Why Do We Know So Little About China’s WWII?

Japanese soldiers approach the walls of Nanjing
By Sweeper tamonten,China Incident Photograph Album, Vol 2, published in 1938 by Asahi Shimbun., Public Domain, accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent column Peter Harmsen asks “Why do we know so little about China in World War Two?” To quote:

We know hardly anything about the war in China.

To give just one example, about 80,000 Chinese and Japanese soldiers became casualties during the first battle for the city of Changsha in September and October 1939 (there were three more battles for the city later in the war.) This is more than twice the number of total casualties on both sides during Operation Market Garden, the disastrous British and American attempt in September 1944 to penetrate German defenses in a bold airborne assault.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books have been written about that failed Allied offensive, focusing especially on its tragic epicenter at Arnhem. By contrast, not a single book exists in any western language about the first battle of Changsha – or the second, third and fourth, for that matter.

Comparisons such as these could go on for a very long time. Whereas biographies of US General George Patton are too numerous to count, no books exist in the West about flamboyant commanders such as Chinese Muslim General Bai Chongxi or Sun Liren, described as “China’s Rommel.” How many people in the West know that in China local puppet troops were doing a lot of Japan’s “dirty work”? Or that the first American firebombing in Asia was against the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 1944? [1]

These type of comparisons will be familiar to anyone who has been reading The Scholar’s Stage over the last few years, as I have made this same point again and again (and again!). Harmsen does not find the common explanations for the gap at all convincing:

Various explanations can be put forward to account for this gaping hole in the historiography. First, it can be argued that the China theatre was not decisive in the same way that, for example, the Eastern Front was. Even in a regional context it was arguably a sideshow. The war against Japan was decided on the small islands of the Pacific, not in China’s interior. According to this argument, post-war historians have shied away from this subject simply because it wasn’t important enough.

The argument is not particularly convincing [for lots of reasons readers of the Stage likely know already]….

Another possible explanation for the low level of interest in China’s struggle is the absence of a consensus narrative about the war…..

This argument has been weakened by the recent thaw in relations between China and Taiwan, reflected in growing recognition among Chinese historians of the key role played by Chiang Kai-shek and the forces under his command. However, what really destroys the argument is the fact that, the Cold War notwithstanding, it would have been possible for American and Taiwan historians to collaborate on histories of World War Two in China from a Nationalist perspective right from the 1950s. It just didn’t happen to any major extent.

Finally, the lack of interest in China’s World War Two experience has been blamed on the difficulty of using China’s archives. This is potentially critically important, as reflected in what happened after Soviet collapse and the opening of the Russian archives. The possibility of suddenly telling the Russian side of the story triggered an explosion in the literature about the Eastern Front.

Does this argument have relevance for China? Yes and no. It’s true that Chinese archives may have been out of bounds during the Cold War, but today, serious Western historians have much easier access. In addition, both China and Taiwan have published and continue to publish carefully prepared historical source materials, providing valuable information for anyone able to read them. [2]

 Harmsen misses one explanation I sometimes hear bandied about: in the early years of the Cold War the history of the Sino-Japanese War was a toxic topic. More specifically, Americans could not write about it without declaring an answer to the question “who lost China?”, and in the 1950s that was a dangerous question to answer. But this explanation has its own limitations; it does nothing to explain the lack of scholarship done in other parts of the Anglophone world, and it really only accounts for a decade or so of lost time. By the time Frances Fitzgerald published Fire on the Lake in 1972, sympathetic portrayals of America’s communist enemies and biting critique of American blunders were workaday projects for American journalists and historians alike.

Harmsen thinks that the best explanation is a linguistic one:

This leads to the circumstance which I consider the main obstacle to western research into the war in China: the difficulty of the Chinese language. It is a problem that’s not always recognized, but it’s nonetheless very real. According to the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, it takes 2,200 class hours of devoted study to achieve proficiency in Chinese. This is about twice the amount of time needed to learn Russian or Vietnamese, and four times as much as the time invested in learning French or Dutch.

This is just in order to learn the modern Chinese language. To truly grasp the Second Sino-Japanese War in all its complex intricacy, knowledge of the classical Chinese language is a definite advantage, too. For example, Chiang Kai-shek’s diary, possibly the most important primary source of them all, was written in a terse and elliptical style which comes across as archaic even to many Chinese.

