The Origins of Chinese Strategic Thinking

For the past three millennia, the Chinese have looked inward, presumed and cherished their moral superiority, and disdained but feared outside marauders and invaders. Here, of course, one has to distinguish ethnic Han emperors from the Khitan, Mongol, and Manchu rulers who imposed their dominion on the Middle Kingdom for many centuries. Yet even non-Han emperors embraced the Middle Kingdom’s security assumptions and fear of collapse wrought by “inside disorder and outside calamity.” They saw no need to conquer “barbarian” territories beyond the empire but only to manage nearby neighbors as subservient vassals against more powerful, distant foes. Except when directly menaced by non-Han “barbarians,” Chinese rulers regarded these neighbors as a part of the nation’s security belt. In exchange for exacting loyalty and tribute from vassal states, the emperors pledged to protect them. Over many centuries, Chinese emperors typically regarded the use of force as the last resort.

At the strategic level, the dominant Chinese philosophy created a culture characterized by “strong secularism, weak religiousness,” “strong inclusiveness, weak exclusiveness,” and “strong conservativeness, weak aggressiveness.”  These features wax and wane in a twentieth-century China wracked by war, revolution, and globalization, but the Chinese now appear to believe they are in the ascendancy and in the recent past have given primacy to diplomacy in resolving disputes. In today’s China, leaders draw on the traditional code of conduct that “peace claims precedence” (he wei gui). From Mao to Deng, Jiang Zemin, and now Hu Jintao, he wei gui is invoked to justify diplomatic negotiations and the avoidance of war. In the tradition, peace and stability ensured progress and heaven’s blessing, while war could unleash decades of strife and usher in centuries of foreign rule. That tradition finds an echo in modern Beijing’s political and military councils, and we shall encounter it again at the end of our inquiry.

The dangers of war and the opportunities wrought by enduring tranquility required skilled statesmen and prudent policies, and the Chinese held that the writings of ancient, revered sages were must-read texts for all aspiring leaders and youthful cadets in training. Those steeped in the wisdom of treasured ancestors would be best equipped to guide the ship of state away from impending disasters and toward a common ideal. Whether one speaks of the Mandate of Heaven or the authority of Party cadres, the subject always begins with learning from the past and heeding its supposed lessons.

For those charged with guarding the nation against foreign incursions and internal strife, the place to begin was Sun Tzu, the Middle Kingdom’s renowned military strategist. His Art of War, written about 500 B.C., during the Spring and Autumn years of the Zhou dynasty, summarizes the classical notion that the best prepared for war either will win without fighting or will fight and win. War must be studied. Its basic rules and principles are universal and, taken together, are an art that can and must be learned. Sun Tzu urges leaders to think boldly but to act with extreme caution because war is “a matter of life and death, a road to safety or ruin.” As Confucius later declared, “The cautious seldom err.”

In essence, the art of war is a battle of wits, and those who master the art have the best hope of winning without fighting. That mind-against-mind struggle is characterized by brilliant stratagems, active diplomacy and deception, and judicious intimidation. Yet, armed struggle sometimes cannot be prevented, and Sun Tzu’s guidance for generations of generals stipulated the priorities for achieving victory or avoiding defeat when war occurs: “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. Next best is to disrupt his alliances by diplomacy. The next best is to attack his army. And the worst policy is to attack cities. . . . Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. . . . Therefore, I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”

The art of war blends the skills of statesmanship and generalship, though Sun Tzu warned, “He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.” Historians also record stories of the ruthless side of Sun Tzu that transcend this warning. One story illustrates his fierce insistence on submission to command. When challenged by the king of the state of Wu to demonstrate his skills by drilling the palace concubines, Sun Tzu divided the women into two groups and explained his demand for absolute obedience and the penalties for failure. When his new recruits merely giggled and ignored him, Sun Tzu selected the king’s two favorites and had them beheaded. The giggling ended. “In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there must be no disorder in one’s own troops,” Sun Tzu wrote. From empire to revolution to the Korean War, Chinese soldiers have fought in the certain knowledge that iron obedience is their only option.

Sun Tzu’s dictums are echoed in the texts of Confucius. Wise leaders, Confucius held, must constantly reflect on war and prepare for it. The most consequential national security decision comes when selecting a military commander. A nation’s leader must pick as his generals or members of his national security team, as Washington would put it, those who understand the right mix of political and military preparations for war, approach the coming battles prudently, and act with caution. Overconfident generals or ineffectual security advisors can bring ruin to the strongest state. For Confucius, a qualified commander “must be afraid of the assignment he is going to undertake” and must be able to win by prudently planned strategies that outmaneuver and outthink an adversary.

Chinese traditionally deemed the symbols of force—swords, guns, trophies, and war medals—inauspicious. A Chinese maxim says, “Those good at war do not speak about war” (shan zhan zhe bu yan zhan). For generations, the best generals shunned boasting about their military skills and did their utmost to avoid an armed struggle. Should war break out, they would pursue and bring victory because they had so diligently made ready for it politically, psychologically, and militarily. In modern times, they typically denigrated the West’s “stress on military force” (shangwu) and adopted a “force avoidance” (rouwu or “soft military”) or low-posture stance. Veiled threats and brief-strike military “lessons” reflect this classical legacy in modern-day China. The culture disparaged the race to war and lauded its avoidance as marks of wisdom and moral strength.

The Contrast of American and Chinese Military Philosophies

Chinese strategists draw on these classical perspectives to study and assess potential adversaries, extrapolating military philosophies from their conduct on the battlefield. The didactic process of comparison and assessment of perceived differences has helped chart the equation of liabilities and assets underlying each side’s doctrines and set the stage for pitting strategy against strategy. This constitutes an exercise in the great tradition of Sun Tzu and a prelude to directing the complex process from national command decision to battlefield tactics.

Lodged in military academies and command-and-staff colleges, these comparative studies start with the basics, sometimes exhibiting considerable insight and often simplistic and biased distillations. They begin with assertions about concepts of basic human nature, and though they speak somewhat grandly of the “West,” they most often mean the United States or their characterization of its beliefs and biases. For the West, so these uniformed academics say, human nature is deemed to be evil, causing its citizens to exaggerate the importance of the law and to rely on courts for punishments and redress of wrongs to individuals. Chinese in the mainstream Confucian tradition, by contrast, hold that human nature is good or perhaps just neutral and can profit from education and the collective wisdom of the past. For Chinese, court-imposed enforcement, except to protect the state, is a last resort or a foreign artifact to be scorned. Translated to the level of strategic culture, Western strategists rely on power politics, stress individual as opposed to social misbehavior, and threaten forceful retaliation to back up negotiating demands. Chinese, generally speaking, prefer recurring rounds of diplomacy, insist on consensus building especially on matters of general principle, and consider harmony reached through negotiations and compromise to be the epitome of diplomatic skill.

This presumed or alleged contrast in worldviews applies to the exercise of military power as a means to accomplish political and economic aims. Compared to leaders in the West, the Chinese profess to place a higher strategic, even moral value on tranquility and peace, a condition long absent in their own modern history. This difference, however, could help explain why the Chinese often yield to pressures from the outside world, especially in the early stages of a crisis, and only suddenly and unexpectedly resort to force as a crisis unfolds and a head-on conflict appears inevitable. According to Chinese military scholars, Westerners often prematurely terminate talks in favor of military action and, comparatively speaking, more often refuse to patiently explore promising areas of potential agreement.

Holding the view that “offense is the best defense,” Westerners, so the Chinese argument goes, too readily have adopted an aggressive stance in order to seize the initiative, while Chinese traditionally “forsake offensive actions in favor of defensive postures” (fei gong), an approach underlying one of their basic strategic doctrines, “active defense” (jiji fangyu). An oft-used Chinese character for “force” (wu) reflects the culture’s ambivalence toward its use: the defining component or “radical” part of the character is zhi, meaning “stop,” while the second component, ge, is the name for an ancient dagger-axe. Such contradictions flourish in the Chinese language and speak in subtle ways to what is sometimes interpreted as “inscrutable” Chinese behavior. As this study proceeds, however, we shall encounter signs of that behavior changing under the demands of military modernization and the complexities of the Taiwan and American challenges.

In the language of the war room, the Chinese stress intentions, while Westerners focus on capabilities. Sometimes this Chinese emphasis is phrased as a strategy of looking for an adversary’s weaknesses as opposed to the West’s fixation on an adversary’s strengths.

In recent decades, Westerners trumpet their prowess in science and technology—their hardware—though any disparities in this respect would seem to be rapidly eroding as the Chinese scramble to achieve scientific and technological excellence and seem to rely less on the wisdom of the ages. Still the distinction between a “hardware” orientation and one proclaiming the virtues of the intellect or “software” does reflect variations in national culture, not just in the stage of development. The tradition of Chinese intellectuals to “attach importance to self-cultivation but neglect technology” (zhong dao qing qi) may be waning, but the signs of its influence are far from disappearing.

Indeed, zhong dao qing qi figures in many current internal critiques of Chinese military thinking. Military leaders and planners tend to criticize the influence of the concept for their failures to forge the People’s Liberation Army into a more capable fighting force and for the persistence of a bias that inhibits an uninterrupted concentration on advances in technology. Although technological inferiority purportedly causes PLA planners to adopt more creative strategies than their adversaries, that inferiority also reduces strategic options and magnifies the importance of strategic failures.

Finally, the two cultures face in unlike directions. China looks inward, exhibiting a certain smugness, while the West looks outward and seems restless to expand and control. It would be hard to find an American whom the Chinese have not called impatient or worse. In strategic terms, this also reflects a land-sea dichotomy, at least in modern times. For generations, Western strategists called for dominance of the seas and more recently of the air and outer space. Chinese strategists from Sun Tzu to Beijing’s generals, by contrast, have been guardians of the land. They have paid closer attention to domestic political challenges than to international crises. Foreign conflicts and crises seldom take precedence over internal stability and the political power of the established rulers.

China’s sea, air, and strategic missile units belong to the People’s Liberation Army and have never achieved genuine equality with their brothers and sisters in the ground forces. Even in the age of long-range aircraft and missiles, China’s large landmass is still thought to provide a strategic advantage even though the PLA abandoned the doctrine of “luring an enemy in deep” in the 1980s. China is essentially a continental economy, its soldiers mostly hail from landlocked villages, and alien regimes one after the other have been swallowed up in China’s vast territory. These become significant data points when explaining the Chinese military’s strategies from People’s War to “active defense under modern conditions.”

Old Ideas Versus New Concepts

Today’s Chinese strategists acknowledge and seek to modify a number of behaviors that accompany the traditional outlook. Three such unwanted behaviors stand out. First, these strategists have begun to reconsider the long-held article of faith that China has always been the innocent victim, the passive target of foreign aggression. Indeed, Mao Zedong interpreted all modern Chinese history in this light and called for the people to “stand up.” Moreover, he perpetuated both the leadership’s proclivity toward preparing for the worst when making policies in crises and its allergy to taking the initiative. In 1955, he admonished his associates, “[We] will not suffer losses if we always take into account the worst scenario,” and subsequent generations were taught to take his admonition to heart. Driven by repeated setbacks of the revolutionary years, worst-case planning carried over to the People’s Republic and only in the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s and beyond seemed to be dying out.

From their stronger, more self-confident positions at least for the moment, Western leaders are said to be more inclined to consider a wider range of options and regard the worst case as only one of several possibilities. Where once the PLA belittled the West in this regard, it now privately admires it and increasingly strives to emulate it.

A second behavior is implicit in the first: extreme “cautiousness toward the first battle” (shenzhong chuzhan). Tradition teaches Chinese to fear that round one of the fighting could decisively influence the war’s final outcome. From their perspective, Western strategists by contrast are inclined to believe that a nation’s military superiority can compensate for any initial strategic mistakes and that by seizing the initiative they can define the battlefield and determine the nature of the battles to come. This implies that the Chinese, comparatively speaking, may be less inclined to take risks before launching major undertakings or an armed conflict and could be less flexible after the outbreak of a war. Throughout China’s nuclear test program, for example, getting it right the first time translated into far fewer tests. Some explain this by pointing to China’s poverty, but the attitude, as we shall see in our later discussion of the Vietnam border war of 1979, reflects culture as well as money. As the Chinese come face to face with modern warfare, risk taking and seizing the initiative, we shall also suggest, may become mandatory, and rising domestic prosperity may well ease the change to a more “Western style” of military conduct.

The final unwanted behavior that we should note is one of methodology more than style. PLA strategists attach importance to macroanalysis, and believe that their counterparts in the West pay closer attention to microanalysis. The variations in approach to science and technology are deemed part of this behavioral disparity, as are outlooks toward human nature, matters of principle, and negotiating techniques. Nevertheless, Chinese hold that this methodological bias is based as much on necessity as on choice. Neither quantitative nor qualitative methods alone, they acknowledge, can yield a complete and adequate strategic picture, and achieving a balance between the two methodologies in today’s world is not easy.

For the moment, the Chinese military lacks sufficient sophisticated technical means for the real-time surveillance and reconnaissance needed for accurate quantitative judgments or the nuanced human intelligence for complete qualitative assessments. China’s technological inferiority, military leaders have concluded, has crippled or delayed their plans for the nation’s security. The PLA urgently seeks to acquire those means.

