Reviewed by Kent McKeever (Law Library, Columbia University)
Published on H-Asia (October, 2001)
In late January 1932, Japanese Naval infantry units attacked Chinese controlled areas of Shanghai to "protect" Japanese industrial property and the lives of the many Japanese living in that part of Shanghai. The local Chinese garrison troops, the Cantonese 19th Route Army, fought back with unanticipated fervor, and the Japanese were quickly fought to a stalemate. Over the next six weeks, both sides were reinforced and the Japanese slowly advanced. When a cease fire was agreed, the Chinese had been pushed back to a defensive position to the north and west of Shanghai. The traditional analysis of these battles has been that the Chinese surprised the Japanese with their discipline and fighting skill, but they could not withstand the Japanese over a long period, especially in terms of airplanes, artillery, naval support, and the sheer number of experienced troops the Japanese brought in.
Donald Jordan's new book, China's Trial By Fire is the first full length history of this event in English. In the introduction he makes strong revisionist claims for his text, especially challenging the claim that the 19th Route Army did all of the fighting on its own. He shows that the two units of the National Government's 5th Army (87th and 88th Divisions) did in fact play a big role in the defense of Chapei. He shows how the received image of Chiang Kai-Shek's abandoning the 19th Route Army to fight the Japanese on their own was a useful one for virtually all political participants except Chiang and his immediate supporters in the Kuomintang (KMT).
In his preface, Jordan reviews the reports and analyses of the 1932 Incident in the works of leading historians of modern China and Japan. He shows how many of them had accepted the view that the 19th Route Army had fought, quoting Lloyd Eastman, "without supplies or support". He also shows how Eastman and Parks Coble and others have all felt there was more work to be done on achieving a balanced view of the events.
Jordan's earlier books, The Northern Expedition: China's national revolution of 1926-1928 (Honolulu : University Press of Hawaii, 1976), and Chinese Boycotts Versus Japanese Bombs: the failure of China's "revolutionary diplomacy," 1931-32 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991) provide the background for this one. Jordan shows the Shanghai conflict as a culmination of the economic struggle in the Yangtze Valley which became more overtly, albeit unofficially, confrontational when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. He also provides evidence that the Shanghai fighting was brought to a head by the Japanese Army Officer corps as a deliberate diversion of attention away from the final steps in the conquest of Manchuria and the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo.
The battle took place in a context of enforcing the proclaimed treaty rights of Japan. This extraterritorial incursion by the Western powers and Japan into China now seems utterly impossible, but at that point it was still part of the accepted world structure. The Japanese cotton mills were presented as being under threat from Chinese militants who wanted to push the Manchurian War-sparked boycott of Japanese goods into something less passive. Without accentuating it Jordan does a good job of presenting the events in this context. There were plenty of Western businessmen in Shanghai ("Shanghailanders") who initially felt that the Japanese were actually fighting to preserve a system on which they were also highly dependent.
The Japanese attack at Shanghai came at a time when the KMT- controlled national government was in substantial disarray, having only recently resolved the Cantonese "rebellion". Chiang had resigned from office December 15th, 1931 as part of the peace-making process. One of the issues was Chiang's refusal to allow significant military resistance the Japanese in Manchuria, as desired by the Cantonese faction. He only returned as head of the Government a few days before the beginning of the fighting. The 19th Route Army had been transferred to the Shanghai area in the late autumn of 1931, after having been used to fight the Communists in Kiangsi. It was Cantonese, as was the new mayor of Shanghai, Wu T'ieh-Ch'eng. These shifts were part of the package of compromises which were designed to stabilize the KMT government. As might be expected from a Cantonese group, the 19th Route Army was a strongly nationalist unit, more aggressively anti-Japanese than Chiang was or could afford to be.