Unfortunately, knowledge of the Chinese language is absolutely crucial in order to do more than just scratch the surface of the complex events in China in the years from 1937 to 1945. Speaking from personal experience, if I hadn’t been able to read Chinese, I could never have completed my own two books on the subject, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City and Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

What to do about this situation? The answer is simple: nothing. Just wait. Mandarin proficiency is rapidly catching on throughout the West, as young people prepare for a future in which China will be increasingly important economically, politically and militarily. This will also feed into the historians’ profession, where Mandarin will no longer be such a rare skill as it is today. Based on this, I feel confident that in a decade or two, the bookshops and websites will be brimming with books about China’s epic struggle with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. (Emphasis added). [3]

Harmsen’s hypothesis is correct, but it is most compelling when placed in the larger context of Chinese historiography. The best way to approach this context is through comparison. The Foreign Service Institute ranks Arabic at the same level of difficulty as Chinese. How does the historiography of the Middle Eastern military history compare with that of Chinese military history? You do not need to spend much time in a library to realize that academic works on the most famous wars of Middle Eastern history have at least as much written about them by academic historians, and far more written by popular historians, than any conflict China has been a part of. Language difficulty alone is not enough to explain the dearth of Chinese military history.

The comparison with Middle Eastern history is revealing in other ways. The Crusades and the Arab conquests are some of the most popular topics in Middle Eastern history. These wars were also waged more than a thousand years ago. There is no Chinese war of comparable antiquity that can claim such popularity with Western readers or writers today. Books on modern Chinese military history are meager when compared to books on modern Western military history. Compare books on China’s modern military history with books on its pre-modern military history, however, and a different picture emerges. From this perspective, China’s experience in the Second World War has an incredible amount written about it. There are more books in English concerning China’s eight year long ordeal in the Second World War than there are concerning every war fought by the Chinese during all four centuries of the Han Dynasty combined.

The problem is not that the world knows so little about China’s wartime experience in the Second World War. The problem is that the world knows so little about China’s wartime experiences period. 

I explored the different reasons why this is the case fairly recently in the post “East Asian Military History – A Few Historiographical Notes,” so I will not rehash my entire argument here. I will, however, quote the part most relevant to Harmsen’s point about how difficult it is to learn Chinese:    

 Contemporary historians of East Asia have the same basic set of priorities as the rest of their profession. They focus on structures, cultures, identities, and the hidden voices of history… [but] the idea that East Asianists need to counter the biases of existing, politics-heavy narratives is mistaken, for in too many cases there are no existing narratives to counter in the first place. We are left with huge gaps in the literature. In the case of military history, there are entire wars where millions of people fought and died, and whose stories are instantly recognized by people across China, Japan, and Korea today, that still have no books written about them in English.

Part of the problem is size. The number of East Asianists in academia is small. The number working on pre-modern East Asian history is pitifully small. You can count the number of American scholars who specialize in Silla Korea on one hand. You could count those who specialize in Sengoku Japan on two. You could fit all the specialists on the Northern Song Dynasty on a moderately sized tour bus. This is true now; back when narrative political and military histories was more academically fashionable (c. 1920-1960) the number of East Asianists were even smaller. Because only a few scholars specialized in East Asia then, the peculiar research interests of one scholar and his pupils forty years ago have come to dominate entire fields today (one example of this is substantial amount of work done on medieval Japan’s institutional history, something I credit entirely to the influence of John Whitney Hall, who taught Japanese history at Yale for the better part of the last century). There simply weren’t enough historians writing then to fill in the gaps.

In addition, many of those who wrote then were relatively unconcerned with high politics, diplomacy, or military affairs. They came to the study of traditional Asia with a set of non-traditional backgrounds. Then—as now—a great deal of East Asian history is written by philosophers, philologists, and archaeologists. These are men and women who began to study East Asia because of a fascination with Pure Land Buddhism, Neoconfucian metaphysics, Shang Dynasty bronzes, or reconstructing classical Chinese pronunciation. In most areas linguistics, philosophy, literature, and religious studies are separate fields, but in the case of the East Asianists (and here a fruitful analogy with the Classicists can be made) they blur somewhat. The very term “East Asianist” (along with its subsets: “Sinologist,””Koreanist,” etc.) express the expectation that those studying one aspect of pre-modern Asia should be conversant in all of its other domains. In this milieu intellectual history has always been king. This is partially because many of these disciplines began as an attempt to make the “Eastern mind” accessible to Westerners, and it is partially because it is incredibly difficult to understand even fairly mundane historical sources without a working knowledge of classical Chinese and the history of ideas in East Asia. [5]  The interdisciplinary nature of this sort of intellectual history sheltered it somewhat from the political storms and of the ’60s and ’70s. It is still the strongest strain of historical scholarship on the region. 