In the traditional and revolutionary-era military cultures, the Chinese formulated strategic doctrines first and then determined the type, scope, and pace of weapons programs. Their lack of resources then narrowed the range of choices and the margins for error. To this day, antecedent strategic guidelines, always controversial and painful to formulate, tend to dictate the direction and scope of most arms programs and place a premium on weapons procured to match specific priorities. This approach limits the procurement of weapons optimized not only for immediate needs but also capable of flexible modification to deal with unexpected contingencies over the full lifespan of the weapon. It makes it more difficult to consider interrelated weapons systems and makes R&D on them depend principally on analyses of past Chinese and foreign conflicts, much less so on future unknowns.

While “fighting the last war” and adopting technologies developed elsewhere are not unique to China, the People’s Liberation Army only recently has begun to recognize that the profound post-Vietnam change in the U.S. military, which seeks to leapfrog over next-generation weapons and tactics, is made possible by an active synergy between imaginative battlefield theories and innovative technologies. Neither doctrines nor weapons programs necessarily comes first. Each can drive the other, a reality that has only recently been understood and embraced in the People’s Republic.

What we are seeing is that the cultural differences, so important in earlier years, have begun to narrow and their continued influence often disgusts younger, better-trained PLA officers. The reasons for this continuity, to be sure, may stem in some degree from shortages of resources as much as of vision, though examples such as the air force rejecting cheaper, more advanced satellite-based air traffic control systems in favor of outmoded radars in the 1990s suggest that the problem is one of mind-set as much as money.

The evolution that is occurring in China’s military hardware and doctrines has resulted largely from the direct application of military experience from Korea to Vietnam, from planning for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and from the dramatic lessons provided by the wars fought by the United States since the debacle of Vietnam. The worst-case planning, aversion to risk, and preference for qualitative or macroanalysis persist as do the artificial boundaries between military doctrine and weapons procurements, the Chinese are rectifying the problems born of rigid thinking and are steadily modifying their approach to war, making it more refined and flexible.

In the course of these changes, the critique of outmoded concepts has become more direct and open. In 2001, a senior PLA general echoed Sun Tzu’s declaration that national strategy is a matter of “life and death” and a road to “safety or ruin.” He castigated the nation’s think tanks for their failure to devise that strategy for the new century.

In response, senior military strategists began a systematic review of the “six domains” of strategy: politics, military affairs, economy, science and technology, culture, and society. They argued that China faces severe challenges in all six areas and outlined five strategic goals in the decades ahead: safeguard territorial sovereignty and “rights”; maintain domestic stability and a stable environment in the Asian-Pacific region; promote economic growth; oppose hegemony and power politics; and build a new international political and economic order.

Slaughter at Chinju

While Hideyoshi wined and dined the Ming envoys at Nagoya, his commanders in Korea were preparing once again for battle. Their target: Chinju. This strongly fortified southern city, sixty kilometers to the west of Pusan, had remained a sore spot with the Japanese ever since they had failed to take it in November of the previous year. In that battle a disciplined force of only 3,800 Koreans held out for five days against a 15,000-man army from Mori Terumoto’s seventh contingent from Honshu, inflicting such heavy casualties—some accounts put the figure as high as fifty percent—that the Japanese were forced to withdraw. This loss never ceased to rankle the Japanese. It also left an enemy stronghold in uncomfortably close proximity to their defensive perimeter on Korea’s southern tip. There were a number of hawks within the Japanese camp, meanwhile, notably Kato Kiyomasa and Kobayakawa Takakage, who felt angry and humiliated at the unexpected setbacks suffered in the war, and who now urged Hideyoshi to allow them the opportunity to inflict one final attack against the incompliant Koreans, a parting blow to remind them and in turn the Chinese that the might of Japan remained undiminished and would have to be appeased.

It was for these three reasons that Hideyoshi, although ostensibly immersed in negotiations with the two Ming envoys, sent the order to Kato in Korea: attack Chinju. Wipe it off the map.

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News of the planned assault on Chinju soon reached the ears of Ming negotiator Shen Weijing at Pusan, passed to him by Konishi Yukinaga, who claimed that he had tried without success to dissuade Kato from launching such an attack. Shen in turn warned Commander in Chief Kim Myong-won, explaining that the Japanese were out to avenge themselves upon the Koreans for defeating them at Chinju the previous year, for destroying so many of their ships, and for repeatedly ambushing Japanese soldiers who were out working in the fields. Shen assured Kim that the coming attack would be a single act of face-saving aggression, and not part of any renewed offensive to grab more territory. The Koreans should therefore keep clear of Chinju for a time and let the Japanese have their revenge, for then they would be satisfied and would surely return home.

Some among the Koreans were willing to accept Shen Weijing’s advice. Guerrilla leader Kwak Jae-u, the famous “Red Coat General,” said that while he was prepared to sacrifice his own life, he was not willing to throw away the lives of his men in what was clearly a lost cause. Others, however, were determined to hold the city at any cost. Government-official-turned-guerrilla-leader Kim Chon-il was one of the first to enter Chinju at the head of three hundred volunteers (“an unruly mob gathered from the streets of Seoul,” observed Yu Song-nyong), and immediately tried to assume overall command, much to the aggravation of the city’s magistrate, So Ye-won. Others followed: Hwang Jin, army commander of Chungchong Province, with seven hundred men; Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe with five hundred; Vice-Commander Chang Yun with three hundred; guerilla leader Ko Chong-hu, who had seen his father Ko Kyong-myong slain in the Battle of Kumsan, with four hundred. Yi Chong-in, the magistrate of Kimhae, also arrived and assumed a leadership role.

In Seoul, Li Rusong received the news of the planned Japanese attack with understandable consternation and dispatched orders to his generals in the south to take steps to halt the move. From his camp near Taegu, “Big Sword” Liu Ting sent a message to Kato Kiyomasa at Ulsan reminding him that any aggression against Chinju would be an abrogation of the armistice that existed between their two armies, and would lead to further hostilities. Kato made no reply. Liu also sent an aide to Chinju itself to inspect the city’s defenses and offer assurance of Chinese support in the event of an attack.

By the middle of July between 3,000 and 4,000 Korean defenders had gathered within the walls of Chinju, a force roughly equal to the one that had held off 15,000 Japanese attackers in November of the previous year. They were by no means all crack troops, however, and would be facing an army of possibly 93,000, the bulk of Hideyoshi’s remaining invasion force plus reinforcements recently sent from Japan. There was no way the Koreans could stand against such overwhelming numbers, the largest single enemy force so far assembled in the war. “Red Coat General” Kwak Jae-u saw this clearly, and urged his friend Hwang Jin not to throw his life away trying to defend the place. Hwang agreed that Chinju was probably doomed. He had already given his word to Kim Chon-il and others, however, that he would stay and fight. So stay and fight he must. As Kwak Jae-u rode sadly away, knowing he would never see Hwang again, the defenders of Chinju raced to stockpile food and arms in preparation for the coming fight. Then the gates of the city were closed and barred.

In the second week of July a tidal wave of Japanese troops began filing out of the chain of forts encircling Pusan and moving west toward Chinju, looting and burning as they went. Kato Kiyomasa led the operation. This was a bit of appeasement thrown his way by Hideyoshi, in exchange for the two Korean princes he would soon be required to release. Kato was keeping these two royal teens, Sunhwa and Imhae, in comfortable confinement at his fort at Ulsan, and was not eager to give them up. He would have to, however, if negotiations with China were to bear any fruit. As a sop to his honor he was given Chinju instead.

By this time several tens of thousands of terrified civilians had joined the defenders holed up inside Chinju: women and children, the infirm, the aged, driven to take refuge by the violence of the Japanese advance. As this tremulous multitude peered out over the walls on the nineteenth of July, enemy units began arriving and took positions on three sides of the city: Ukita Hideie’s forces on the east, Konishi Yukinaga’s on the west, Kato Kiyomasa’s on the north. A fourth unit, Kikkawa Hiroie’s, could be seen on the other side of the Nam River, cutting off retreat to the south. Still others established an outer perimeter to guard against counterattack, until Chinju was surrounded “in a hundred layers” and looked like “a small, lonely boat in the middle of a sea.”

The assault began the following day, ashigaru foot soldiers peppering the ramparts with musket fire, keeping the Koreans down while their comrades filled in portions of the moat that had previously been dug outside the north wall. With this obstacle overcome, a unit of men advanced to the wall itself and began prying stones out from the base. The effort came to an abrupt halt when a cascade of stones fell down on them, killing some and driving the rest back.

The fighting continued day and night through July 21 and 22, the Japanese taking turns assaulting the walls and then falling back to rest, keeping up an unrelenting pressure on the Korean defenses. Then, on the twenty-third, they began erecting a mound of earth with a blockhouse on top adjacent to Chinju’s west gate, planning to use the elevation to fire their muskets over the wall and into the city. Inside the fortress the Koreans responded by rushing to build an elevated blockhouse of their own. The work was completed in a single night, many of the women within the city working alongside Chungchong Army Commander Hwang Jin in hauling basketfuls of soil and packing it in place. By morning the Japanese and the Koreans faced each other from atop similar elevated platforms, one outside the wall, the other within. In the exchange of fire that ensued, the Koreans managed to destroy the Japanese blockhouse with their cannons and, at least for the moment, put an end to the threat.

On the twenty-fourth the Japanese went to work again on the base of Chinju’s fortifications. The men assigned to the task, this time holding stout wood and leather shields over their heads, advanced to the base of the wall and began prying out the lower course of stones. The Koreans responded with a barrage of arrow and musket fire, but could not penetrate the thick roofs under which the Japanese were sheltered. It was only by dropping heavy stones down on the Japanese that they were finally able to kill some and drive the rest away.

At about this time it started to rain in torrents. It began for the Koreans as a welcome relief, for they were able to snatch a little rest when the Japanese, unwilling or unable to use their muskets in the wet, were forced to call off their assault. (By the late sixteenth century the Japanese had invented a cover for their arquebuses that allowed them to fire them in the rain, but it was an imperfect solution for keeping a wick lit and powder dry.) The downpour, however, soon turned into a curse, for the dampness went to work on the glue holding the Koreans’ composite bows together, rendering some of them useless, and also began washing away the soil at the damaged portions of the walls, weakening them even further.

During the respite the Japanese sent a message into the beleaguered city demanding its surrender. “The Chinese have already given up,” it read. “Why do you dare continue to resist?” Commander Kim Chon-il sent a reply flying back over the walls: “Three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers have been sent to help us. When they arrive you will all be destroyed.” The Japanese scoffed at this bravado, hoisting their trouser legs above the knee and miming effeminate Chinese officials running away.

Inside the city everyone was exhausted and spirits were low. In an effort to boost morale, Kim Chon-il climbed to a high lookout and, peering over the wall, announced that he thought he could see fighting going on in the distance, a sign that the reinforcements Ming general “Big Sword” Liu Ting had promised would soon be arriving to save them. This lifted everyone’s spirits for a time. But it was a lie. The Chinese were not coming, and Kim Chon-il knew it. Turning to his colleague Choi Kyong-hoe he said, “After I beat this enemy I will chew the flesh of Helan Jinming.” Kim, feeling abandoned and betrayed, was likening “Big Sword” Liu to a reviled commander from China’s Tang dynasty (618–907) who, in a well-known episode that forever blackened his name, refused to come to the aid of a beleaguered comrade and thereby ensured his defeat.

From his camp outside the city, Kato Kiyomasa was making preparations for a renewed attempt to undermine the walls. This time he had his men fashion four kame-no-kosha, or “turtle wagons,” heavily built carts with stout wooden roofs. These crude vehicles were wheeled up to the base of the walls, and parties of men went to work with crowbars on the lower courses of stones, prying them out one by one. The Koreans could see what was happening below but were unable to stop it, their arrows and musket balls and stones bouncing harmlessly off the roofs of the wagons. Someone finally had the idea of dropping oil-soaked cotton down onto the contraptions and setting them alight. Kato, calmly perceiving the weakness, promptly ordered more carts built, this time with fire-retardant ox hides nailed to the roof.

While this was going on, Japanese forces were applying pressure at many other places around the city. Five more elevated firing platforms were erected in front of the east and west gates, and a bamboo palisade was constructed along one side, allowing Kato’s musketeers to take up positions close to the walls. Inside the city, Hwang Jin, Kim Chon-il, and Kimhae magistrate Yi Chong-in fought desperately to repel these various advances, but their men were growing exhausting. During a lull in the fighting Hwang Jin leaned over the wall to assess the situation. “The trench out there is full of enemy dead,” he observed. “There must be more than a thousand….” At that moment a Japanese soldier hiding at the base of the wall aimed his musket straight up at Hwang’s exposed head and fired, sending a ball through the Chungchong Army commander’s helmet and into his skull. He fell down dead on the spot. Kim Chon-il replaced the fallen commander with Chinju magistrate So Ye-won, but So quickly proved unsuited for the task. The strain of six days of fighting had left the militarily inexperienced civil official unhinged, crying and riding around aimlessly on his horse, his scholar’s hat tossed carelessly to one side. Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe, seeing that So’s erratic behavior was adversely effecting morale, intended initially to kill him as an example to the men, but in the press of events merely pushed him aside and replaced him with Vice-Commander Chang Yun. Within hours Chang himself was dead, killed by a musket ball just like Hwang Jin.

