ON JULY 7, 1937, Japan resumed her march of conquest on the mainland of Asia. Her army, as I write, is advancing in an ever-widening circle in North China; and once again her navy, supported by a large military force, is hammering at the defenses of Shanghai, China's largest city and most important seaport. It is difficult in such a time of crisis to take a "long view." But it is necessary. For this is not another case like Ethiopia. Japan is not going to swallow a country as populous, extensive, and rich as China at one gulp. And if she attempts too large a bite at this time the problem of digestion and assimilation -- an inkling of which she should have had in Manchuria -- may well be too much for her system. In fact, the inordinate appetite of her military leaders seems to be rushing Japan into a dilemma from which she will require more than military successes to extricate herself. But the purpose of this article is to analyze China's problem, not Japan's. And first we must review the course of events which set the stage for this historical drama.


On the night of July 7, during a manœuvre near Fengtai, a railway center a few miles south of Peiping, Japanese troops made contact with a local unit of the 29th Chinese army and a conflict ensued. We shall never know which side fired the first shot. It is difficult also to say whether the incident was planned in advance by the Japanese or whether it was an accident which, involving their vanity, stirred to vigorous action the warlike spirit which has been their outstanding characteristic during the past several years. Either the leaders provoked an incident which would give them an excuse for belligerency and the assurance of popular support, or the incident itself created a situation which for questions of prestige the Japanese Army could not allow to pass without challenge. In either case the result has been that Japan resumed her drive.

The presence of Japanese troops in the Peiping and Tientsin area was justified by the stipulations of the protocol of September 7, 1901, which provided the settlement for the Boxer disturbance of the previous year. In Article VII of the protocol, China recognized the right of each of the eleven signatory Powers to maintain a permanent guard in Peiping for the defense of its legation; and in Article IX she conceded the right to the Powers "to occupy certain points, to be determined between them, for the maintenance of open communications between Peking and the sea."

Japan was a signatory of the protocol, and has maintained a military force in the Peiping-Tientsin area for the past thirty-six years. The troops which started the trouble were stationed at Fengtai, the railway junction on the southern outskirts of Peiping. Although Fengtai is not mentioned in the protocol as one of the places where garrisons were to be stationed, it is a strategic point and has been previously occupied by foreign troops. The actual fighting took place not along the railway between Peiping and the sea, but at Lukochiao, just southwest of Fengtai.

The speed and thoroughness with which the Japanese leaders utilized this insignificant exchange of a few shots as the basis for a major move is significant. Japan was at once put on a war basis. Troops were poured into China, both from Manchuria and from Japan proper. Chinese forces were at first quickly subdued and retreated from the Tientsin-Peiping district. Japanese military planes dominated the entire area of North China, and the army moved south from Peiping and Tientsin along the two parallel railways (the Peiping-Hankow and the Tientsin-Nanking lines) and northwest from Peiping along the Peiping-Suiyuan railway toward the Great Wall and Chahar.

Subsequently at Shanghai two naval men, one an officer, were killed by guards who sought to bar their entrance to the Chinese airport. A deadlock quickly developed in the negotiations between the Japanese naval commander at Shanghai and the Chinese mayor of the city. The Japanese augmented their fleet and landed a naval party and the Chinese countered by concentrating large military forces in the area around the city which had been defined as a neutral zone after the settlement of the Shanghai battle of 1932. A conflict quickly ensued and Japan opened a combined military, naval, and air attack on the Chinese troops.

In searching for the reasons which prompted Japan to attack at Shanghai, I am inclined to emphasize four:

1. She feared for the safety of her twenty thousand nationals resident there, and struck before the enemy was prepared in order to ensure her control of the city.

2. She wished by this digression to divert attention from her main objectives in North China.

3. She wished to threaten the Central Government and put herself in a strong bargaining position in order to force a favorable final settlement.

4. The Japanese Navy wished to have a part in the operations in China which, up to that time, had been carried on solely by the Army.