The 5th Army was only formally created on January 22nd,1932, six days before the shooting began. The national units were originally the 2nd Division of the National Guard based and training under German advisors in the Hangchow area. When things started getting tense in Shanghai in late 1931, they were massed near Hangchow and moved along the canals to the Soochow area, to guard land approaches to Nanking and the network of canals and railroads. On returning to Nanking on January 22nd, Chiang announced a fairly complex military reorganization as the Fifth Army arrived in Soochow. Chiang Kuang-Nai, Commander of the 19th Route Army moved to overall field commander, including the 5th Army, and Tsai Ting-kai was given command of the 19th Route Army. This meant that Tsai ended up closest to the media operating out of Shanghai, and, significantly, he ended up being somewhat idolized by the western reporters.
Once the fighting began, it acted as a significant unifying force for Chinese political groups around Shanghai. Ironically, mill workers laid off from Japanese owned mills formed the core of the many volunteer units which were formed. These volunteer units were skillfully used to perform support tasks, such as supply and creating trenchworks, etc, so that the veterans of the 19th Route Army and the newly trained soldiers of the 5th Army could focus on fighting.
Their Japanese equivalents were called "ronin" and served as a auxiliary police force in Japanese controlled areas. Their lethal brutality was widely noticed by the western press. This, combined with the gruesome reality of what amounted to urban trench warfare, and the devastating effect of the first serious aerial bombardment of civilians, helped make the propaganda war a Chinese success.
After the initial fighting there was hope that an armistice could be achieved and the fighting could be explained as between two "hot-heads" --the Japanese Admiral Shiozowa and the 19th Route Army leadership. The Japanese propaganda tended to continue this downplaying of the fighting as an "incident", and that term tends to be how the war is referred to today. However, when the fighting began, the 5th Army officer corps almost mutinied about being held back from the fighting. In addition, the head of the German training group, General Wetzell, wanted to see his troops tested under fire.
Jordan's presentation of the back and forth of the fighting is good, detailed enough to get a good picture of the events without bogging down in order-of-battle detail. The Japanese ultimately had to commit considerably more men and materiel than had been planned. The initial attacks had been a Navy matter, with naval infantry (similar to US Marines) as the ground troops. As their attacks were continually repulsed, experienced Army troops were dispatched from Japan to conclude the fighting. They pushed the Chinese back, but often to properly prepared lines that were equally difficult to take. A ceasefire was agreed on March 2nd, 33 days after the fighting started. If this were a diversion from Manchuria, it was wholly successful, since by that time Harbin had fallen and the puppet state of Manchukuo had been established.
The formal peace negotiation continued through the end of April with the heavy involvement of the foreign diplomatic corps. The final document was signed from the hospital beds of the negotiators for both sides. The Japanese Admirals had been injured when a Korean Nationalist threw a bomb at the reviewing stand at a Japanese celebration in Shanghai, and the main Chinese diplomat had been attacked and beaten by Chinese patriots who felt negotiating with the Japanese was wrong.
Jordan clearly uses a wide range of Chinese sources and gives credit to the work of Chou Chi-Chiao for a substantial portion of the Chinese military information. I assume this is the same person as Zhou Qiqiao who wrote a Masters Thesis at Ohio University called "Popular Support in the Shanghai War, January 28th, 1932--May 5th, 1932". I would hope there is a dissertation or book in the works from Mr. Zhou.
Jordan has also made good use of Japanese sources, although apparently a lot of records relating to this fighting were destroyed in the war. Casualty figures on the Japanese side are very hard to pin down. He hints at the possibility of some of the "Ronin" being yakuza, but he doesn't point to any solid support for that idea. He mentions the Green Gang a number of time, indicating both its likely participation in the sniping on the Japanese and its quick rapport with the pseudo-government set up in Hongkew by the Japanese.
Jordan's book succeeds in piecing together a believable account of events which have been the object of much factional historical writing. It was in the interests of both the Japanese and the anti-KMT Chinese to denigrate the KMT role as much as possible. For these groups, the role of the 19th Route Army, was more than crucial. It was made singular and heroic, specifically in contrast to Chiang's failure to fight the Japanese in Manchuria. This is especially ironic in relation to the Communists in Kiangsi, who had been the opponents of the 19th Route Arnmy less than a year earlier.