On July 27 the repeated forays by the Japanese to pry stones away from Chinju’s fortifications finally succeeded in collapsing a portion of the east wall. Kato Kiyomasa’s men were the first to enter the city. For the Koreans sheltering inside the end had come. They cried out to Kim Chon-il: “Commander! The enemy has breached the walls! What should we do?” There was nothing that Kim could tell them. He did not have enough men to resist the Japanese troops now pouring into the city; everyone was exhausted after a week of battle, every arrow had been fired, every stone had been thrown. And now there was no way at all to escape. Those who chose to die fighting did so with swords and spears and bamboo staves, no match for the muskets and katana of the Japanese. The rest abandoned their positions and raced from one wall to the other, searching in vain for a way to get out. As the Japanese proceeded to tear the city to pieces, Kim Chon-il and his eldest son Kim Sang-gon, accompanied by army commander Choi Kyong-hoe, guerrilla leader Ko Chong-hu, and a few others, retreated to the Choksongnu pavilion on the south wall of the city overlooking the Nam River. After bowing to the north, toward the capital and their king, the men embraced and, with tears streaming down their faces, bid one another farewell. Then they joined hands and threw themselves into the water below.

Yi Chong-in continued to resist until the bitter end, fighting off the attacking Japanese in a rearguard action that took him onto the rocks at the edge of the Nam River. Here he is reported to have seized two Japanese in his arms and shouted, “Kimhae Magistrate Yi Chong-in is dying here!” He then cast himself into the water, carrying the two soldiers down with him.

Chinju magistrate So Ye-won met a less glorious end. Okamoto Gonojo, a samurai in the service of Kikkawa Hiroie, came upon him sitting on a tree stump, injured and exhausted, and cut off his head. It rolled down an embankment and was lost in the grass. Not wanting to lose the prize, Okamoto sent two men down to retrieve it, and later had it pickled in salt and sent to Japan for presentation to Hideyoshi.

At least sixty thousand Koreans lost their lives in the Second Battle of Chinju. Most were killed in the massacre that followed the taking of the city, an orgy of destruction that has been called the worst atrocity of the war. The Japanese under Kato, Ukita, and Konishi had no mercy. They did not leave a cow or dog or chicken alive. In a frenzy of revenge against a nation that refused to be conquered, they pulled down the walls and burned all the buildings. They filled the wells with stones. They cut down every tree. When the destruction was finished Chinju ceased to exist. Since the beginning of the war, the Korean annals would later report, no other place had been so thoroughly destroyed, nor had loyalty and righteousness been so magnificently displayed.

A large number of civilians committed suicide in the wake of the fall of Chinju, many by drowning themselves in the Nam River. The most famous instance involved a local female entertainer, or kisaeng, named Non-gae, then no more than twenty years old. Shortly after the fall of the city, Non-gae went out onto the rocks at the base of the Choksongnu pavilion, where a group of senior Japanese commanders were having a banquet to celebrate their success. When the Japanese saw her beckoning to them seductively, “they gulped down their spit” but no one dared to approach. Finally one of them, reportedly a samurai named Keyamura Rokunosuke from Kato Kiyomasa’s contingent, drunkenly climbed down from the pavilion and out onto the rocks, Non-gae luring him on with an amorous smile. When he reached her she took him in a passionate embrace, then suddenly jumped into the river below, dragging them both to their deaths. This act of defiance and self-sacrifice would become widely celebrated in the decades that followed. In the eighteenth century the Chinese characters ui-am, meaning “righteous rock,” were carved on the face of the rock from which Non-gae was thought to have leapt. A shrine and commemorative stone would be later erected nearby. Today Non-gae is the symbol of the city of Chinju, and her story known to virtually every Korean.

Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]

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The Assault on Haengju

Although the Ming army had retired to Pyongyang, the Japanese in Seoul were now surrounded on all sides by native Korean troops, guerrillas, and monk-soldiers, and were thus unable to venture into the surrounding countryside in anything but large, well-armed groups. Several companies of Korean government soldiers still remained to the north, forces under Commander in Chief Kim Myong-won at the Imjin River, General Yi Bin at Paju, and Generals Ko On-baek and Yi Si-on at Haeyu Pass. Twenty kilometers to the west at Chasong, a force of one thousand monk-soldiers attacked a Japanese unit and, at a cost of nearly half their number, succeeded in driving them back within the city walls. Two thousand monks under Yujong achieved similar results ten kilometers to the northeast at Surak-san, driving the Japanese garrison there back into Seoul and claiming the mountain for themselves. A third contingent of six hundred monks made an attack at Ichon in the southeast, again suffering heavy losses, but again driving the Japanese back into the capital.

And at Haengju to the west lay the biggest thorn of all: twenty-three hundred Koreans under Cholla Province Army Commander Kwon Yul, holed up in a wooden stockade on a bluff overlooking the Han River.

Kwon Yul was a fifty-five-year-old civil servant of middling rank from a family of note in Kyongsang Province. Before the war he had served, on Yu Song-nyong’s recommendation, as magistrate of Uiju on Korea’s border with China, and later as magistrate of Kwangju in the southwestern province of Cholla. Immediately following Hideyoshi’s invasion he raised troops in the Kwangju region and led them north in a failed attempt to halt the Japanese advance before it reached Seoul. He then returned south and participated in the defense of Cholla Province, which the sixth contingent of the Japanese army under Kobayakawa Takakage was threatening to overrun. Kwon distinguished himself by defeating Japanese units in two engagements, the Battles of Ungchi and Ichi, in the second week of August. Recognizing his ability, the government appointed him army commander of Cholla Province in the following month.

By this time Kwon had come to the conclusion that the Japanese were too skilled in warfare to be defeated on open ground, and that the Koreans should therefore fall back on their traditional strength of fighting from behind walls. He would make his first attempt at this in October of 1592 from a base at Toksan, a mountain redoubt two days’ march south of the capital, overlooking the main road from Pusan to Seoul. From an ancient Paekche dynasty fortress that they strengthened and enlarged, Kwon and his men attacked enemy foraging parties and small units passing along the road and generally proved troublesome enough that the Japanese high command in Seoul sent a company south to besiege the fortress. The effort, we are told, was soon abandoned. According to one report, Kwon fooled the Japanese into giving up and returning to Seoul by having a horse rubbed down with rice grains until its coat sparkled in the sun. To the Japanese watching in the distance it appeared that the animal had just been washed, a sign that the Koreans within had ample stores of water to withstand a lengthy siege.

Early in 1593 Kwon Yul led his men farther north in preparation for the anticipated allied attack on Seoul. Incorporating a unit of monk-soldiers under the priest Choyong into his ranks, he set to work strengthening a dilapidated fortress on a hill outside the village of Haengju on the north bank of the Han River ten kilometers west of the capital. It was a highly defensible position, protected at its rear by a steep drop-off down to the Han. If an attack came, it would have to be made uphill and from the north, straight into the Koreans’ concentrated fire.

With the retreat of the Ming army, Kwon Yul’s fortress at Haengju emerged as the greatest immediate threat to the Japanese in Seoul. On March 14 they decided to do something about it. Some hours before dawn, the west gate of the city was opened and a long line of troops filed out and turned toward Haengju, marching along the north bank of the Han to the accompaniment of drums and horns and gongs. The daimyo on horseback in the lead constituted an all-star cast from the Korean campaign. There was Konishi Yukinaga, leader of the first contingent that had spearheaded the invasion, recently back in Seoul after the retreat from Pyongyang. There were third contingent leader Kuroda Nagamasa, and Kobayakawa Takakage, hero of the Battle of Pyokje. There were Hideyoshi’s adopted son Ukita Hideie, the young supreme commander of all Japanese forces in Korea, and the veteran Ishida Mitsunari, one of the overseers sent from Nagoya to help him. Accompanying them were more than half the troops garrisoning Seoul, a total of thirty thousand men.

The twenty-three hundred Korean troops and monk-soldiers within Haengju fortress, crowded together with thousands of civilians who had fled their villages to seek shelter within the walls, watched the noisy approach of this enemy multitude with growing trepidation. When the Japanese arrived at the base of their hill in the soft light of dawn, the Koreans observed that each soldier had a red-and-white banner affixed to his back, and that many wore masks carved with fierce depictions of animals and monsters and ghosts. Panic was now hovering just beneath the surface, held in check by the calm authority of Commander Kwon Yul. As the Japanese busied themselves below with their pre-battle preparations, he ordered his men to have a meal. There would be no telling when they would have a chance to eat again.

The battle began shortly after dawn. The Japanese, so numerous that they could not all rush at the ramparts at once, divided into groups and prepared to take turns in the assault. Their strength must have seemed overwhelming to the Koreans. For once, however, the muskets of the Japanese were of only limited use, for in having to fire uphill they were unable to effectively target the defenders holed up within. Their lead balls simply flew in an arc over the fort and into the Han River beyond. The advantage was with the Koreans, firing down upon the attacking Japanese with arrows and stones and anything else that came to hand. They had a number of gunpowder weapons as well, including several large chongtong cannons and a rank of hwacha (fire carts), box-shaped devices built onto wagons that fired up to one hundred gunpowder-propelled arrows in a single devastating barrage. Alongside these more traditional weapons was an oddity that employed a spinning wheel mechanism to hurl a fusillade of stones. It was called the sucha sokpo, the “water wheel rock cannon.”

Konishi Yukinaga’s group led the Japanese assault. Kwon Yul waited until they were within range, then beat his commander’s drum three times to signal the attack. Every Korean weapon was fired at once, bows, chongtong, hwacha, and rock cannons, raking Konishi’s ranks and driving his men back. Ishida Mitsunari was the next to the attack. His force too was driven back, and Ishida himself was injured. Next up was Kuroda Nagamasa, the Christian commander of the third contingent, otherwise known by his baptismal name Damien. He had been thwarted once before by Koreans fighting behind walls, at the Battle of Yonan the previous year. This time he took a more cautious approach, positioning musketeers atop makeshift towers so that they could fire into the fortress while the rest of his force held back. A fierce exchange of fire ensued; then Kuroda’s men too were forced to retreat.

The Japanese had now attacked Haengju three times and had failed even to penetrate the fortress’s outer palisade of stakes. Young Ukita Hideie, determined to make a breakthrough in his, the fourth charge, managed to smash a hole in the obstacle and got near the inner wall. Then he was wounded and had to fall back, leaving a trail of casualties behind. The next unit to attack, Kikkawa Hiroie’s, poured through the gap Ukita’s forces had opened and was soon attacking Haengju’s inner wall, the last line of defense between the Japanese and Kwon Yul’s troops. The fighting now was at arm’s length, with masked warriors attempting to slash their way past the defenders lining the barricades, while the Koreans fought back with everything they had—swords, spears, arrows, stones, boiling water, even handfuls of ashes thrown into the attackers’ eyes. As the fighting reached its peak no sound came from Kwon Yul’s drum. The Korean commander had abandoned drumstick and tradition in favor of his sword and was now fighting alongside his men. At one point the Japanese heaped dried grass along the base of Haengju’s log walls and tried to set them ablaze. The Koreans doused the flames with water before they could take hold. In the seventh attack led by Kobayakawa Takakage, the Japanese knocked down some of the log pilings and opened a hole in the fortress’s inner wall. The Koreans managed to hold them back long enough for the logs to be repositioned.

As the afternoon wore on the Korean defenders grew exhausted and their supply of arrows dwindled dangerously low. The women within the fort are said to have gathered stones in their wide skirts to supply the men along the walls. This traditional type of skirt is still known as a Haengju chima (Haengju skirt) in remembrance of this day. But stones alone were not enough to repel the Japanese for long. Then, when all seemed lost, Korean naval commander Yi Bun arrived on the Han River at the rear of the fortress with two ships laden with ten thousand arrows. With these the defenders of Haengju were able to continue the fight until sundown, successfully repelling an eighth attack, then a ninth.

Finally, as the sun dipped below the horizon out beyond the Yellow Sea, the fighting petered out and did not resume. The Japanese had suffered too many casualties to continue. Their dead numbered into the many hundreds, and their wounded, including three important commanders, Ukita Hideie, Ishida Mitsunari, and Kikkawa Hiroie, were many times more. They had in fact been dealt a terrible defeat, the most serious loss on land so far at the hands of the Koreans. Throughout the evening the survivors gathered what bodies they could, heaped them into piles, and set them alight. Then they turned around and walked back to Seoul. One Japanese officer in the disheartened assembly would later liken the scene beside the Han River that day to the sanzu no kawa, the “river of hell.”

When they were gone, Kwon Yul and his men came out and recovered those bodies that the Japanese had been unable to retrieve, cut them into pieces, and hung them from the log palings of their fort. These grisly trophies were an indication of how much had changed for the Koreans since the beginning of the war, of how the previous ten months had transformed them from shell-shocked, indecisive “long sleeves” into bloodthirsty warriors, bent on revenge. The Japanese would not be able to hold their ground for long against such grim determination, not with their dwindling numbers and growing problems with supplies. Hemmed in by a foe of evidently growing strength, willing to endure enormous hardship and loss to drive them out, the withdrawal of the Japanese from Seoul became certain, with or without the intervention of the Ming Chinese.