Unless Japan meant to provoke a major war, which does not seem to have been her plan, the first reason is the most tenable. Only a short time earlier she had retreated from Hankow, on the Upper Yangtse, a position which she had held for years with considerable tenacity. Obviously she felt unable to remain there without the danger of a severe military defeat. The threat which she felt so keenly at Hankow must have been equally evident at Shanghai. Yet she could not retreat from that port without surrendering very large interests and without great loss of prestige. The first overt act on China's part was thus a signal to the local commander to take what he thought would be effective measures to protect Japanese lives and property in Shanghai.

It is obvious that the action which followed the incident on July 7 was the result of a careful plan. But the people of China and of other countries, and indeed the people of Japan themselves, do not know how far the Japanese army plans to advance. The precision and wholehearted vigor with which the movement was launched, however, indicate that the Japanese leaders have certain clear aims which they mean to attain.

It is interesting to note, also, that the international situation in July seemed to indicate that there would be little interference from other Powers in any course that Japan might wish to pursue in China. Russia was having internal difficulties which involved the "liquidation" of a number of her important army leaders. A border incident on the Amur River in North Manchuria between Japanese and Russian troops had been settled in Japan's favor on June 29. This showed that the Soviet was not looking for a casus belli. Great Britain and France were deeply occupied in Europe with the Spanish conflict. Germany had signed with Japan a treaty of alliance "against Communism." The United States had given every sign of her desire to remain aloof from foreign entanglements of any nature.

Another factor which might well have hastened Japanese action, if she were intent on further conquest, was the growing unity and strength of China and a definite stiffening of her resistance to outside pressure. The Nanking Government had been adamant to Japan's bid for control in North China. National consciousness was growing rapidly [i] and the Chinese people were considering not only whether they could prevent further encroachment by Japan but whether in fact they could drive her out of North China entirely. Demands on the Central Government to fight Japan were increasingly numerous and insistent.

It will be remembered that following a somewhat similar "incident" on the South Manchuria Railway in 1931, Japan dislodged the Chinese authorities and troops from the three Northeastern provinces of China, commonly called Manchuria, and set up there the puppet state of Manchukuo. Subsequently, the eastern portion of Inner Mongolia -- including Jehol province -- was conquered and annexed. Manchukuo is slightly larger in area than France and Germany combined and has a population of some 30,000,000. It is bounded on the north by Soviet Russia, on the west by Mongolia, and on the south by the Chinese province of Hopei where the recent disturbances started.

In 1935 Japan sought by military and political action to establish herself in North China by setting up a second autonomous state comprising the provinces of Hopei, Shantung, Shansi, Chahar, and Suiyuan -- an area of nearly 400,000 square miles (about the size of Manchukuo) with a population of more than 75 millions. The effort was only partly successful and resulted merely in the formation of an autonomous East Hopei régime comprising 22 counties in the eastern and northern portion of the province. During last winter a force of Manchukuoan troops invaded Chahar and Suiyuan through Jehol but was defeated in Suiyuan by the forces of the Chinese Government.

In the early stages of the current strife, Japan sought to gain greater control of the Hopei-Chahar Political Council by pressing for a "local settlement" of the issues, not with the Central Government at Nanking, but with the local Council. The Council, however, challenged the authority of the Japanese. Troops under its command turned on the Japanese garrison at Tungchow. After the Japanese army had gained control of Peiping, General Sung Cheh-yuan, the Chairman of the Council and Commander of the 29th army, which had by then been driven out by the Japanese, resigned, and his place was taken by a pro-Japanese politician. Thus the basis for a "local settlement" favorable to Japan was laid. But meanwhile the conflict had assumed proportions which indicated that Japan would considerably broaden her objectives.

What those objectives are has not been entirely divulged at Tokyo. Premier Konoye told the Japanese press on August 21, according to the New York Times, that "North China had inseparable relations with Japan and Manchukuo and any new Chinese Administration set up there must keep in close connection with Japan." It thus seems clear that Japan means if possible to dominate the northern provinces of China proper and develop their natural resources, and from that point of vantage to dictate terms to the rest of the country. Also it appears that she will endeavor to establish a buffer area between China and Soviet Russia. This she was unable to do by the attack on Inner Mongolia from Manchukuo last winter. She found the salient too narrow, the means of communication through the mountains of Jehol too meager, and the flank too exposed on the Chinese side. By basing her operations on Hopei province, with the port of Tientsin and the Peking-Suiyuan railway in her hands, she can proceed with less danger of defeat.