The downstream effects of all this are pretty easy to see. By far the most common textbook for introductory survey courses of East Asian history is Sources of the East Asian Tradition, a collection of mostly philosophical and literary documents from the last few thousand years of East Asian history. The Association for Asian Studies annual conference rarely has panels on the political or military history of Sengoku Japan, but there will always be room for one more panel on the Tale of Genji to be squeezed in. [4]

Academics who specialize in Asia are hardly alone in their decision to shy away from writing about war and conflict. The vast majority of academics with PhDs in American studies don’t write histories of World War II either. By and large, the hundreds of WWII books Harmsen references were written by people outside of academia (and many of those with an academic background who write on the Second World War, like Victor Davis Hanson, are specialists in entirely separate eras). They can do this because understanding the primary sources used to write histories of American and British campaigns does not require years of specialized academic training–exactly the short of training most Westerners must get just to speak passable Mandarin Chinese. 

Boiling this argument down to a few bullet points leaves us with the following:

We know so little about WWII because

1) Academic historians shy away from writing about high politics or warfare

2) The difficulty of the Chinese language keeps the majority of popular historians far away from the topic. 

Harmsen is proof of the point. He studied history at National Taiwan University in Taipei, but he made his name as a journalist, not a historian. That is probably for the better. Had he continued on to get a PhD in history the urge to write compelling narrative histories–something he is quite good at–may very well have been beaten out of him. 


[1] Peter Harmsen, “Why Do We Know So Little About China in World War Two?“, History News Network (December 13, 2015).

[2] ibid.

[3[ ibid.

[4[ T. Greer, “East Asian Military History – A Few Historiographical Notes,The Scholar’s Stage (18 December, 2015).

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3) Most Americans are Euro-derived, find China hard to understand where Europe seems much more comprehensible. Also the USA has simply had a lot more contact with Europe and what happened there has directly impacted us for our entire national life. China is like another planet. This "alien" element is overlapping but not completely with your (2).

I agree that it's perhaps largely explainable by focus on Europe and Western history over the non-Western in general (I mean, another comparison is India — it's more or less as populous as China and its history seems even less written about by westerners). So maybe the issue is just historically more research is about the West vs. non-West rather than why the greater focus on the West vs. China.

Even the comparison with Middle Eastern history mentioned the crusades being pretty well known or written about, but that's a topic for which Europe/the West was directly involved in. The Middle East still shares a common heritage and elements with the West (eg. classical antiquity, Abrahamic religions), that China or other civilizations lack.


I think that is an important point as well. A long facebook thread developed on this one, adding several more points to the discussion. Robert Farley(who blogs at Lawyers, Guns, and Money) noted:

"the Sino-Japanese War occupied a surprising degree of American attention before the beginning of American involvement of World War II, and a considerable amount during the war itself. Henry Luce made it his mission to glorify the contribution of CKS et al to winning the war against the Axis. The Battle of China is one of the seven Capra "Why we Fight" films, and several popular movies covered the China theater during the conflict…I think the better answer (suggested by T. Greer) has to do with the post-war context, in which it became extremely difficult to make films laudatory of the Chinese experience and condemnatory of the Japanese. And the popular historical memory was lost, and has never really recovered. I'd also suggest, with regard to geography, that there's much greater interest in the West Coast cities than in the MidWest or Atlantic."

and also left by me i response to a comment that it has a lot to a comment arguing it mostly has to do with American perceptions that they were at the center fo the war:

"Your point is valid but it really can't explain what is going on here in total. To continue the comparison game: one can literally put every single Engish language book on the 2nd Sino-Japanese War on a large book shelf. How many book shelves would be needed for the Eastern front? Russians (and many others) rightly protest that the American historical imagination marginalizes their sacrifices in the war, but if you want to read about their experience it is quite possible to do so. There are translations of first hand accounts on the front. Every major Russian commander has his own biography, and every major campaign its own history. Daily life of a soldier, the home front, the political angle, the international diplomatic angle–all covered. Tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war are also all covered. The same can be said for Japan's side of the Pacific war, and Burma war as well. But not for China."

