China at war

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:39 pm

Via Gusts of Popular Feeling I found this site by John Dower where he uses Japanese woodblocks to teach a number of things about the Japanese history of the war period. There is a whole section on Japanese images of China and the Chinese, which are mostly what you would expect, and he connects them, correctly, I think, as attempts to break the link between China and Japan. There are only two positive images of Chinese in the collection. One is an image of Admiral Ding Juchang about to commit suicide after his fleet has been sunk.
Admiral Ding Juchang

Another is an image of Captain Awata in battle with a Chinese soldier


I think Dower is quite correct in saying that these are much more respectful of the foe that a lot of the other stuff he shows, but I was struck by the empty middle between the two pictures. Yes, Admiral Ding is a cultured and civilized man in a traditional sense, and that is still a good thing. You can see this in the treatment of the room he is sitting in. He is also a brave man unwilling to live with the shame of defeat. On the other hand he is also passive and away from the action. All the Japanese admirals shown are on their ships and seem to be almost physically urging them forward. The Chinese solider is a formidable foe, but he is also hairy, barefoot, and almost subhuman. The middle ground of the modern, active, brave man is inhabited entierly by the Japanese.

Were I trying to explain Chinas defeat I would probably emphasize the superior training and discipline of the Japanese. The Chinese had about the same technology, and were certainly willing to die for the cause. Even the Japanese do not usually show the Chinese running away from battle. Although China had borrowed Western physical technology, they had not yet borrowed the social technology of the modern military, and thus were defeated by the Japanese, who had borrowed both.

My view is a pretty modern one, however, and was apparently not shared by either the Japanese or the Chinese. The Japanese images Dower presents emphasize the courage and daring of individual Japanese officers (admittedly more dramatic) over training and discipline. Chinese after-action analysis was the same. In his study of Luo Fenglu, one of China’s most important foreign-trained naval experts, Kong Xiangji explains that Luo concluded that China’s defeat could be attributed to a lack of sufficient determination. There were not enough who “有精忠報國﹐死而无憾的决心 (Had the determination to die without regrets and to serve the nation with unreserved loyalty.) Even for China’s most modern naval expert, and apparently for his Japanese counterparts as well martial spirit was key to success in modern warfare. While I would look at both Ding Jucheng and the soldier on Taiwan as being noble but not necessarily useful for the task at hand, the Chinese view was that more of this was what would save China.

Quote from 孔祥吉晚清史探微成都:巴蜀书社,2001 p.25

9 responses to “China at war”

  1. I’m not sure about the technology. The Chinese had access to the same technology, but I don’t have the impression that they actually possessed as many high-quality guns, ships, etc.

    There’s no question, though, that the Japanese military had a distinct advantage in training and discipline.

    The Dower site is fantastic. I’ll have to blog on that myself soon. Thanks!

  2. Alan Baumler says:

    I’m not really sure about the technology either, but I do remember reading that at least in ships the Chinese had ones as modern and in most cases bigger than the Japanese. I think it is in Swanson’s history of the Chinese Navy. There is not a lot of detailed military history stuff on exactly why the Chinese lost the war, which is always frustrating when students ask (which they do.)

  3. I’m not sure there’s been a decent military history of the war from the Japanese side in English, either. I’ll root around in my collection and see if I can come up with something.

  4. J Chan says:

    The Qing government did purchase modern ships from Britain for the naval war with the Japanese, but however to save money (or rather diverting funds for personal projects), the Empress Dowager decided not to equip the ships with the modern cannons designed for these ships. The Chinese admirals thus had the modern ships but not the necessary weapons on board. These ships were bigger than the Japanese ships, but were sitting ducks for the smaller and more versatile Japanese ships with modern weapons. One of the envoy who came to Britain for the purchase of the ships died in Britain and his grave is still in Liverpool.

    As for the individual Chinese military personnel, they really had nothing to fight for, the regime was so transparently corrupt that the thought with every individual was on how to line one’s own pocket and at the same time survive.

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    J Chan,

    It is pretty standard to blame the Empress Dowager for the state of the Navy, but not really accurate. The Chinese ships were every bit as well-armed and equipped as their Japanese counterparts. The American observer who sailed with the Chinese fleet also praised the courage of the Chinese sailors, who continued to fire until their ships sank under them. Thus the question of why the Chinese lost is actually a pretty interesting one.

    Most of what I know about this comes from Bruce Swanson’s Eighth Voyage of the Dragon Naval Institute Press, 1982

  6. J Chan says:

    Alan Baumler

    Perhaps you could expand on what you think the interesting points were, so that the standard explanation could be revised.

  7. […] I had planned to blog on a John Dower web project cited by Alan Baumler, because it’s a fantastic collection of historical images, nicely curated. Now, if you follow the the link, you get redirected to an MIT Press Office Statement that explains that the exhibit is offline while Dower and Miyagawa negotiate with members of the MIT Chinese student community who objected to an image of a Chinese being beheaded, a classic piece of Japanese propaganda, one that sets the tone for the next half century. The problem, according to the articles I’ve seen was a lack of “accessible historical context” clearly warning viewers of the violent and racist content of the imagery. […]

  8. […] Speaking as one who looked at the exhibit before it vanished, there was a lot of context. The images were used to illustrate an argument about the role of the war and its images in creating Japanese ideas about China and Asia. The execution images were pretty clearly presented as examples of wartime propaganda. I don’t think anyone could honestly look at the exhibit and think that the authors were endorsing the murder of Chinese, and the MIT students say as much. Like Johnathan Dresener, I find this type of thing tiresome. Textbooks use pictures of Hitler all the time, but they don’t include disclaimers that the authors and publishers are not Nazis. In American politics this protest is the type of thing that is sometimes called a kabuki dance, a show of passion and interest that everyone knows is staged and that nobody, even those claiming to be outraged, takes seriously. 1 […]

  9. […] at the time the Chinese embassy to Britain included some prominent Chinese officials, such as Luo Fenglu and Chen Yifan (who in 1914 refused to sign the Simla Convention on Tibet). Another was Zhang Deyi, […]

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