Japan has long urged the Central Government of China to take united action with her in exterminating the Chinese Communist armies. This Chiang Kai-shek has been unwilling to do. But he has fought the Communists himself, and last winter he had driven them into Kansu and Shensi. When he went to Shensi in December to press the campaign he was taken prisoner by Chang Hsueh-liang at the behest of the Communist forces. The Communists said in effect: "We are all Chinese. Why should we fight one another? The real enemy of China is Japan. Let us bury our differences and unite our forces to defeat the Japanese. If you will cease your attacks on us and will agree to fight Japan we will let you go."

Chiang Kai-shek was released. The war on the Communists was not continued. Japan may have felt that Chiang fell in line too fully with the Communists' proposals. This might well have had an influence in strengthening her determination to establish herself in Inner Mongolia before it was too late.


Chinese leaders have said for some time that their patience was exhausted and that they would not yield further without a fight, even if it might mean a major war. But how effectively can China fight Japan? What are the elements of her strength? What are her weaknesses? First we shall take her military position.

The topography of China makes her vulnerable to attack from the northeast and east. She is protected by rugged mountains or arid desert areas in the north, northwest, west, and southwest. Her coast, where her great plains run down to the sea, is undefended and open to attack by a hostile fleet, for her navy is limited to a few ineffective gunboats. Three broad rivers link the coast with the interior, and these are undefended also. The Yangtse is patrolled by foreign ships of war which penetrate many hundreds of miles into the interior of the country. Control by a hostile navy of any one of these rivers would greatly hamper Chinese resistance; and effective control of all three would so divide her forces and paralyze their mobility as to make impossible any resistance at all except in the form of guerilla warfare.

The Government of China is nominally a republic, but actually it is a political-military dictatorship under General Chiang Kai-shek. The Generalissimo has undisputed control of the region around his capital at Nanking; the measure of his control of outlying provinces is in inverse proportion to their distance from the capital. In recent years he has increased his power in the distant provinces. But, regardless of his strength in domestic matters, indications are that he would have almost universal support in standing up to Japan -- at least in the beginning. The Japanese menace is the greatest unifying factor in China today.

China has almost unlimited man-power; her population is more than four times that of the Japanese Empire. Further, she has a very large number of men under arms. Estimates which have been compiled from reliable sources during the past year indicate that her army totals 1,650,000. In addition, there are municipal police and railway guards which constitute a reserve outside the army proper, and large numbers of provincial soldiery -- lacking in cohesion and of dubious value. Then, too, in case of war with Japan the Chinese Communists could probably be counted on; they are said to comprise a well-trained and disciplined force of some 150,000 men, though they are deficient in military supplies. In all, then, China has forces of something over 2,000,000.

Of the 1,650,000 men just mentioned, 1,200,000 are said to be loyal to Chiang Kai-shek. The core of the army -- both in loyalty and ability -- is made up of Chiang's personal troops. These have been with him for ten years and number more than 350,000. Another group of 350,000 can be counted on as entirely reliable, since they are officered by men loyal to Chiang. The rest, immediately responsible to the provincial authorities and not to the Generalissimo, can be depended on only to varying degrees. In this latter group are included the soldiers of Chang Hsueh-liang who have a score to settle with Japan for driving them out of Manchuria in 1931, and from North China in 1934, and the Communists who have been crying for war against the Japanese these many months. Surely there is no single impulse which would weld the whole force together so effectively as resistance to foreign aggression.

In considering the real strength of China's army we must not fall into the error of placing much emphasis on numbers. A more important criterion is loyalty. Large numbers are of little avail under the divided leadership which has been the rule in China since the revolution of 1911, though the situation has undoubtedly been improving under Chiang Kai-shek.