Sooner or later, Hideyoshi’s troops would have to march south.

pigyok chincholloe

The Koreans brought with them a secret weapon. It was called the pigyok chincholloe (flying striking earthquake heaven thunder), translated by one writer as the “flying thunderbolt.” In the early hours of October 12, 1592, under the cover of darkness, Pak sent a group of soldiers up to the base of the walls of Kyongju where they set up and fired the weapon, hurling a mysterious ball of iron into the midst of the enemy camp. “It fell to earth,” a Japanese chronicler tells us, “and our soldiers gathered about it to look. Suddenly it exploded, emitting a noise that shook heaven and earth, and scattering bits of iron like pulverized stars. Those who were hit dropped dead on the spot. Others were knocked down as if by a powerful wind.” Only thirty-odd men were killed in the blast, but it so panicked Tagawa’s garrison that it abandoned the city and fled to Sosaengpo, leaving Kyongju and a large store of rice to the Koreans.

The pigyok chinchollae would be employed on other occasions in the Imjin War, notably at the First Battle of Chinju in November 1592, and at the Battle of Haengju in March of the following year. It was invented some time earlier in the reign of King Sonjo by Yi Chang-son, head of the government’s firearms department, probably as an adaptation of the catapult-fired pi li hu pao (heaven-shaking thunder) bomb previously developed in China and used against the Japanese in the failed Mongol invasion in 1274. Unlike the pi li hu pao, however, the pigok chincholloe was shot with gunpowder from a mortar, making it the world’s first mortar- or cannon-fired explosive shell. It was manufactured in various sizes, from a twenty-one-centimeter version fired from the Korean’s largest mortar, the daewangu, down to ten-centimeter models shot from the medium-sized chungwangu. The projectile itself was a hollow cast-iron sphere packed with gunpowder and pieces of shrapnel, with a delayed action fuse inserted through an opening in the top, consisting of a length of cord wound around a screw-like wooden core in turn inserted in a sleeve of bamboo. After the mortar was charged with gunpowder, the sphere was placed in the mouth, the end of the fuse protruding from its top was lit, and then the mortar was fired, hurling the device over a distance of five to six hundred paces. After it landed its fuse would continue to burn, spiraling down through the center of the sphere until it reached the base of the bamboo sleeve, ignited the gunpowder, and exploded the shell.

Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]

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Chinese ZTQ-15 Light Tank

The process of re-equipping the PLA Army continues, with a focus on the objectives of completing basic mechanisation and improving informatisation by 2020. Legacy equipment, such as the ZTZ-59 tank and PL-59 howitzer, is now being cycled out of frontline units, although it is unlikely that all of it will be replaced by the 2020 target date. Additional heavy combined-arms brigades in the Central and Northern theatre commands are now finally receiving the long-awaited ZTZ-99A main battle tank. However, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands will likely continue to operate lighter tank designs – primarily the ZTZ-96A and ZTQ-15 – because of the terrain in those areas. The Central Theatre Command’s 161st Air Assault Brigade has begun taking delivery of the Z-20 medium transport helicopter – an indigenous version of the US Black Hawk design.

China’s collection of over 6,000 tanks, while numerically impressive, is inflated by increasingly outdated iterations of 1950’s Soviet T-series tanks like the T-54.

2020 Inventory, Main Battle Tanks: 5,850: 300 ZTZ-59; 650 ZTZ-59-II; 600 ZTZ-59D; 200 ZTZ-79; 300 ZTZ-88A/B; 1,000 ZTZ-96; 1,500 ZTZ-96A; 600 ZTZ-99; 500 ZTZ-99A; 200 ZTQ-15 Light Tank: 350: 250 ZTD-05; 100 ZTS-63A

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken active measures over the past several decades to renew their aging lineup, culminating with the Type 99 that can give competing U.S. and Russian flagship tanks a run for their money.

But as the Type 99 evolved in the direction of greater firepower and expanded armaments suite with the recent Type 99A, the need became apparent for a lighter, mobile modern tank that can effectively operate in China’s plateaus, forests, and water-heavy regions.

Enter the Type 15. Sporadic sightings of the light tank were previously reported by Chinese citizens, but its existence is now formally confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry.

“We’re following the overall plan and focusing on key equipment – we have made major achievements in our equipment build-up. As for the Type 15 light tank, according to my information, it has been handed over to our troops,” The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian as saying.

The Type 15 has a 1,000 horsepower engine, about twice that of the Type 62 tank it is replacing. It boasts a 105 mm gun capable of firing armor-piercing shells and guided missiles, as opposed to the 85 mm gun of its Type 62 predecessor.

Type 15 tank uses new autoloader and 105mm APFSDS. In a recent plateau exercise of China’s Tibet Military Region, pictures of Type 15 light tank tail cabin automatic loader loading armor-piercing projectiles were unveiled. This ammunition is China’s new generation of 105mm hull armor-piercing projectile. Its performance is very powerful, and it can pose a threat to all Indian tanks at conventional combat distances.

Due to the use of full-load ammunition, Type 15 light tank did not follow the turntable type loader on other Chinese battle tanks but instead used the tail cabin-type automatic loader to directly supply the bomb from the tail of the gun. This is the first time in the history of the development of tanks in China – all tanks previously developed, including the most advanced Type 99A2 main battle tanks, use a turntable automatic loader.

It can be clearly seen from the published pictures that the body of the new-generation 105 mm armor-piercing projectile used by Type 15 light tank is very long, indicating that the core of the projectile cannot be short. Everyone knows that the APFSDS uses a core to penetrate the armor, so the better the core material, the longer the length, and the stronger the armor-piercing ability.

The new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time should use tungsten alloy cores, which can pose a sufficient threat to all second-generation tanks and some third-generation tanks at regular combat distances. Even in the face of T-90S, it remains a considerable deterrent and can penetrate the front of its body. Although the T-90S turret is equipped with contact 5 explosion reaction armor, which has a certain degree of weakening of the shelling armor-piercing shell; however, since the new-generation 105 mm APFSDS has enough armor-piercing margin, the probability of the frontal breakdown of the T-90S turret is not small.

In general, Type 15 light tank not only has good plateau adaptability and powerful maneuverability, but also is equipped with a new generation of domestically produced 105 mm APFSDS with good armor-piercing ability, and is supplemented by a fast reloading tail cabin-type automatic loader, which has a comprehensive combat capability in the plateau area comparable to that of a heavy main battle tank, making it very suitable for rapid interpenetrating operations in the plateau area.

For Type 15 light tank, whether the previously equipped tail fin-stabilized armor-piercing projectile (APFSDS), or the new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time, it uses a full-body bomb, that is, the core is directly inserted in the cartridge Inside, it can maximize the length of the core and enhance the armor-piercing ability, according to Ordnance Technology.

Military expert Song Zhongping put the difference bluntly to the SCMP: “The Type 62 tank is lagging behind. The Type 15 tank has much better protection capability and manoeuvrability.”

The Type 15 is less powerful but also significantly lighter than the Type 99, at 35 tons versus the 58 tons of its larger cousin. Its lighter frame is accompanied by a hydro-pneumatic suspension system. Also found in Japan’s Type 10 tank, it dynamically adjusts ground clearance to maximize maneuverability and combat efficacy on uneven terrain.

Having established the Type 15’s design purpose and catalog of improvements, the pressing question becomes where and when the PLA plans to deploy it. The Type 15 was already making headlines in 2017, during the China-India border standoff in the Tibet region. A major political impetus for the Type 15 was the need for a tank that can operate in the high-altitude Tibetan hills, in preparation for a prospective resumption of Sino-Indian hostilities.

Being that the Type 15 is specifically adapted for navigating sea-based obstacles, we can also expect to see it in maritime theatres. In point of fact, China has been actively bolstering its military presence around the disputed zones off its southern coast. The Type 15 is a prime contender to modernize and consolidate the PLA Navy’s armour division by replacing the aging Type 59 and Type 63 tanks still in service.

An almost-identical iteration of the Type 15, the VT-5, will be making it to export markets. It will face stiff competition from Japan’s aforementioned Type 10, especially after the lifting of Tokyo’s self-imposed arms export ban. The Type 10 weighs a tad more at 40 tons, but boasts a slightly greater horsepower of 1,200. The Type 10 also offers an indigenously-produced gun compatible both with standard 120 mm NATO ammunition as well as proprietary armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds.

Still, the two are close enough in performance that their appeal will be heavily shaped by prices and external diplomatic forces. While China has a track record of leveraging its remarkable economies of scale to edge out its arms competitors, it remains to be seen if the Type 15’s export variant will fall into this trend.

Type 15 VT5 ZTQ-15 lightweight main battle tank

ZTQ-15

Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 Part I

Chinese soldiers of the reformed units.

Comparative strength of belligerents and their war plans

China

In the decade of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, the Chinese army differed considerably from European-style forces. The differences were not so much in the armament or equipment, but mainly in the organisation and command system, adapted from the existing political system.

The Chinese army was essentially divided into separate formations and only some of those were under the control of the central government. The rest remained under the orders of provincial authorities, a fact which seriously hindered the ability of the force to be placed under a single command and sometimes even prevented it altogether. Thus, the optimal use of the country’s military potential was practically impossible. Dependence of particular units on provincial authorities was the result of the paternalistic structure of the army, where the officer corps was selected on the basis of personal loyalty. Consequently, in the Chinese armed forces, personal dependence on a specific commander was dominant, unlike modern European armies which could rely on strict subordination to orders. At the same time, command over larger military units was given to officials who had undergone little or no military training. This was the result of the low social status accorded to people devoted to military service, which had not previously been considered an honourable profession.

This all amounted to low combat effectiveness in the Chinese army, despite its considerable numerical strength and sometimes even good weaponry. Even the Chinese, who were convinced of their civilisational superiority, and generally despised any achievements of the ‘barbarian nations’, were compelled to acknowledge the fact. To remedy this, in 1861, the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was introduced, which was mainly limited to providing the army with modern equipment purchased overseas or manufactured locally, organising new Western-style units, building a modern navy, and creating the necessary armament industry base and infrastructure for a modern armed force. The introduction of those reforms was intended to equalise the technological differences between the Chinese army and those of the European nations. That, according to their supporters, would allow for the possibility of defending the Middle Country against aggressive actions by the European powers. Chinese policy-makers saw their weakness only in the military aspect, completely ignoring those of the political, social and economic systems.

Implementation of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ encountered serious difficulties from the very beginning. Interestingly, these problems were not financial. People were the problem – mainly imperial officials, a majority of whom were unable to break free from the previous cultural and behavioural norms. Consequently, the sums allocated to reforms were mostly wasted due to prevailing corruption, incompetence and lack of organisation. Paternalistic relations in the army were also often difficult to overcome. The new units were usually created by reforming the old ones, keeping their composition intact. As a result, despite new armament and regulations, the old personal connections and habits were retained, which seriously reduced the reform’s efficiency. However, it would not be true to state that the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ was without success. The combat effectiveness of the Chinese army was increased, but mainly because of the introduction of modern armament and Western-style training (and the extent of the latter was usually insufficient). Discipline, morale and logistics, on the other hand, still left much to be desired. In comparison to the effort required to implement it, the results of the ‘Self-Strengthening Policy’ can be considered unsatisfactory.

On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan the Chinese army was divided into four basic military units and irregular militia forces. Theoretically, its core was the Manchu Eight Banners Army which officially consisted of approximately 250,000 soldiers. In practice, however, there were no more than 100,000 troops. The Manchu Eight Banners Army was complemented by the exclusively Chinese Green Standard Army, which in theory had one million troops, though in practice its strength was no more than 600,000 soldiers (and may have been as low as 450–470,000). The troops of the Eight Banner Army were stationed mainly in the capital province of Chihli, Manchuria and Eastern Turkestan (in the latter there were no more than 15–16,000), while those of the Green Standard Army were stationed at various provinces where they mainly performed police duties. The banner units were traditionally reinforced by local militias performing vital duties in the defensive system of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which were theoretically numerous, but in reality numbered no more than 300,000 troops. Contrary to appearances, these were not worthless units – some of them were quite well-armed and trained, exceeding even the banner units in combat effectiveness, though this was by no means true of all of the militias.

Based on experiences of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, new units, armed and trained in the Western style, were created. Thus, a new unit, named the Brave Army, composed of local volunteers, came into being. Since its elements were generally under the control of local authorities, the so-called Trained Army was founded to keep the balance, as it remained under the control of the central government. Both of these armies, along with some non-permanent, militia-style units undoubtedly constituted the most valuable component of the Chinese army, although as far as combat effectiveness was concerned, they were still not up to the standards of European-style forces. On the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan, the numerical strength of the Brave Army was estimated at approximately 120,000, while that of the Trained Army numbered no more than 100,000 troops. Thus, the imperial armed forces had a total of about 1.2–1.3 million troops3. In the area where future military operations would take place (the territory of the capital province Chihli, Manchuria, Shantung province) the government had roughly 350–360,000 troops at its disposal, including approximately 125,000 serving in reformed units. However, at a later time, the figure could be increased by about 145,000 recruits called to arms (mainly to serve in the reformed units) shortly after the outbreak of war.

The basic tactical unit in the Chinese army was a detachment similar in size to the battalion of European armies. (In theory each detachment had 500 men, though on average it was generally 350 for infantry and 250 for cavalry). Up to a dozen of such ‘battalions’ formed an independent corps, which as far as numerical strength was concerned, was usually equal to a European-style brigade or a weak division. Only at that level of organisation were the Chinese troops equipped with artillery, the numerical strength of which (similarly to that of the corps) was not precisely specified. Chinese troops used a variety of firearms, which could differ even within the same unit. Infantry used mainly modern Mauser, Remington, Snider, Martini-Henry, Chassepot and Maxim rifles of various patterns. However, old flintlocks could also be found (especially the long chinkai rifles, operated by two soldiers). Apart from fire-arms, the banner armies still used traditional ‘cold steel’ weapons. The reformed cavalry units were generally armed with Mauser rifles and sabres, while the banner army units had cold steel weapons and bows.

