to hold Shanghai, losing 150,000 men in the process. Blasted out of the great port by Japanese bombers, guns and tanks, they made a fresh stand at Nanking; and when that, too, fell they continued the fight as they withdrew up the Yangtze valley to Hankow. In October 1938, when we were still feeling relieved, if more than a little disgusted, at the results of the Munich Conference, Hankow was captured by the Japanese, and a few days later fell Canton, the great commercial metropolis of the south. But after these speedy and spectacular triumphs Japan found increasing difficulty in overcoming the opposition of Chiang Kai-shek's regulars and of the great host of irregulars who kept up the struggle within territory which, on the map, was included in the sphere of Japanese occupation.

For it must be emphasized that much of Japan's conquests are "paper": she has neither the men nor the material to hold down and exploit the huge areas invaded by her armies, and perforce has to content herself with maintaining control of the seaports, industrial centres, principal railway junctions, and the vital strategic points born of China's geography. This is that Chinese courts still hold sway far within territories that are nominally Japanese, and Chinese guerilla bands keep up the war in regions which have been "conquered" long ago. So vast is China, indeed, that there are some districts even near the main war zone there Japanese soldiers are an unfamiliar sight.

But there is not a town, not a village or hamlet in the country, wrote The Times correspondent in Chungking recently, which had not learn in the past five years to dread the drone of enemy bombers. The aeroplane has brought the war home to the dwellings of the remotest glens of the far interior. "I have heard a Chinese woman silence a crying child with the admonition, 'Fei chi, fei chi' (planes, planes) much as English mothers in Border castles were wont to chide errant children by reminding them of Black Douglas."

And there, it is suggested, we have one of the chief causes of Japan's undoing. China has seen many invasions during the last four thousand years or so; many conquerors have come and gone, and some of them have stayed long enough to be absorbed in the vast Chinese mass. But for the most part the conquerors have taken care to respect the lives and ways of the great bulk of the population; seldom if ever have they resorted to mass terrorism. But the Japanese have brought a new sort of war to China, one far more terrible, far more universal. The story of the bombing of defenceless cities has horrified the peace-loving and eminently civilized Chinese; and even worse in Chinese eyes is the tale of horror of occupied areas, carried far and wide throughout the country by the millions of refugees. To quote another sentence from The Times correspondent, "Nothing can diminish the loathing with which the Chinese view the bestial attacks on their women, especially in a country where not long ago adultery was punished by burial alive amidst the execrations of the villagers."

Huns and Tartars, Mongols and Manchus: worse, far worse, than the worst of these invaders of the past are the Japanese of today. Slaughters and burnings may be forgotten, if not forgiven; but the humiliations and obscenities, the horrible happenings that accompanied -to take but one instance- the sack of Nanking, can never be wiped from the memory of a great and proud, albeit peaceful, people. Small wonder, then, that again this year the Double Seventh -the seventh day of the seventh month, the anniversary of the incident of July 7, 1937- was made the occasion for great demonstrations of national unity and resolve to continue the struggle until China's soil is purged of the invader's hateful presence.

But can China continue the war, if not indefinitely, at least for years? In the past five years she has paid a terrible price. Up to the end of 1941 -up to the end of the period, that is, when China was grappling single-handed with the arch-aggressor of the Orient- the Chinese Army had suffered the loss of six millions killed and wounded; as for the losses inflicted upon the civilian population and the extent of the material damage, no estimates can be forthcoming: they cannot be computed in figures or expressed in words. Yet still China has continued the fight; nor in drawing up the balance sheet of the five years of war do we find nothing to be placed on the credit side.

Only since 1937 has China risen to the full heights of her nationhood; the Revolution that began in 1911 gave her strength, the war with Japan has given her unity - unity such as has not been hers for many a hundred years. Again, though the war has ravaged more than a quarter of her territory, though much that the Japanese have not destroyed the Chinese themselves have "scorched," in spite of all these things China today is, in some ways, economically stronger and more sound. No longer is industry concentrated along the eastern seaboard and in the Treaty Ports which were under foreign dominance: the stern necessities of war have let to mass migrations of industry as of people, so that today provinces which five years ago were the most backward and benighted now lead the way in industrial development, in education, and in all the arts of cultured existence.

These things are to the good, and they are full of encouragement - but not for the immediate future. China is weary and hard pressed: she must have help, and that help her allies of the United Nations are ready to give. But how? All the Chinese coastline is in Japanese hands, not one of her many ports is functioning save for the enemy ships. On land, too, the situation was black. Indo-China was a door, but that was closed last year. Then there was the Burma Road, well described as China's lifeline; but it is a lifeline no more, for the Japanese have overrun Burma.

True, other routes are being developed - from U.S.A. through Sinkiang to Lanchow; from Sadiya in Assam (British India) to Chungking across the mountains; and from Lhasa in Tibet to Chengtu. But of these only the first is stated to be in actual use, and that involves a haul of thousands of miles across largely unpopulated desert, so that camels and donkeys have to be relied upon rather than motor lorries. Then there is the air; it has been estimated that a fleet of 150 large transport planes, operating from bases in India, each carrying 75 tons per month, could make good the loss of the Burma Road.

The Chinese, it has been stated, are holding down 31 Japanese divisions, more than 600,000 men; and only from China can the Japanese islands and cities be bombed. But there is here more than a selfish interest. Out of the darkness and loss and bitter disappointments of those weary years of war China shines like a beacon of hope, holding out the promise of a better and fuller life for all the many millions of common humanity.

E. Royston Pike


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