The Chinese army is composed of divisions and corps, with the division organized on the pre-war German basis. Its effectiveness, in China as elsewhere, depends largely on the training and ability of the officers. There are about 180 division commanders, of whom only a score are considered by foreign observers to be of better than average competency. The training of officers, however, has been a major preoccupation of Chiang during recent years. There are some 80 German military advisers in China for training purposes. The Army School has been moved from Canton to Nanking, its curriculum revised, and the whole course stiffened. But it cannot think of being able to train the officers needed for an army of such size. China is undoubtedly deficient, then, in proper leadership of her troops. Not only is this true for the junior grades, but also as regards staff officers and a general staff.

The efficiency of the Chinese army as a combat unit is low. Between the artillery and infantry there is no coöperation whatever. The cavalry are few in number. Such Mongol cavalry as serve the Chinese are under their own banners and are of questionable allegiance. The equipment of all branches is scanty. The field artillery has but 1,900 guns of which no more than 1,000 are usable. Anti-aircraft defense is insufficient. Chemical warfare has only just begun to enter Chinese strategy.

The infantry is armed with rifles of all makes and ages. Each soldier carries his own ammunition and there are no appreciable reserves. Literally almost the entire supply of small-arms ammunition at a given moment is contained in the ammunition belts of China's million-odd troops. While she could quickly mobilize 2,500,000 men, she has serviceable weapons for less than a million.

The primary problem of the Chinese air force has been to train a sufficient number of pilots. Until 1927 most of the training was done by Chinese; since then the Government has enlisted the services of foreigners. The Chinese are reputed to have ability as aviators, but their instruction thus far has been mainly in the art of flying, not in military aviation or the use of war formations. For equipment, when hostilities broke out at Shanghai, the Chinese had about 500 airplanes, of which 100 were obsolete; 150 were old types that nevertheless could be used; of the remaining 250, 80 were pursuit planes, 80 were for light bombardment, and 90 were for moderately heavy bombardment. In comparison, the Japanese Army was reputed to have 1,000 planes and the Japanese Navy 400. There is a large air base in Japan proper, one in Manchukuo, and one in Korea.

Competent observers believe that despite the size of China's army she could not concentrate and sustain more than 400,000 men in North China, about 350,000 men in the coastal portion of Central China, and only 250,000 in the south. Thus only a fraction of her total strength could be thrown into a given area. This is due mainly to the problem of transportation. It is customary for Chinese troops to live off the countryside; but although China is essentially an agricultural country, there are few districts which raise a surplus of foodstuffs, and the necessary railways to bring in supplies from other areas or abroad are inadequate. This same problem would face an invading army, but Japan, having the necessary shipping, might make better use of the waterways, and she of course is also more amply supplied with motor transport.

At the outbreak of hostilities in July, Japan had 5,000 troops in Formosa, 10,000 around Tientsin, some 90,000 in Manchukuo exclusive of railway guards, and 20,000 in Korea. In Manchukuo there was organized in 1932 a local force of 100,000. The Manchukuoan troops proved ineffective in Japan's advance into Jehol and Chahar, however, and so she has reduced the number to a corps of 30,000 men, well drilled and staffed with Japanese officers. Nominally it was formed for suppressing bandits. Actually it is developing into a first class army. But these Chinese troops could not be depended on for war against their own people in China.


The resources and economic development of China do not encourage one to believe that she could successfully sustain a major war. Her economy is essentially agricultural. There are the beginnings of industrial growth, but these center chiefly in the large port cities which are particularly vulnerable to attack. Also, her industries are producing consumers' goods primarily. The heavy industries necessary for the support of modern war practically do not exist.

In raw materials China is no more deficient than Japan; but she does not have the naval force necessary to protect her imports. In foodstuffs she could be self-supporting if crops were anything like normal. This does not mean that she could provide what Westerners would consider a proper diet for her people. But frequent famines have accustomed the Chinese to sustaining life on short rations. Even during the past few years of flood and famine the importation of food has been small in comparison with the total consumption of the country. The 2,000,000 men who are now under arms would eat no more if they were fighting Japan, and so war would not greatly affect the food problem.

If we give a cursory glance at China's mineral resources, we find that while she has many important minerals she has not yet developed the means of using them. She has ample supplies of coal, but little coking coal. She has iron ore, but no adequate means of producing pig iron and steel. There are a number of small blast furnaces, but many of them are lying idle. As a matter of fact, China exports nearly all her iron ore -- about a million tons annually. Japan is the principal buyer and secures a third of her total requirements from China.