Chinese artillery units were relatively numerous and armed with diverse range of equipment. The most modern guns in their arsenal were their 75mm Krupp field and mountain pieces and the 88mm guns of the same manufacturer. Moreover, the Chinese had a considerable number of various 67 to 76mm British pattern guns, both muzzle and breechloaders, as well as 88mm Krupp field mortars and 8cm mountain and field pieces with muzzles made of hardened bronze, manufactured at the Nankin armaments factory. That arsenal was supplemented by a number of mitrailleuses, Hotchkiss revolver guns and multi-barrel Nordenfelt naval machine-guns on field carriages. Also in use, mainly in forts, were a large number of obsolete smoothbore guns of various gauges. Despite the number of weapons, artillery was not a strong point of the Chinese army, which was unable to effectively use its advantages (which was generally the case with modern firearms of all kinds), mainly dispersing the guns along their positions.

Definitely the weakest point of the Chinese army was its training and the morale of its soldiers, which was considerably lower than in European-style armies. Admittedly, there were situations in which Chinese soldiers could attack or defend with the utmost dedication, displaying bravery and fortitude. However, more often they lacked perseverance in combat and broke down after initial failures, quickly panicking or becoming discouraged and losing faith in victory. In combat they preferred defence to attack in the belief that victory could only be achieved by defensive actions which would gradually exhaust enemy forces. Consequently, the Chinese army was usually rather passive in the field, lacking determination and quickly allowing the active enemy to seize the initiative. Combined with poor leadership and inefficient logistics, it was obvious that despite numerical strength, it could not be considered a dangerous enemy for modern European-style armed force of comparable size.

Defeats suffered by the Chinese during the Opium Wars led them to realise the need to possess a modern navy. The first attempt to create one, undertaken in 1861 (the so-called Lay-Osborne6 flotilla composed of eight steamers), misfired due to issues around jurisdiction. Consequently, creation of the navy became the responsibility of individual governors of coastal provinces and thus, in the 1860s, separate provincial fleets were created in Canton (Kwangtung province), Foochow (Fukien province and Taiwan) and Woosung near Shanghai (Chekiang province and Kiangsu). Although quite large, the navy thus created was not adapted for the military needs of the entire empire and mainly served the local feudal-military coteries.

Li Hung-chang, who since 1870 had been a Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and one of the leading Chinese politicians of that period, tried to change the situation. After the Taiwan crisis of 1874, he took advantage of his good relationship with the Court and called for reorganisation of the Chinese navy, and the creation of three fleets controlled by the central government, composed of six large and 10 smaller warships each at Tientsin, Woosung and Amoy. The idea was not realised, but a year later Chinese territory was divided into two military districts: northern Peiyang and southern Nanyang. Li Hung-chang and his Huai coterie took control over the former, while the latter (which was formally created later) fell under the control of the Hunan coterie. Simultaneously, a naval defence fund was legislated for, which would receive 40 percent of maritime customs tariffs, amounting to approximately four million taels annually.

The cruiser Chih Yuan. Along with her sister Ching Yuan, she was the fastest warship in the Peiyang Fleet.

Those actions led to creation of the uniform Peiyang Fleet subordinate to the central government (in practice to Li Hung-chang and his coterie). However, in the south, the force was still divided into three autonomous fleets: the Nanyang Fleet proper, based at Wusung near Shanghai and the provincial Fukien Fleet at Foochow, as well as the Kwangtung Fleet at Canton. Each of those operated in a different basin, was under separate command, and had distinctive structure and tasks.

The furthest south was the Kwangtung Fleet, subordinate to the governor general of ‘Two Kwangs’ (Kwangtung and Kwangsi provinces) and based at Hoanpu near Canton. It had a relatively large number of warships, but these were mainly small, often obsolete, units used mainly for customs service patrol or police duties such as protection of the mouth of the Sikiang River against pirates. Consequently, combat effectiveness of that fleet was low.

Another provincial unit was the Fukien Fleet with its main base in Foochow and auxiliary ones at Amoy and Swatou. Developed on the basis of its own shipyard and arsenal at Foochow, it was initially one of the stronger of the Chinese fleets. During the war with France in 1884–1885, the Fukien Fleet was almost completely annihilated (along with the shipyard and the arsenal) and consequently lost most of its importance. Even when rebuilt, it never regained its former relevance and its tasks were limited to coastal protection of the Fukien province and Taiwan.

Second in size on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan was the Nanyang Fleet, with its main base in Woosung and auxiliary bases at Ningpo and Hanchou. It was subordinate to the governor general of the Kiangsu and Chekiang provinces and its main task was coastal protection of the said provinces and navigation on the Yangtze River. Composed of rather outdated warships, it nevertheless had a military potential which could not be underestimated. The fleet remained under the direct command of Admiral Kuo Pao-ch’ang.

The Peiyang Fleet, which was created after 1875 as a result of Li Hung-chang’s reforms, was the youngest Chinese fleet but the most powerful on the eve of the outbreak of the war with Japan. Using a significant part of the naval de-fence fund (the Peiyang Fleet was entitled to half of the 40% of annual income from maritime custom tariffs, which in theory amounted to about two million taels) it was developed rapidly. Li Hung-chang, being aware of the weakness of the national shipbuilding industry, opted for the purchase of modern warships, including battleships, abroad. Initially, he wanted to order them from British and French shipyards, but following the recent war with the latter country, and problems the British raised due to the Sino-Russian border dispute over Turkestan, Li Hung-chang finally decided to place the majority of orders with German shipyards. At the turn of 1870s and 1880s, two modern battleships, three cruisers and a number of torpedo boats were ordered there. Another four cruisers, a number of gunboats and torpedo boats were ordered in Great Britain. Moreover, some warships, including one small battleship, were ordered in native Chinese shipyards. Consequently, by the end of 1880s, the Peiyang Fleet had become a serious force, capable of facing its likely main adversary, the Imperial Japanese Navy, in a struggle for the control over the Yellow Sea. However, further development was discontinued for several reasons. Firstly, maintaining so many modern and large warships required considerable resources, reaching approximately 1.8 million taels in 1888, which was almost all the amount allocated to the Peiyang Fleet by the naval defence fund. Further development could have been financed by other means. However, since 1889, a substantial amount of money from the naval defence fund had been semi-officially embezzled by the court and spent on the development of the Empress T’zu Hsi’s Summer Palace (in fact on the palace complex). This, to all intents and purposes, halted further development of the navy.

The main bases of the Peiyang Fleet were the strongly fortified harbours at Port Arthur (Lushun) and Weihaiwei. Moreover, the harbours at Talien, Chefoo and Yingk’ou and the mouth of the River Peiho near Taku had also been fortified. The growth of China’s shipbuilding base could not keep up with that of the Peiyang Fleet. Nevertheless, in 1894, it had suitable infrastructure at Port Arthur (with dry docks which could accommodate Chinese battleships) a small shipyard at Taku and repair shops at Weihaiwei.

The Peiyang Fleet itself was divided into seven squadrons, including three combat squadrons (centre, right and left wing), torpedo, training, transport and harbour (coastal de-fence). Supreme command was exercised by the chief of Naval Defence Department of the Tsungli Yamen, Viceroy of the capital province Chihli and Chief of the Peiyang armed forces, Li Hung-chang himself. He was undoubtly both an outstanding personality and a controversial figure whose characteristics were said to include greed, lust for power and hon-ours, and putting his own interest over those of the country. Direct control over the Peiyang Fleet was in the hands of Li Hung-chang’s supporter Admiral Ting Ju-chanag. He was a former Taiping Rebellion-period cavalry officer, distinguished by personal courage and energy, but without training to command the navy. Therefore, his decisions were largely based on the opinions of the foreign advisors he surrounded himself with.

Being in command of the largest fleet, Li Hung-chang made efforts to subordinate the remaining fleets to himself. He even managed to bring about joint naval manoeuvres under the command of the Peiyang Fleet (which took place in 1891 and 1894, shortly before the outbreak of war), although ultimately no fixed rules of cooperation among all four fleets were formulated, much less was there any chance for taking control over the remaining three. Consequently, only the Peiyang Fleet and the warships of the Nanyang (gunboat) and Kangtung (small cruiser and two torpedo gunboats) Fleets which had been stationed in the north faced the Japanese in 1894. The lack of backup from the merchant navy to provide transports and auxiliary vessels, was an additional problem for the Chinese. At the beginning of 1895, there were 35 steamers with a total tonnage of about 44,000 GRT, in the hands of Chinese shipowners, which was definitely not enough to satisfy the needs of the navy (all the more so, because most of those vessels were of no military use). Admittedly, the Peiyang Fleet owned some transports, but these were already obsolete, and during the war they had to charter foreign vessels which caused numerous complications.

Tactics of the Peiyang Fleet were based on European standards from the 1870s. Consequently, it was assumed that Chinese warships would go into battle in the line abreast formation and while in combat, the units abeam of the flagship would copy its manoeuvres. Leaving aside the fact that manoeuvring in line abreast formation in combat was extremely difficult, the signal books of the Peiyang Fleet were written in English, which was not spoken by all of its officers. Taking into consideration the different general and combat characteristics of the Chinese warships which were supposed to fight and manoeuvre in a similar fashion together, it all did not augur well for the Peiyang Fleet’s effectiveness in combat.

The outbreak of the war came as a surprise to the Chinese and therefore, they had no specific plan of action. A plan only began to crystallise after military operations had already been in progress and since the situation on the front was constantly changing, so were the plans. However, the actions of the Chinese high command were highly influenced by the classical Chinese philosophy of war, which had its roots in the teachings of Confucius. According to them, the Chinese saw war in a broader perspective. Ideological, psychological and propaganda warfare were as important as the actual combat and arguably a greater priority. In that situation, successes achieved in military operations were treated mainly as arguments, which could be presented during diplomatic bargaining.

Thus, the result of the military operations was not supposed to be physical annihilation of the enemy, but rather accomplishment of goals which could be used in negotiations that would lead to the termination of the conflict. Following these guidelines, the Chinese assumed that strategic victory could be achieved mainly by defensive actions designed to wear down the enemy, limiting offensive operations to local counter-attacks judged rather for their propaganda effects than military advantages.

Adopting such a strategy was favoured by the lumbering military bureaucratic system, which preferred schematic actions since they reduced risk.

The initial plan of operations was formulated at the beginning of August at the meeting of the Tsungli Yamen. It postulated sending the Peiyang Fleet to Korean waters, where it was supposed to cooperate with General Yeh Chih-chao’s corps at Asan and paralyse further operations of General Oshima’s brigade at Chemulpo, which would be unable to launch any serious operations without reinforcements and supplies delivered by sea. Simultaneously, the corps stationed at Phyongyang was to be reinforced. At the right time it would, according to the development of the situation, support General Yeh’s corps, deciding the outcome of the campaign or stop further Japanese northern-bound offensives.

Nevertheless, the Peiyang Fleet had significant fighting strength and was on paper an equal adversary for the Japanese navy – all the more so, because the training and morale of its crews was significantly better than those of the army.

The plan quickly came to nothing due to General Yeh’s corps’ defeat and Li Hung-chang’s resistance due to the fear that, while undertaking offensive actions in Korean waters, ‘his’ fleet would suffer significant loses. Consequently, Admiral Ting was ordered to take defensive action only and patrol the waters between Port Arthur and Weihaiwei. Any offensive operations beyond the line marked by the mouth of the Yalu River and Shantung Peninsula were forbidden. As a result, on land, the Chinese were to stop Japanese troops at Phyongyang, while at sea, the Peiyang Fleet was to prevent Japanese landing on Chinese soil and protect communication lines with troops stationed in Korea.

That plan was only in effect until mid-September and collapsed after Japanese victories at Phyongyang and Yalu. Later, the Chinese high command would try first to organise the land defence at the line of the River Liao (Liaoho) and then, when this failed, at the Shanhaikuan line, to block the access to the capital and wear out the Japanese troops through attrition. In fact, after the battle of Yalu, Admiral Ting’s only objective was to save the remains of the Peiyang Fleet, which would by its very existence serve as an argument in peace negotiations. Consequently, after 17 September 1894, the Chinese navy passively awaited further events.

Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 Part II

Soldiers of the Japanese army. From the left: private, sergeant and captain.

Comparative strength of belligerents and their war plans

Japan

The modern Japanese army originated from the Imperial Guard, created in April 1871 in the strength of nine infantry battalions, two cavalry units and four artillery brigades. These were the first regular Japanese European-style units. Soon thereafter a draft of the military reform was prepared, which was approved by Imperial edict in January 1873. By its power, universal conscription was introduced and all men of a particular age were obliged to serve. Along with the abolition of class differences, this was a serious blow to the samurai class, for which military service had been an honourable distinction which decided their social and material situation. The reforms inevitably caused dissatisfaction in that group, which found its outlet in a few armed riots of the ‘unemployed’ samurai, including the famous Saigo Takamori’s rebellion of 1877. However, all these were swiftly put down and the samurai, convinced of the European-style troops’ effectiveness, were quick to join the ranks of the army, which allowed them to regain their former prestige. Consequently, in a relatively short time, Japan managed to create a valiant and well-trained army based on German standards. Its officer corps was mainly composed of former samurais, who introduced old military traditions. That blend of tradition, modern organisation and armament gave excellent results – an army that was equal to European armed forces in every respect.