"What to do about this situation? The answer is simple: nothing. Just wait. Mandarin proficiency is rapidly catching on throughout the West"

Good luck waiting. The world is brimming with new experts in Classical Chinese. Right.

I am not a scholar, but a couple of layman thoughts:
1. The obvious one that that Chinese history as a whole is little known, not just the Chinese front in the second world war. As a somewhat nerdish postcolonial (British in my case) subject, I grew up reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall, not Sima Qian. The Western world that dominated much of the world had a certain story about itself (Greece, Rome, Christianity, Dark Ages, Crusades and the prolonged encounter with the Islamicate empires, Rennaissance, Exploration, Colonialism, post-colonialism, the nonsense-generator phase, etc), in all of this China played a very small role. In many ways this must have affected how much attention gets paid to China, ancient or near-modern.
2. I grew up in a leftish environment (sort of default for educated Desis) and the first (and for a long time, the only) Chinese hisory I read was the history of the glorious Maoist struggle for power. In that struggle, the Nationalist Chinese were not just the bad guys, they were also incompetent, corrupt and totally unworthy of being a government. A story in which they played a major (and on many occasions, a heroic) role was just not part of the preferred leftist view. So we never thought of that. Obviously we are not the ones whose lack of attention is being discussed here, but I suspect that some of this phenomenon occurred on the left wing of Western academia as well. Not as an explicit decision, but as an unconscious assumption that caused 27% of western academics to ignore this topic.

Is it really necessary for this scholarship to arise from the West? A quick walk through eslite shows there is no real lack of either academic or popularized literature on Chinese history, military or otherwise. Taiwanese historians have no great difficulty with reading Chinese primary sources, after all. Perhaps the reason these already sufficient volumes have not been translated is that simply not enough people in the Anglophone world are interested enough to make the endeavor economically worthwhile.

@Anon Feb 16–

"Perhaps the reason these already sufficient volumes have not been translated is that simply not enough people in the Anglophone world are interested enough to make the endeavor economically worthwhile. "

Even if this were true it simply pushes the question up one level. We go from asking "why are Anglophone historians not making these books?" to "why are Anglophone readers not interested in these books?" The question remains.

With that said, it isn't true. Harmsen's Shanghai 1937 made the top ten NYT nonfiction best-seller list. S.C.M. Paine's Wars for Asia was very successful, as was Forgotten Ally.

Someone pointed out on the facebook thread though that there is a visibility problem here. Harmsen's full book title is Shanghai 1937: Stalnigrad on the Yangtze–the title has three names Western audiences immediately recognize: Shanghai, Yangtze, and Stalingrad. Trying to write a book about Taierzhuang or Ichigo is a much tougher sell, simply because no one in America knows what Taierzhuang or Ichigo was.

Also, re: translation specifically. There is a screwy incentive structure for translations. Popular historians shy away from them because then you have to split profits with the original author. Academics have a different problem. As I wrote last year on this same issue:

"A related piece of advice applies equally to universities and grant providing institutions: create strong incentives to translate secondary materials related to the Chinese strategic tradition. Both Chinese and Japanese scholars have written libraries of material on Chinese strategic theory and military history. Lacuna that exist in English have long been filled in these languages, sometimes with hundreds of volumes. Translation of this material has been slow. This is partly because translations do not accrue quickly on CVs (you cannot publish individual chapters in journals or present them at conferences), and partly because translations of secondary literature often have less prestige associated with them than original contributions to the day's most pressing debates. I doubt this situation will change unless the incentive structure that has produced it changes first. Departments chairs should bestow special favor on those who have taken time to translate secondary works, and concerned institutions should create grants devoted solely to the translation of secondary material on Chinese (or perhaps East and Southeast Asian) strategic thought or military history. "

I'm not familiar with the process for academic translations, but surely a certain amount of the work can be done by a relatively standard Chinese to English translator, without involvement of academics in the field. Certainly an academic could help to fill in the more esoteric terminology, but that sounds more like an opportunity for extra income for grad students than a barrier. But even if the structures and incentives are in place, the money still has to come from somewhere, and if your book is intended, at least in the short term, for a narrow academic audience, then that doesn't sound like a good investment.