China has large deposits of antimony, tin, and tungsten, and some lead and zinc; but nearly all of it is sold abroad. She is deficient in copper -- it is found only in Yunnan province -- and she has no oil. But minerals are unimportant so long as they remain in the earth, and it is futile for our purposes to make any assessment of China's mineral wealth until there is some prospect of its utilization. It counts hardly at all in the present crisis.

Scattered over the length and breadth of China are scores of arsenals or depots for the manufacture of munitions. Only about 30 of them, however, are worthy of the name of "arsenal" and of these only 15 are really serving war needs. A survey completed last year showed that the daily capacity of the larger arsenals for manufacturing small-arms ammunition was as follows: Hangchow, 200,000 rounds; Hanyang, 130,000; Nanking, 70,000; Tsinanfu, 60,000; Liuchow, 50,000; Taiyuanfu, 40,000 to 100,000. Kunghsien is said to be better managed and equipped than the foregoing, but there are no data on its capacity. When the total is cast up it will be seen that China can scarcely furnish a round a day for her million rifles. Some of the arsenals can produce limited quantities and types of equipment -- mostly rifles and small guns -- but nothing approaching heavy artillery. A recent interesting development is that all new arsenals are being constructed far inland at a considerable distance from the ports and larger rivers. This shows that China has profited by the lesson of 1931. For when she lost Manchuria she lost her best arsenals also.[ii]

Engineering factories and machine shops are also important, for in time of war they can be converted to the manufacture of war supplies. Although China has many of these at widely scattered points throughout the country, no one knows their number. She also has ship-building plants at Shanghai and Fuchow, but they are vulnerable to attack because of their location.

If we assemble all of China's munitions resources, then, the result is not impressive. The most that can be said is that she might be able to meet the needs of guerilla warfare. To wage a major conflict with Japan she would have to import ever-increasing quantities from abroad. It is unlikely that the Japanese fleet would permit these supplies to reach her by sea. She might secure some munitions from Russia through Mongolia, but the problem of transportation would be a limiting factor of first magnitude.

Effective mobilization of men and materials presupposes adequate transportation facilities. Let us consider first the railways. China's railroad history can be divided into three periods. First were the years down to the World War, which were ones of expansion. Over half of all the mileage now existing in China was laid at that time. Second was the period from the war until 1932, which saw no new construction and a deterioration of the existing roads. The low point in rolling stock and efficiency was in 1931-32. Third is the period extending from 1933 to the present. It has been characterized by extensive repairs and a great deal of new construction. Exclusive of Manchuria, China during the last four years has built some 2,000 miles of new railways and has 1,500 additional miles under construction.[iii]

The topography of China makes the natural routes of communication run east and west. That is the way the river valleys run. The first railway lines built took a north and south direction to supplement the east-west waterways. Recently Chiang Kaishek has insisted that the new lines built (with the exception of the recently-completed Hankow-Canton link) should run east and west. Almost all the new roads are standard gauge and many of the narrow-gauge lines are being widened.

Unlike the earlier lines, which were built and run by foreign companies as concessions, the new railways are purely Chinese. Most of the capital still comes from abroad, but is granted in the form of loans. The Chinese control construction and operation. To finance the lines built in recent years, loans have come from Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and Belgium. Despite the quite amazing recent progress, the Chinese railway system is still very deficient. In 1936 the mileage was 7,500. Even if we add the lines which have since been completed and those now under construction, China from this point of view is still one of the most backward countries in the world.

The building of highways began in 1920 with the so-called famine roads. Their utility was at once recognized, and construction was continued by provincial and governmental authorities until in 1932 China proper had 31,000 miles of highways. The Central Government established a bureau in that year to coördinate roads already built and to see that every province was connected with its neighbors by at least one main highway. During the past five years the bureau has encouraged the building of 15,000 miles of new roads, for the most part inter-provincial routes, giving China a present total of 46,000 miles. Only 27 percent of the mileage is surfaced, and this is mainly in South China. Bridges are woefully lacking, and often several times a day a motorist must use ferries. The upkeep of dirt roads is difficult and in the rainy season well-nigh impossible.