On the eve of the outbreak of the war with China, all men between 17 and 40 years old were under conscription, but only those who turned 20 could be drafted (younger ones, who turned 17, could volunteer). Following the period of active military service (gen-eki), which lasted for three years, the soldiers became the 1st Reserve (yobi), than the 2nd Reserve (kobi). Young and able-bodied men, who did not have basic military training became 3rd Reserve (hoju) right away and so did those conscripts who had not fully met the physical requirements of the service. All soldiers who served their term joined the ranks of the territorial militia (kokumin). In case of war, the 1st Reserve (yobi) were to be enlisted in the first instance. They were intended to fill in the ranks of regular troops. Next to enlist were the kobi reserve, who were to further fill in the ranks of line units or to be formed into new ones. The hoju reserve members were to be enlisted only in exceptional circumstances. Territorial militia would only be called to arms in case of immediate danger of enemy invasion.

The country was divided into six military districts, each being a recruitment base for a two-brigade infantry division of approximately 18,600 troops (including 1/3 of rearguard units) and 36 artillery guns in times of war. There was also an Imperial Guard division with recruits from all districts. This was also composed of two brigades, but they were made of two, not three battalion regiments. Therefore, its numerical strength after mobilisation was 12,500 troops (including rear echelon units) and only 24 artillery guns. In addition, there were fortress troops (approximately six battalions), the so-called ‘Colonial Corps’ stationed on Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands (about 4,000 troops) and a battalion of military police in each of the districts. In peacetime these units had a total of fewer than 70,000 men, while after mobilisation the numbers rose to over 220,000. Moreover, the army still had a trained reserve. Following the mobilisation of first line divisions, those reserves were to be formed into reserve brigades (four battalions, a cavalry unit, a company of engineers, an artillery battery and rear echelon units each), which in the first instance were to serve as recruiting base for ‘their’ front divisions. They could also perform secondary combat operations. If necessary they could be developed into full divisions, i.e. a total of 24 territorial force regiments. However, formation of these units was hindered by the lack of sufficient volume of equipment, mainly uniforms.

The main weapon of a Japanese soldier was the 8mm Murata Type 18 breech-loading rifle. The improved five-shot Type 22 was just being introduced and in 1894, only the Imperial Guard and 4th Division were equipped with rifles of that pattern. The division artillery consisted of 75mm field guns and mountain pieces with muzzles made of hardened bronze manufactured at Osaka. That equipment, based on Krupp designs adapted by the Italians at the beginning of the 1880s, could hardly be described as modern in 1894, although in general, it still matched contemporary battlefield requirements.

Japanese troop training promoted offensive spirit and special attention was paid to forming resilience and strength in battle. In combination with systematic training and strict discipline it produced good results and consequently, the combat effectiveness of Japanese troops was high. The only weak point in the Japanese army was the logistics services, which were not very efficient. This could be observed especially during the Manchurian and Korean campaigns. Despite the fact that the armament of the Imperial troops was not as modern as some of latest patterns used by some of the Chinese units, their combat effectiveness was incomparably higher than that of the enemy, being equal to European armies.

The Japanese cruiser Itsukushima. Units of this class were built specifically to face the Chinese battleships – thus, they were armed with a huge single 320mm gun, whose projectiles were able to penetrate the armour of Chinese warships. Despite the fact that the design failed, cruisers of that class constituted the core of the Japanese navy during the war with China.

The Japanese navy came into being along with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The isolationist policy adopted at the beginning of the 17th century stopped the development of the Japanese naval tradition. Consequently, until the 1860s the naval forces were practically non-existent. Their rebirth started only after the ‘opening of Japan’ in the 1850s. However, there was no centralised naval policy and individual clan leaders (daimyos) had their own armed forces including navies. That situation came to an end in 1869 with the Meiji Restoration, which dismantled the bakufu system. As the result of those events, the imperial government also took over all the warships which belonged to the shogun and placed them under the control of the Ministry of War (Hoyobusho), which had been created in August 1869. However, over 85 per cent of all vessels were still under control of daimyos.

Such a weak and poorly organised navy could not be considered an effective force, which was clearly demonstrated during the Enomoto Rebellion. The rising was not successfully put down until mid 1869. Already in March of the same year, on the rising tide of patriotic elation, the most powerful daimyos of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen clans renounced their feudal right and offered to hand over their estates to the emperor. The court accepted their offer in June, thus starting the process known later as hansen-hokan (return of the registers). Within the following six weeks, rights were renounced by a further 118 daimyos and by the end of August 1869, only the last 17 (of a total of 276) had not done so. This event had a significant meaning for the future fate of the Japanese navy, since along with their rights, land and fixed property, daimyos also started to hand over their movables including the warships that had been under their control so far. Their takeover by central authorities was a gradual process which lasted until the beginning of 1871. Control over those warships was taken by the Ministry of War, which had an autonomous naval section since February 1871. In June 1871, the existing Ministry of War was divided into the Ministry of the Army (Rikugunsho; unofficially still known as the Ministry of War) and the Ministry of the Navy (Kaigunsho).

The new ministry took control over all warships, which were a mix of types and classes of different characteristics and in various state of repair. Guided, on one hand, by economic policy and on the other trying to eliminate units of dubious combat effectiveness, out of over 100 warships and transports, only 19 vessels, of a total of 14,610 tons and complements of almost 1,600 men, remained in service. Moreover, the shipyards Ishikawajima and the naval shipyard at Yokosuka (so far remaining under the control of the Ministry of Public Works) came under control of the Ministry of the Navy and so did the Tokyo Naval Academy, established in 1873.

The beginnings of the Japanese navy were not easy since circumstances marginalised its role. Suffice it to say that in the years 1868 to 1872 there were about 160 peasant revolts or rebellions, which had to be put down mainly by land troops. Still later, there were at least three significant former samurai rebellions including the famous Saigo Takamori’s Rebellion in 1877. Again, the navy’s role in putting them down was insignificant. Thus, the development of the army became the priority of the Japanese government in the first half of the 1870s and that inevitably affected the condition of the navy. Thus, when in 1873, Minister of the Navy Katsu Kaishu put forward the first in Japanese history naval build-up programme which would provide for construction of 104 vessels (26 of metal, 14 large and 32 smaller ones of mixed construction plus 32 transports and auxiliary vessels) within 18 years for the sum of 24,170 thousand yen, the plan was rejected by the government for financial reasons.

The situation changed considerably following the Japanese intervention on Taiwan, lasting from May to October 1874, which made Japanese authorities realise the need for a strong navy. Consequently, still in 1874, a decision was made to order three modern warships (including one battleship) from Great Britain, which would significantly strengthen the imperial navy. All the warships, built for a total of three million yen, were delivered in 1878. Until the mid-1880s, a further six medium size units (in fact there were five warships and an imperial yacht) and two training sailing vessels were built by native shipyards. Additionally, four torpedo boats were purchased abroad. However, these were all short-term measures which did not ensure the appropriate development of the navy in the long run.

Meanwhile, the financial situation of the country began to improve. This was not so much due to increased income, but to settlement of some legal-financial and administrative issues. Moreover, the introduction of the cadastre brought regular revenues, although not high enough to cover every need. All that allowed for real planning of budgetary expenditures, including military ones. Consequently, in 1881, Minister of the Navy Kawamura Sumiyoshi (who had held the position since 1878), put forward another naval build-up programme which would provide for construction of a total of 60 vessels within 20 years (at three units a year) for 40 million yen. Although it was not endorsed by the government, the next year brought the approval of an eight-year programme which would provide for the construction of a total of 48 vessels and modern naval bases at Kure and Sasebo (apart from the already existing base at Yokosuka) for a total of 26,670,000 yen. Its purpose was the creation of a navy, which would provide effective protection of the Japanese islands and at the same time be capable of limited-scale offensive operations, especially against Japan’s largest potential enemy – China. Guided by its economy policy, the Ministry of the Navy adopted the French concept of the ‘Young School’ (Jeune École), which advocated the use of torpedo forces for coastal defence and cruisers for offensive operations against enemy communication lines. The adoption of such a solution was a result of a compromise between the need to guarantee the appropriate potential of the navy in case of the war with China and the ability to undertake effective operations in case of conflict with a European power.

To provide suitable funds for the programme (as well as other military spending), in 1882, the Japanese government introduced excise duty on sake (Japanese rice vodka), soya and tobacco, which annually generated income of approximately 7.5 million yen. An increase in the fiscal burden on society provided additional income, and therefore naval spending rose from 3.4 million yen in the financial year 1882/1883 (the first budget year of the implementation of the programme) to 9.5 million yen in the financial year 1891/1892. It enabled for full realisation of the 1882 programme, which after the introduction of some modifications, saw the completion of 22 large and medium size warships (nine cruisers, six small cruisers, two torpedo gunboats and five gunboats), two training vessels and 18 torpedo boats, as well as the aforementioned naval bases at Kure and Sasebo. These warships were to face the Peiyang Fleet in the coming war.

The emperor was the commander-in-chief of the Japanese armed forces, both the army and the navy. The Ministry of the Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff were also directly subordinate to him. The former body was responsible for all structural, technical and personnel matters, while the latter was responsible for those directly connected with the organisation of combat operations and maintaining of combat readiness. At the moment of the outbreak of the war with China, the post of the Minister of the Navy had been held since 1893, by Vice-Admiral Saigo Tsugumichi30. Vice-Admiral Kabayama Sukenori, an experienced officer, able and energetic, albeit sometimes thought a bit too impulsive, had been the Chief of General Staff since July 1894. Shortly after the commencement of military operations, a High Command was created in Tokyo, which, apart from the emperor, gathered the foremost officers of the army and the navy, and was responsible for important strategic decisions made during the war. Due to its unsatisfactory location, since most of the mobilised troops were concentrated at Hiroshima and dispatched to the front lines from the harbour of Ujina located nearby, the High Command was transferred to Hiroshima in mid-September.

The entire coast of Japan was divided into five naval districts based at Yokosuka (District I), Kure (District II), Sasebo (District III), Maizuru (District IV) and Muroran (District V). Since in 1894, the organisation of the fourth and fifth had not yet been finished, the territory of District IV was placed temporarily under the management of the Kure authorities and partially those at Yokosuka, while District V was only under the control of the latter authority.

In peacetime, warships of the Japanese navy were divided among three main naval bases at Yokosuka, Kure and Sasebo, interchangeably performing active, guard and training duties or remaining as a reserve. Following mobilisation, the navy would be composed of five divisions of seagoing warships and three flotillas of torpedo boats (a fourth was being formed). Obsolete units of little combat effectiveness were not mobilised. During peacetime, at the end of 1893, there were 14,850 officers and seamen in the service, but during the war the number increased to over 20,000 men.

A relatively large merchant navy, which at the beginning of 1894 had 288 steamers of a total of 174,000 GRT, was an excellent complement to the Japanese navy. Sixty-six of these vessels, of a total of 135,755 GRT, belonged to Nippon Yusen Kaisha, the shipowner which received national treasury subsidies to maintain the vessels which could be used by the navy in case of war. Thus, the navy could call on a sufficient number of auxiliaries and transports.

During the war with China, the naval base at Sasebo played the most important role. Apart from Sasebo, harbours at Hiroshima (Ujina), Yokohama, Kobe and Nagasaki – mainly for loading troop and supplies – would also be used. Muira Bay in the Tsushima Archipelago would be used as a temporary base and later also some Korean harbours and anchorages. Naval bases at Kure and Sasebo, as well as the entrance to the Tokyo Bay were heavily fortified and equipped with considerable numbers of 120mm to 280mm coastal artillery guns.

The Japanese Navy was under the immediate command of Admiral Ito Yuko, who was not a brilliant commander, but undoubtedly experienced and well-prepared for his duty. He was by nature cautious and not willing to take any unnecessary risks, but was at the same time a skillful tactician, persistent and not easily discouraged. Japanese crews were also well prepared for war – both officers and ordinary seamen were well-trained, and their morale was excellent. Only the rules of officer promotion and appointment to command posts could raise some objections. Although class divisions were abolished in 1871, samurai background could definitely make a career easier. Clan connections were also still important – following 1872, the Satsuma clan had a majority in the navy and its members constituted most (though not all) high ranking naval officers. Essentially, the aforementioned phenomenon did not violate internal discipline of the navy and with minimum essential requirements for a commanding post in effect, it did not have significant impact on the level of training of the officer corps, which could be considered good.

Japanese navy tactics were based on combat regulations of 1892. They assumed that Japanese warships would enter combat in line-ahead (in four-warship divisions) with the flag-ship in the lead. At times when signals could only be transmitted visually (by signal flags, light or semaphore signals), this formation was supposed to facilitate commanding and manoeuvring of the entire force in face of the enemy. The role of speed and manoeuvre was very important, as they would allow for optimal utilisation of the existing combat potential. As a matter of fact, the Japanese performed tactical experiments almost from the beginning of the war (mainly thanks to Rear Admiral Tsuboi), developing the rule of dividing forces in battle into the main force and a fast manoeuvring unit, which, while operating separately on the battlefield, would fight in concert, giving the advantage over a homogenous enemy force (advantages in speed of manoeuvring unit would allow the force to attack weak points of the enemy formation or absorb his attention to facilitate operations of the main force).

