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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Forgotten Invasion-The 1937 Skirmish near Beijing

In 1937, a seemingly insignificant skirmish near Beijing marked the beginning of a catastrophic chain of events that would shape the course of history. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War, a full-blown conflict with far-reaching consequences, erupted from a small clash between Japanese and Chinese troops. Foreign powers like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union became involved in the background. Unbeknownst to the soldiers at the time, this conflict would also set the stage for an even larger struggle–World War Two in Asia.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident became the spark that ignited a long-simmering powder keg between China and Japan. None of the soldiers involved were aware that this seemingly minor skirmish would escalate into a full-blown war with dire consequences.

Japan’s Ambitions and China’s Weakness

General Matsui Iwane
General Matsui Iwane

Japan’s expansionist ambitions in China had been evident for years. The country had already seized Manchuria in 1931 and Rehe province in 1932. Its desire for control over a carved-up China was no secret, and the presence of foreign troops further complicated the situation.

  • Since the end of the Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900s, Japanese troops, along with other foreign units, had maintained a presence in China.
  • However, Japan stood apart from other foreign powers seeking commercial advantages in China; its ambition was to exert full control over the country.

Japan’s aggressive leaders, like General Matsui Iwane, urged an all-out attack on China, considering it a foreign puppet that must come under Japanese influence. They believed that the Chinese people needed to recognize Japanese troops as their real friends, sacrificing themselves to rescue China’s population.

The Clash Escalates: Chinese Refusal and Japanese Determination

Advisor Xu Yongchang
Advisor Xu Yongchang

Following the initial clash at the Marco Polo Bridge, the Japanese military demanded that the Chinese troops withdraw, but the Chinese refused. This refusal set the stage for further escalation of the conflict, as the Japanese were determined to impose their will on China.

  • Japanese reinforcements were sent to the area in response to the “North China Incident,” as the Japanese referred to it, while the Chinese nationalists were divided about how to respond.
  • The internal divisions within the Chinese leadership, combined with the strength of the invading Japanese forces, created a precarious situation for China.

Advisor Xu Yongchang, while cautious, believed that making the utmost effort to tolerate Japan’s actions might be the best course of action. He feared that engaging in a major war could lead to losses on both sides.

Diverging Strategies: Chiang Kai-shek and the Decision to Open a New Front

Diverging Strategies: Chiang Kai-shek and the Decision to Open a New Front
Diverging Strategies: Chiang Kai-shek and the Decision to Open a New Front

Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, faced a critical decision. He had initially focused on defeating the Chinese communists before fully committing to the fight against the Japanese. However, as the conflict escalated, he realized the gravity of the situation and the need to unify China against the Japanese invasion.

  • Chiang’s Nationalist Party had theoretically unified China in 1928, but ideological divisions and regional military strongmen still held significant power.
  • Kai-shek’s wife, Song Meiling, pleaded for international help in a radio address to the US, hoping to garner support from Western powers.

His original strategy was to defeat the Chinese communists before confronting the Japanese. However, the exigencies of the situation forced him to open up a new front around China’s most important economic and international city of Shanghai. By widening the theater of operations to Shanghai and the Yangtze River delta, Chiang aimed to draw Japanese troops away from the north, protect vital resources, and maintain the supply line for Soviet weapons.

  • Chiang believed that moving the fighting to an urban battlefield in Shanghai would be more suitable for defense.
  • He also saw the presence of Western powers’ garrisons in Shanghai as an opportunity to increase the chances of eventual intervention by the West.

The Brutal Battle of Shanghai

The Brutal Battle of Shanghai
The Brutal Battle of Shanghai

As the conflict intensified, the focus shifted to the city of Shanghai, where the Chinese decided to open up a new front to draw Japanese troops away from the north and protect vital resources and supply lines.

  • The urban battlefield in Shanghai was more suited to defense, and the Chinese hoped to draw the Japanese into a prolonged conflict that they could not sustain.
  • The involvement of Western powers’ garrisons in Shanghai increased the possibility of foreign intervention, which the Chinese leadership sought.

The Battle of Shanghai was one of the most significant and brutal engagements of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. Lasting for three months from August to November 1937, it saw fierce fighting between Chinese and Japanese forces.

  • The Japanese employed various tactics, including poison gas and amphibious landings, to gain an advantage in the battle.
  • The Chinese forces, including approximately 50,000 Communist troops under Mao Zedong, joined the Nationalists in defending Shanghai after years of civil war.