Which comes back to your first question about why more people aren't interested – who exactly SHOULD be interested? Is it a question of a wider academic audience that should be incorporating Chinese examples into their larger theories? Or a general audience of interested parties outside of academia? I think the latter is a tough sell, and the former is a bit of a Catch 22 – you need a raft of evidence and support in the languages they read to get their attention (and money).

Perhaps you can convince the US military to fund these translations for the greater edification of their strategy leaders 😉

Anon– I approach the answer to a few of these questions (who should be interested) in this essay here:


As I note there, the broader academic audience already is incorporating these things into their research, sometimes with disastrous consequences when their research is faulty.

I also suggest there that more grants should be given to people who work on these translations, and that academics should be rewarded more for this kind of work. For an academic most production is less about its academic value than its prestige content. Publish or perish, all that. The problem with translations is that translations, unlike other book projects, do not create 3-4 articles along the way that can be added to the CV. & really, for most academics the CV lines are more important than publisher advances. Until their incentive structure changes we will not see a lot of progress on this front.

There is a catch 22 with the general public as well. Again, Shanghai 1937 made the NYT's nonfiction best seller top-ten list. That is pretty dang good. So people want to read about WWII in China. But they don't know enough about what they don't know. Someone who doesn't really know the history of WWII probably has heard of Midway, or Pearl harbor, and thus will be on the look out for books with those names in it. They know of these things, and they know they don't know enough about them, so they purchase books on 'em. Not so for Taierzhuang, Chongqing air raids, Ichigo, etc. These terms draw blanks in the Western mind.

There are a few ways around this. Perhaps an author liek harmsen can garner such a strong personal following that people will by his next book on the strength of his last one, even if it is less familiar to them. Or perhaps the general level of knowledge can be raised through the rafe of general histories being published, making people more curious about individual campaigns. But it is a tough nut to crack. People won't be interested in Taierzhuang until they know what it is, but they won't know what it is until more people write books on it.

On the other hand, that new book on Nomohan was pretty successful too, and that is obscure to most Westerners as well. Maybe I'll shoot the author an e-mail and ask how he marketed it.

I tend to put a lot of weight in Omar's explanation, leftist prejudice. You can't study WWII in China without admiring what the non-communist forces did. That never sat well with leftist academia or media types and the only way around it is to ignore as best you can. It is the same with Vietnam, you can't study what the South Vietnamese did without realizing they could fight, often quite well, and they had something to fight for, all things the left would rather remain unseen.

Mostly because all sides that fought in the war, don't want to talk about it immediately afterwards.

For China, mostly because it was the KMT that fought Japan, while communist very little, and since KMT lost later on, the communist got awkward when it come to talk about their accomplishment. I know you kinda of mention this a bit in this article, but I think this is more important than anything else.

For KMT, after they flee to TW, they don't want to think too much, because they won China but lost to an insurgency which is very embarrassing, and besides, Japan is now an ally.

As for US, they don't want to talk about it, because they were still shocked at how easily KMT got run over, and of course, Japan is now an ally. Also of course, pacific theater.

As for japan, they were never really defeated in China, they were defeated by US so they felt they own China nothing, there is a reason revisionist and war denial run strong in Japan today.

I agree with you that this topic will get picked up more and more, not just because of language barrier going down, because China is going to really wants to talk about it while US and Japan still don't.

Westerners just don't care that much about China, Chinese people, and Chinese history. And worse, China has become the great enemy, starting from when the West "lost" China in 1949 and through the recent ant-Chinese sentiments because of trade, jobs, etc.

How many of you know about the spectacular train station terrorist act that occurred in China recently?

In some ways, China is in the same category as Syria and Iraq. Recently, there was a massacre of the heroic White Helmets in Syria, and it may have been carried out by rebels allied with the rebels supported by the US. No reporting.

But if a terrorist rams people to death in Spain or France it's big news.