Sun Yat-sen once remarked that to be strong China must have 100,000 miles of railways and a million miles of roads. When we compare this with the present 7,500 miles of railways and the present 46,000 miles of highways, we have an idea of the adequacy of China's transportation facilities.


China has often been invaded and conquered in war. She has never stayed conquered. Invaders, usually from the northeast, have set up alien dynasties and ruled the Chinese; but their occupation has had only an incidental effect on the life and habits of the people. Chinese ways of life have always proved stronger than the ways of the would-be masters. Throughout recorded history China has maintained her own cultural solidarity.

Invaders have come, tarried awhile, intermarried, gradually adopted Chinese customs, and found after the passage of a few generations that they had become Chinese. It happened to the Huns who swept down from the North in the Fourth Century A.D. It happened to the Mongols who did likewise in 1280. It happened to the Manchus who established themselves in Peking in 1644. They all conquered China and ruled her for centuries. But in the process they lost their own souls. Where are the Huns and the Mongols and the Manchus today?

But the Chinese would be wrong if they took satisfaction in their immemorial record of having maintained their cultural identity as more than simply an encouragement to meet the present threat. Japan's strength and purpose are not to be underestimated. If she conquered them she would be far more difficult to assimilate than former conquerors proved, because she has a citadel of power outside the territorial limits of the Asiatic mainland.

With the past history of China in mind, how can anyone imagine that she will not resist Japan? As a matter of fact, she has resisted every minute of every day since Japan set foot in Manchuria. And she will continue to resist with whatever strength she can muster. But the measure of her resistance is not to be found in terms of iron and steel, in guns and planes or in marching armies with bayonets fixed. It is represented by the spirit of a people whose supreme belief in the superiority of their race, their culture, and their ability to survive has never yet been shaken.

But we must not forget that the means which the Chinese adopt to meet attack is often passive. It is like the attitude of a farmer who would not fight a neighbor who claimed and occupied one of his fields, but called in others to help him settle the dispute by negotiation, and when that failed, married his son to the neighbor's daughter and so eventually brought the joint properties under his own family's control. I remember asking Admiral Tsai Ting-kan in the 1920's how long he thought the unsettled conditions then existing in China would last. "Not long," he said, "perhaps a hundred years. That is not long in the life of China." A people so convinced of their integrity and so willing, if need be, to bide their time, are no mean foe.

As this article goes to press, Japan is still on the march. We still do not know whether China's challenge to this advance will mean a major war. But no one, least of all any Japanese, doubts that China will resist in her own way and in her own good time. All the assessable factors indicate that in a major military encounter she could not defeat Japan. But the Japanese, by overextending themselves, may engender their own downfall. Conquests are costly, as Nathaniel Peffer shows in another article in this issue in discussing the effects of Japan's course in Manchukuo.

Writing in these pages several years ago (April 1931), Colonel John Magruder gave an excellent picture of the Chinese as a fighting man. He described his distaste for the profession of arms, but his ability under proper leadership to make a good soldier. There is not the least doubt that the Chinese lacks an aggressive military spirit. He does not have the will to attack. But the defensive fighting qualities of individual units have been proved -- for example at Shanghai in 1932 -- to be of a high order. A general bent on winning a war of aggression would not choose a Chinese army. But to fight a protracted rear-guard action to save their territory from invasion, or to fight a guerilla warfare -- an art in which Chinese bandits have had plenty of training -- the Chinese possess qualities which Japan would do well to take into account.

[i] See "The Changing Balance of Forces in the Pacific," by Hu Shih, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1937, and "China Prepares to Resist," by Lin Yutang, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1937.

[ii] There were two at Mukden. One of them, employing 15,000 men, was one of the largest single arsenals in the world.

[iii] Japan has also undertaken new construction in Manchukuo, but these roads of course are under Japanese control.

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  • WALTER H. MALLORY, Executive Director of the Council on Foreign Relations; for five years resident in China as Secretary of the China International Famine Relief Commission; author of "China: Land of Famine"
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