To sum up, the combat effectiveness of the Japanese navy was high, lowered only by the lack of modern battleships, which on the other hand, the Chinese were in possession of. Admittedly, a temporary naval build-up programme passed in 1892, which provided for the construction of two battleships, three cruisers and one small cruiser, constituted a clear departure from the ideas of the ‘Jeune École’ but it was not completed before the outbreak of the war with China. Consequently, in the coming war, the naval forces of China and Japan could have been balanced – better training and more modern armament on the Japanese side was counterbalanced by large and relatively modern battleships on the Chinese side.

Japanese Plans

Japan, on entering the war, had a clearly specified plan of action, whose main military objectives were the capture of Korea and driving the Chinese troops behind the Yalu River. It would be executed in three phases.

The first phase would be further divided into three stages: the Japanese navy would prevent the delivery of reinforcements for the Chinese corps under General Yeh at Asan. Then, General Oshima’s brigade would defeat Yeh’s force, and finally take Seoul. The second stage would comprise the prompt redeployment of the I Army forces to Korea, while the third stage would be defeating the Chinese troops concentrated at Phyongyang and driving them behind the Yalu River. Accomplishment of the third stage would end in the conquest of the entire Korean territory.

Japanese victory in Korea would be largely dependent on maintaining control of their sea communication lines in order to freely deliver supplies and reinforcements to their troops fighting on the mainland, the second phase of operations would be for the Japanese navy to secure the control of the sea. It was anticipated that this would be achieved in a decisive naval battle, but the timing of that phase was fluid. It depended on the actions of the enemy, but the fastest possible capture of Korea was a priority. Only then would energetic operations against enemy naval bases commence, in order to annihilate its navy (or any forces which survived the expected decisive naval battle). The second phase would end with achieving total control of the sea and annihilation of the enemy’s naval forces.

If, following the loss of Korea and control of the seas, the Chinese still possessed the will to fight, the Japanese anticipated a third phase of a series of offensive operations, both on land in Manchuria and, exercising full control of the sea, also against selected coastal targets, which had the potential to inflict heavy losses and force the authorities in Peking to sign a peace treaty on Japanese conditions.

Thus, the Japanese war plan was distinctly offensive in nature and largely based on the principles of the classic naval doctrines of Mahan and Colomb. Its characteristic feature was that redeployment of troops to Korea was not dependent on seizure of the absolute control of the sea. Logically speaking, taking control of Korea should have been dependent on control of the sea. Every other combination, even taking into consideration passivity and ineptitude within the Chinese high command, attracted a serious risk of a breach in the communication lines between the troops fighting in Korean and the homeland. Should this be fulfilled, the worst-case scenario would mean a catastrophe of unimaginable consequences, even after initial successes. However, the Japanese deliberately took that risk, taking into consideration the country’s economic potential. Japan simply had no means of waging a long-lasting war with wealthy China. War had to be swift and successful. Therefore, a more risky military plan was adopted to avoid lengthy military actions, which would be destructive for the Japanese economy. However, it should be emphasised that the risk taken was within acceptable limits and with certain discipline of operations and strategic initiative, the Japanese plan nevertheless had a good chance to grant a significant degree of success – especially if the overall advantages in the quality of Japan’s forces were taken into consideration.

The Early Japanese Offensives War in China 1937

Following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925 Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the Kuomintang’s new leader. In March 1926 he began his so-called Northern Expedition to consolidate his power and, at least nominally, unify China, aims which he had achieved to some extent by mid-1928. He had accomplished this with a relatively small “national” army that answered to his KMT government by entering into alliances with various provincial warlords that left each of them with varying levels of independence. Chiang may thus have been weak, but he was clearly working tirelessly to cement central power.

Each of the remaining semi-autonomous warlords had to be cajoled, bribed, and bullied into line, clearly a long-term effort, but this did not assuage Tokyo’s alarm. A weak China was part of Japan’s overall strategy in Asia. Zhang Zuolin, the warlord of Manchuria (to the Chinese the Three Eastern Provinces) had failed to stop Chiang’s drive and he was assassinated by the Japanese Kwantung Army in June 1928, to be replaced by his son. In September 1931 the Kwantung Army staged an explosion that they blamed on the locals and used as a pretext for aggression. Within six months the Japanese had pushed Zhang’s troops, who were under orders not to resist, out of their garrisons and finally south of the Great Wall. The Japanese then established the puppet state of Manchukuo in the region.

Escalating violence in Shanghai led to Japanese bombing on 28 January 1932 and 3,000 Japanese troops fanned out to take parts of the city. The 19th Route Army put up stout resistance. In mid-February the Japanese increased their strength to 90,000, while Chiang sent his German-trained 5th Army (87th and 88th Divisions) to Shanghai. In early March the 19th Route and 5th Armies pulled back, ending the fighting. The Japanese eventually largely withdrew, but insisted that Shanghai be demilitarized, including decommissioning of the arsenal facilities there.

In the meantime the Kwantung Army’s leaders had come to believe that they needed both a buffer zone between China and their new Manchurian holdings and the mineral resources of North China. In February 1933 they invaded Jehol province and routed Zhang’s troops there, with Chiang too concerned with the communists to send aid. In May the Kwantung Army pushed south on a broad front, forcing China to agree to a 13,000 square kilometer demilitarized zone that was, in fact, garrisoned by the Japanese. In mid-1935 bellicose posturing on the borders gave the Japanese the rest of Hebei province and forced the governor of Chahar, once again lacking support from Nanjing, to capitulate to the Kwantung Army.

In the meantime Chiang’s full attention had been focused on his internal enemies, primarily the communists. When the latter set up a soviet in the province of Jiangsu he launched five successive campaigns against them. The First Campaign ran from the fall of 1930 to April 1931; the Second Campaign, from February to May 1931; the Third Campaign, from July to September 1931; the Fourth Campaign, from January to April 1933; and the Fifth Campaign, from October 1933 to October 1934. The first four, commanded by generals of indifferent talent and questionable loyalty, all failed. Chiang took command of the Fifth Campaign himself and, by improving the training of the army units involved and emphasizing civil affairs, won the day, at least temporarily. The communists fled the field on the “Long March.”

If Chiang thought he would now have several years to finish off the communists, build up his army, and prepare for what most Chinese considered the inevitable Japanese aggression, he was mistaken. Public hostility to Japan had risen to new heights, spinning far our of his control. He was now a passenger rather than the pilot. In December 1936 he was kidnapped by senior generals and forced to form a coalition with the communists against the Japanese. The era of Chinese concessions to Japan had ended.

Ironically, this came about just as more moderate and realistic elements started to exert substantive influence over Japanese policy. Nevertheless, there were still hawks within the military, and they completely misread the new Chinese political environment. The opinion on the ground among Japanese forces in China was that they could continue to provoke minor clashes and use them as excuses to seize “bite-size” portions of China at a time or, failing that, they could launch a short, powerful, aggressive campaign that would thoroughly demoralize the Nanjing government.

Opening Drives South and West (July–December 1937)

One of the provocations used by the Japanese began with a clash near Beijing in July 1937. That the Japanese were prepared to act following this Marco Polo Bridge incident was clear; their troops poured into Tianjin (Tientsin), where they had treaty rights, and then fanned out unopposed into the Beijing Plain. Defending Beijing was the 29th Army under the warlord Song Zheyuan with its headquarters at Nanyuan 16km south of the great city. Its 38th Division was near Tianjin, the 132nd just south of Nanyuan, and the bulk of the 143rd Division at Zhangjiakou (Kalgan), 190km away. On 25 July the Japanese 20th Division moved northwest along the Tianjin–Beijing railroad and encountered Chinese troops at Langfang and defeated them after a pitched battle the next day. Meanwhile, two Japanese brigades moved south from Rehe (Jehol) province (which had been annexed into Manchukuo in 1933) and occupied the area northeast of Beijing. On the 28th the Japanese attacked Nanyuan, catching the 29th Army and its 132nd Division by surprise, scattering the headquarters. On 29 July the Japanese 5th Division, still in Tianjin, attacked and routed the 38th Division, driving it 80km south. At that same time Song took the remainder of his 29th Army on a retreat from Beijing, finally settling down at Baoding, about 110km south on the Beijing–Hankou railway and well out of harm’s way for the time being. On 3 August Japanese troops marched into an undefended Beijing.

From Beijing the Japanese planned a drive west into Inner Mongolia, cutting about 130km northwest to Zhangjiakou via the southern Juyong pass, thence southwest to Datong in Yan Xishan’s Shanxi province, defended by Yan’s troops (nominally part of the National army) plus the communist 115th Division. Holding Juyong was the 13th Army, which inexplicably chose to mount its defense around the city itself rather than the narrow pass to the west, while the 17th Army was stationed to the north of the city. On 8 August advance elements of the Japanese 5th Division and 11th Independent Mixed Brigade (IMB) ran into the Juyong garrison, halted briefly before the main force arrived, but then took the city on 11 August. Three Chinese divisions were rushed up and fought at the Juyongguan pass, but abandoned it when the Japanese 5th Division entered the parallel Chenpien pass to the south, opening the way to Zhangjiakou from the east. That was not the only concern, for three Japanese IMBs were marching south on that city from southern Chahar, brushing aside the 143rd Division on 18 August. The 17th Army was rushed up to meet the threat, then retreated just as quickly. On 3 September the Japanese entered Zhangjiakou, turned somewhat southward and continued their advance towards Datong.

The Japanese drive to the southwest into Inner Mongolia actually had two “arms.” The western arm, towards Datong, was formed from the force that had advanced from Chahar. The eastern arm, based on the IJA 5th Division, marched parallel but about 50km to the east. Yan’s 61st Army (one division and two brigades) from II War Zone conducted a widely spaced weak delaying action against the western arm, falling back about 30km at a time and on 13 September the Japanese occupied Datong. Chiang was bitterly disappointed, as this cut a main communication route with the Soviets, but there was little he could do. The eastern arm, headed by the 21st Brigade of the IJA 5th Division, moving down from Juyong Pass, was to meet an entirely different enemy.

At Pingxinguan Pass they met Yan’s 73rd Division, later reinforced by the 71st, that stopped them in a see-saw battle for the heights. Needing resupply, the Japanese called on their supply train of 70 carts and 80 trucks to move up the sunken road with ammunition, food, and winter clothing.

The 115th Division of the Communist 8th Route Army had marched 500km from Shaanxi Province, arriving at Mount Wutai in front of the 21st Brigade on 20 September. For a day the commander, Lin Biao, made his preparations. Near the village of Pingxinguan the soldiers of the 115th Division moved in on the head and tail of the Japanese resupply column on the morning of 21 September. Chinese soldiers went the length of the column, throwing grenades down into the road while the Japanese, largely unarmed and unable to scale the 5–10 meter walls of the sunken road, flailed helplessly about. Longer sections of the road were raked from the ends by machine-gun fire. Central Army troops continued to attack the 21st Brigade, now running low on supplies, and losses were heavy on both sides. Relief forces finally reached the Japanese on 28 September and the Chinese withdrew. There are considerable discrepancies in the casualty reports, but it is clear that the IJA should have learned not to take Chinese passivity for granted. Further, the battle was widely publicized and provided a much-needed morale boost to the Chinese forces and population.

The western arm of the Japanese advance, however, proceeded apace. Having taken Datong, the Japanese force of one division and nine Mongolian/Manchurian cavalry units turned west again, headed for Guisui, the Suiyuan capital. Chiang ordered the 35th Army and the 1st Cavalry Army south to avoid being cut off north of the Japanese drive, leaving four cavalry divisions and three brigades to hold back the Japanese advance. Their efforts were half-hearted at best and on 14 October the Japanese occupied Guisui unopposed.

With the exception of Pingxingguan and some of the smaller clashes with Yan’s troops, the Japanese had outmaneuvered and outfought the Chinese decisively in every engagement. Wei Li-huang’s 14th Army Group from the central government had performed fairly well, but with a few exceptions Yan’s troops had given way quite easily. On the other hand the Japanese had failed to engage the Chinese decisively, resulting in the conquest of huge swatches of land that their numbers were insufficient to garrison.

The Japanese were not only interested in driving west from Beijing. The provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Anhui to the south were tempting targets that were both rich and blessed with good transportation routes that would ease any invasion. To guard against this, the Chinese had deployed the 1st Army Group on the Tianjin–Nanjing railway, with the 3rd Route Army in Shandong as a reserve. Further west, defending the Beijing–Hankou railway was I War Zone, commanded directly by Chiang.

Bloodletting on the Central Coast

Meanwhile, far to the south and east, things were beginning to spiral out of control. The large foreign populations in their enclaves in Shanghai had not been known for their humility, usually treating the local Chinese as little more than a labor pool for servants. Even within this crowd, however, the Japanese stood out for their particular arrogance. The 5,000 Japanese troops stationed there under treaty rights had been a source of irritation for some time before 9 August, when a Japanese lieutenant, enraged that a Chinese sentry tried to stop him in his car, shot and killed the sentry before being killed himself by another sentry. It seems likely that the Japanese had not planned adventures in central China, at least not yet, but Chiang had decided this was the place to make his stand.