The Japanese Advance and Chinese Resistance

The battle in Shanghai was brutal, with both sides fiercely fighting for control of the city. The Japanese employed all means of destruction, including poison gas, to gain the upper hand, but the Chinese forces put up strong resistance.

  • The Chinese were equipped with various makes and models of weapons, with the best supplied by Germany and the USSR.
  • Chinese forces defended critical positions based on small rivers and creeks running through the city, making it challenging for the Japanese to advance.

In September 1937, Japanese forces launched a full-fledged offensive in northern China, following the railway lines. They advanced quickly towards Zhengzhou, Nanjing, and through Chahar province, quickly sweeping aside weak resistance by poorly-organized Chinese communists or warlord armies.

  • Beijing fell to the Japanese on July 28, 1937.
  • Pingxingguan was the site of a modest Chinese victory, where Nationalist troops held off the Japanese while Communist units under Lin Biao attacked the Japanese rear.

The Tragic Fall of Nanjing

The Tragic Fall of Nanjing
The Tragic Fall of Nanjing

After the hard-fought victory in Shanghai, the Japanese command decided to push on towards Nanjing, the former capital of China. The goal was to surround and crush the remaining core of Chiang’s army and claim a decisive victory.

  • Chiang’s decision to defend Nanjing was influenced by political pressures and the need to demonstrate China’s will to resist.
  • The Japanese launched a massive offensive on Nanjing in December 1937, leading to one of the most horrific atrocities of the war – the Massacre of Nanjing, or the Rape of Nanjing.

General Tang Shengzhi, commanding the Chinese forces in Nanjing, faced overwhelming odds. His troops were outnumbered and ill-equipped, and he had to contend with the city’s strategic position, surrounded on three sides by the Yangtze River.

  • Despite Tang’s efforts to defend the city, Nanjing fell to the Japanese on December 13, 1937.
  • In the aftermath of the fall of Nanjing, Japanese troops unleashed a wave of terror and violence against the civilian population, resulting in the massacre of tens of thousands of innocent people.

The Massacre of Nanjing: Unspeakable Horrors

The Massacre of Nanjing: Unspeakable Horrors
The Massacre of Nanjing: Unspeakable Horrors

The fall of Nanjing marked a turning point in the conflict, with Japanese troops unleashing unspeakable horrors upon the civilian population. Mass killings, rapes, and looting became rampant during the Japanese occupation of the city.

  • The Japanese military had abandoned the normal laws of war in July 1937, leading to unchecked violence and brutality.
  • Estimates of the scale of Japanese crimes vary, with between 5,000 and 20,000 rapes and between 100,000 and 300,000 murders reported.

The Nanjing Massacre remains one of the most infamous episodes of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. The atrocities committed by the Japanese troops have left a lasting scar on the collective memory of the Chinese people.

  • The massacre also drew international attention and condemnation, further straining Japan’s relations with the global community.
  • Despite the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre, the Chinese people’s resistance did not waver, and the conflict continued.

Consequences and Ongoing Conflict

The 2nd Sino-Japanese War and World War Two in Asia continued for several years, causing massive destruction, displacement, and loss of life. The Chinese showed immense resilience and refused to surrender, setting the stage for a prolonged conflict against the Japanese invaders.

  • Despite initial successes for the Japanese, they faced challenges in fully garrisoning the conquered regions and controlling areas outside major cities and railway lines.
  • The war left an indelible mark on history and a legacy of resilience and courage for future generations.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident marked the start of a devastating war between China and Japan that lasted for eight long years, with consequences that reverberated across Asia and the world.

  • Japan’s invasion of China exposed the brutality of its militaristic regime, impacting its international standing and leading to increased isolation.
  • The war also contributed to the rise of Chinese nationalism and the eventual victory of the Communist Party in 1949.


The events of 1937 in China, starting with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and culminating in the brutal Battle of Shanghai and the tragic fall of Nanjing, marked the beginning of a devastating war with far-reaching consequences. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War shaped the course of World War Two in Asia, and China’s tenacity in resisting the invasion became a pivotal factor in the fight against the Axis powers.

The war left an indelible mark on history and a legacy of resilience and courage for future generations. Despite the horrors and hardships endured, the Chinese people’s unwavering spirit in the face of aggression and atrocity serves as a testament to the enduring human will for freedom and justice. The lessons learned from this tragic chapter in history must be remembered and heeded to prevent such horrors from ever happening again.

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