The history that Jordan outlines was never really hidden, just obscured, often deliberately. For example, in 1968, George Spunt, in his memoir of growing up in Shanghai, A Place in Time, summarized the development of the war in words which essentially coincides with Jordan's point of view:
"In January, the same month that the Japanese attacked Shanghai, Sun Fo resigned and Chiang Kai-shek was reinstated. Chiang at once sent two divisions to bolster the Nineteenth Route Army who were defending the city. The world at large and the foreign population of China in particular, who cherished their opera-bouffe image of the Chinese as soldiers, found themselves bemused by the fury by which these armies held their lines against overwhelming odds. Certainly no nation was more stunned than Japan, who countered by rushing reinforcements to the Shanghai zone. By the end of February, more than half of Japan's standing army was in China."
By the end of March, the 19th Route Army's publicity office had produced an English language pamphlet with many gruesome illustrations called "The Japanese Invasion and China's Defence: a Symposium". The Fifth Army's equivalent, "The Fifth Army in the Shanghai War: A pictorial review of the role they played..." came out later, and was bilingual and broader.
A little more than five years later this same area was again a battlefield as the Japanese attacked on several fronts and World War Two began in the East. This time the Chinese response was a fully committed battle as advocated by the more radical Chinese five years earlier. But the second battle of Shanghai proved a grim bloodletting for the Chinese, with some of their mostly highly trained units being devastated. In the interval the Japanese had learned from their mistakes and rewritten their own procedures for amphibious landings. The successful landings in Paoshan and Hangchow Bay were large-scale, and crucial for their strategy in 1937.
Since the book focuses on the "Incident" itself some of the other grim historical ironies related to it are not mentioned. By the end of the year the 19th Route Army was removed from the Shanghai area and sent to Fukien. In November 1933 the 19th Route Army participated in an attempted rebellion against the KMT leadership, and by January, 1934, Tsai and his key subordinates were in exile. The swirl of factionalism which seems to dominate Chinese history at this time reached its sad nadir a few years later when Wang Ching-wei, who at one point shared leadership of the KMT with Chiang and who had been sharply critical of Chiang's unwillingness to fight the Japanese in 1932, agreed to head the Japanese puppet Central China government established in Nanking in 1940.
Although this book is basically clear to the general reader, there are passing references which assume a little too much knowledge of Shanghai. A short guide to the nature of the three part city would have been helpful. This would have helped to understand the casual references to the Shanghai Municipal Council which doesn't show it was the ruling body of only the International Settlement. Later there is a reference to "the world's longest bar" without indicating that the bar was a claim to fame of the Shanghai Club and a symbol of the western life in Shanghai.
However, it is important to note that this is not a "Shanghai" book, but a "China" book. The book is one of military and diplomatic history, focused on the fighting and the surrounding diplomacy as national issues. It is not a work of local history. It doesn't go into much detail on the effects of the fighting in Shanghai outside Chapei and doesn't really try to engage with other Shanghai focused works by such authors as such as Christian Henriot, Brian Martin, or Frederic Wakeman. Basically, Shanghailanders only get mentioned if they are able to shed light on the events of the fighting and the peacemaking.
Petty criticisms include use of the word "sporte" instead of "sportif" in referring to the Cercle Sportif Francaise, stating the British troops in the International Settlement were marines when they were units of the Army, and, in a seeming typo which happens too often for it to be a true typo, the regular lack of capitalization of the word "Admiral" in reference to the British and French officers but the unfailing capitalization of it in reference to the Japanese officers.
These small problems do not really detract from the success and importance of this work in shedding light on an event that was most often simply acknowledged and passed over. Jordan has provided a good overview of the back-and-forth of the 1932 War and has shown its place in the context of China's internal struggles and its relations with Japan and the rest of the world. His work in pinning down a reliable account of the incident has created a challenge for the historians of the western encounter with China to assess the distorting effects of "factional history" in relation to the Shanghai Incident and the standard perceptions that have built on it over the last seventy years.
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Kent McKeever. Review of Jordon, Donald A., China's Trial by Fire: The Shanghai War of 1932.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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