Chiang hoped to draw off Japanese troops from their depredations in north China that threatened supply routes from the USSR, but Shanghai was a strange place to chose for such an endeavor. True, it was the commercial center of China and putting on a good show there guaranteed favorable press coverage for China’s plight around the world due to the large foreign population, but it had serious tactical drawbacks. The Japanese owned the seas, and the city’s location on the sea at the mouth of a deep, navigable river gave the enemy flexibility and the availability of naval gunfire support over most of the front. The well-developed port facilities allowed them to reinforce and supply almost at will. The level ground, combined with the ability to bring engineering equipment in, would allow the Japanese to create landing fields for their vastly superior air force. Nevertheless, Shanghai it would be.

On 11 August the 36th Division and two German-trained elite divisions, the 87th and 88th, closed around the Japanese positions north of the city, while the 55th, 56th, and 57th Divisions began moving north along the east bank of the river. On 13 August the Japanese landed two more divisions at Shanghai to bolster their forces. On that same day fighting broke out between the 87th Division and the Japanese in the Zhabei (Chapei) district; Troops attacking near Shanghai, September 1937. The soldier on the left has just been shot. after five days the Japanese had been forced back but their lines remained unbroken. Both sides then began to pour reinforcements into the area. On 22 August the Japanese landed elements of their 3rd and 11th Divisions upriver from the city, where they met the Chinese 15th Army Group, leading to a bitter two-week battle that ended in a stalemate.

Over a month of heavy fighting followed all along the front line, with the Japanese force, now known as the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, attempting to break out of the area around the city, and the Chinese III War Zone (commanded by Chiang personally) attempting to hold them in, and counterattacking on a regular basis. By late September the Chinese had thrown over 500,000 troops into the battle formed into Left Wing, Center, and Right Wing commands, and the Japanese over 200,000, including six divisions, four IMBs, the Formosa Brigade, and tank and artillery units.

That the Chinese managed to hold the line, and indeed counterattack successfully on occasion, was unexpected, not only to the Western observers in Shanghai, but also to the Japanese. The Rising Sun planes flew unaccosted above the battlefield, strafing and bombing at will. The old Wusong (Woosung) Fort had been captured early in the battle from the land side, its antique coastal guns no longer able to prevent Japanese warships from sailing up and down the river and pounding the Chinese lines with gunfire. Japanese tanks and artillery outnumbered their Chinese counterparts by a wide margin, both dealing death and destruction to Chiang’s troops. By 20 October the Chinese had sustained over 120,000 casualties on the Shanghai front, and yet they hung on grimly, fighting, and dying in close combat for every meter they gave up. The next day the 21st Army Group of Guangxi troops, with a reputation as brave fighters, arrived and were thrown into battle.

Faced with such determined opposition and suffering horrendous losses themselves, the Japanese gave up on the idea of simply punching through Chinese lines. Instead, they landed their 10th Army of three divisions on the north shore of Hangzhou Bay, 50km south of Shanghai, on 5 November. This was something Chiang had not considered. The new army brushed aside light resistance and began marching north to Shanghai to attack the encircling Chinese from the outside. They quickly smashed through the Right Wing forces and joined up with the Shanghai Expeditionary Force. Emboldened, the Japanese in Shanghai began a massive assault along the whole line, heavily supported by air attacks and naval gunfire. This time, the Chinese line, already outflanked on the right, began to give. On 12 November the Japanese 16th Division made an amphibious landing about 70km upriver from Shanghai. This put them squarely behind the Chinese left flank, and the Chinese force began to crumble. Chiang issued an ambiguous order that could have been, and was, interpreted to mean retreat.

The Chinese troops had proven themselves brave, tough, and enduring soldiers. Western advisers, however, complained bitterly that staff work was abysmal, there was little coordination between adjacent units, the artillery fired most of its missions blind at maximum range, and that defensive positions usually consisted of a single trench line and gave way once that was breached.

If there was a retreat in the military sense, it lasted only one or two days. After three months of unremitting horror, pounded from the air and sea, of vicious hand-to-hand to fighting with no quarter given or asked, half-starved, lacking medical attention, their tactical leaders dead, the Chinese soldiers finally broke. And when they broke, it was total. Soldiers abandoned their weapons and the wounded, units mixed together in the flight to safety, and what had been a tenacious army a few days earlier turned into a panic-stricken rabble fleeing west as fast as they could. Chiang had gambled most of his best units in Shanghai and he had lost. It cost him at least 187,000 of his finest troops killed or wounded, a loss that would extract its toll over the next eight years.

The Japanese troops, as eventual victors, had the opposite reaction. Having lost 11,000 killed and 31,000 wounded, and filled with rage at the humiliation of having been kept in check by an enemy they held in contempt, they now gave vent to an orgy of blood lust. They followed closely behind the Chinese, slaughtering the wounded, sick, and simply exhausted that Chiang’s troops had left behind.

The Chinese attempted to make a stand at Suzhou, about 65km west of Shanghai, but were quickly outflanked and abandoned the city without a fight. Seeing the inevitable, the Chinese government was moved from Nanjing to Chongqing (Chungking) some 1,750km up the Yangtze on 20 November, although the Generalissimo moved to Hankou (Hankow), in between the two.

This was well timed, for now little stood between the rampaging Japanese Shanghai Expeditionary Force and Nanjing except disorganized, dispirited troops. The relatively intact 23rd Army Group moved up to stop them, but was hit from the flank and driven back. Chiang ordered Nanjing held “to the last man” and to that end two defense lines were formed in arcs in front of the city. The 36th and 88th Divisions, along with the Training Division were allocated to the outer line, 12–20km outside the walls of the city. They were shortly reinforced by the 74th Army and the 83rd Army, each of two divisions. The 41st, 48th, 87th, 103rd, 112th, 159th, and 160th Divisions manned the inner line, 2–5km outside the walls. The Japanese Shanghai Expeditionary Force and the 10th Army arrived in front of Nanjing on 6 December and immediately began their assaults, supported by artillery. On 8 December the outer line fell, followed by the inner line on 11 December. The next day the Japanese broke through the ancient city walls at the three main gates. Two days of heavy fighting was followed by a Chinese order to retreat. The only Chinese force to retain its coherence was the 66th Army (159th and 160th Divisions), which managed to fight its way out to the south and east. The rest of the soldiers trapped in Nanjing were hunted down and killed.

That, however, was the least of what would happen in Nanjing. For the next six weeks General Matsui’s Japanese troops went on an orgy of murder, rape, pillage, and mayhem that has rarely been equaled.

Haunted by History

What did 1997 mean? On 1 July that year the People’s Republic of China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. China’s senior leadership and British government ministers and officials took part in a punctiliously choreographed midnight handover ceremony. Rain poured down, and tears were shed for all the reasons that tears might be shed: sadness, joy, fear, confusion, or relief. The departing Governor stepped aboard the British royal yacht Britannia just after midnight and sailed away. The Union Jack had been pulled down at midnight, the five stars of China’s flag raised in its stead, and the colony’s own standard was at the same time surmounted by that of the new Special Administrative Region. Other symbols of colonial rule were being removed as midnight passed, and many had already been superseded by 1997. In Beijing there were fireworks in Tiananmen Square. A digital clock that had been placed in front of the Museum of Revolutionary History, and which had been counting down the days and seconds since 1994, reached zero. Crowds chanted as the seconds ticked down. A century of humiliation had been ‘washed away’ as the rain fell in Hong Kong.

There had been other ways of looking forward to this moment than the clock. (This was one of several; there was one at the Hong Kong–Shenzhen border, and another in Beijing at the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan, the old Summer Palace looted and burned down by French and British troops in 1860.) One that had stuck with me was a music video that seemed to be endlessly repeated in 1994 on a satellite music channel – itself a phenomenon that was bewildering for a visitor to China – and that I had watched in a Shanghai hotel room. A young woman faced the camera, strumming a guitar. Her name was Ai Jing, and at the age of twenty-four she had a hit across and beyond the Chinese-speaking world with a catchy song, ‘My 1997’. It takes the form of a jaunty folk riff periodically interrupted by passages in a Chinese opera style, in which she narrates her journey from Shenyang in the far northeast, through Beijing, to Shanghai’s Bund and down south to the border with Hong Kong. Visually the film makes the same shifts from past to present. But the song is about the future: ‘when will I be able to visit Hong Kong?’ she asks from Guangzhou. It is a cheeky song, lamenting at once a Hong Kong lover, but Hong Kong itself as a lover, perhaps, certainly as a future for the Chinese. The song and video’s celebratory climax presents a sensual longing for urban freedom and modernity. On the cover of the CD itself Ai Jing was photographed in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong bar district. ‘What is it like? What are Hong Kong people like?’ Ai asks. In the years before the handover of the last significantly sized British colony, the Chinese government was sponsoring academic research and film-makers. In these endeavours it was making Hong Kong the focus for a celebration of China’s new strength, and a reminder of past weakness and humiliation. Culture still mattered; it was no less a political sphere than it had been in the most hectic days of the Maoist era, or even during the more cosmopolitan republic. So Ai Jing’s song deftly struck the right political notes, and subverted them. Her 1997 was not about national humiliation, but about personal liberation.

Late colonial Hong Kong had boomed as a British imperial city was transformed into a global capitalist hub. The disputes between the British and the Chinese diplomats continued almost up to the last moment. Signs of that old treaty-port world remained in abundance after the formal symbols of British power were removed, but many of the new expatriates of the 1990s and after were looking north, waiting for China, diving in whenever opportunity was opened up, finding partners, and chasing ancient fantasies of unlimited China markets. For the Chinese government the question was how to manage it all, and how to bring the foreign back in without re-creating the past, and without surrendering sovereignty and dignity. Reclaiming Hong Kong was a grand affirmation of its triumph over history. The handover was a substantial exercise in political theatre, but it was also a landmark in the growing economic freedoms enjoyed by Chinese. After 1949 the city had inherited Shanghai’s modernity. High-rise Hong Kong provided an alternative vision of China’s present, and its soon-to-be-realized future. The return of Macao in 1999 was also accompanied by much fanfare, but the earlier return in 1997 was made significantly more important as a symbol, as its roots lay not in the Ming Dynasty but in the nineteenth-century British assault on China’s sovereignty.

Ai Jing’s video lingers in the mind, but there were orthodox cultural projects launched before 1997 that were intended to resonate widely as well. In one way the most mainstream of these was a big-budget film, The Opium War, which premiered with a showing for senior government leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 June 1997, and which was described by its director, the veteran Chinese film-maker Xie Jin, as a ‘special gift for the motherland and the people … to ensure we and our descendants forever remember the humiliation the nation once suffered’. Hong Kong’s Shanghai-born incoming senior leaders – Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Legislative Council President Rita Fan – attended the Hong Kong premiere three days later. The film had already been endorsed by no less a figure than Deng Xiaoping’s successor, the Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, and patriotically minded backers had put up the funds. Group bookings by government and other official and party units produced a good deal of the receipts. Hong Kong’s origins in the conflict over the opium trade and in the British bid to seize ‘the entire East … the Nineteenth century’ mattered most in this retelling (and the ambition was put into the mouth of Queen Victoria). The film was by some measure the most expensive then yet made in China. Its script delivered a more nuanced understanding of the British position than might have been expected; however, the significant point is that ultimately the project was not rooted in Hong Kong’s present but in China’s past. Hong Kong was not what its people had made it by 1997, and what they might make it afterwards, but was to be remembered as an historical act of theft, with its origins in a squalid criminal enterprise and the weakness and chauvinism of the Qing.

It was not in fact the first time in modern Chinese history that a retrocession had been commemorated with a film about the Opium War. The earlier occasion had been the premiere of the 1943 Japanese-sponsored Chinese movie Wanshou liufang (Eternity), screened in Nanjing for the benefit of collaborationist president Wang Jingwei. That, too, had been an officially directed project, and it was released to mark the handover of the International Settlement to the quisling Shanghai Special Municipality on 1 August 1943. At the very least this coincidence of rituals demonstrates the centrality of nationalism and anti-imperialism to all twentieth-century political projects in China. The Chinese Communist Party and Wang Jingwei, once allies, later the bitterest of opponents, played tunes from the same narrow repertoire. This is not to suggest any equation between the CCP and Wang Jingwei’s regime, but to highlight the centrality of these issues of humiliation in understanding the competing forms of nationalism that have emerged in modern China.

Over the next thirty years the world that Ai Jing’s song laid claim to was brought to China. The state enterprises that her lyrics mention her father working in have folded, and have been broken up for scrap like those ships that were the fuel for the first foreign business established in China. These enterprises were swept aside by the massive programme of renewal and economic development that began with those contentious reforms in Guangdong province in 1979. Economic growth brought profound social and cultural transformation that is still unfolding, and there are now bar districts like Lan Kwai Fong all over China. Hong Kong is still very different, providing a distinctive modern Chinese culture with different values; but like Macao it is also partly irrelevant to the story of change in China itself. A quarter of a million foreign nationals live in Shanghai, for example, which has hungrily embraced all the trappings of its ambitions to be a world-class city, and all the greyer and darker ones too. Only the rickshaws are missing from the streets.

There are plenty of those in the museums, however, for the past is bigger business than ever in China. An estimated 10,000 ‘Red Tourism’ sites and half a billion visits to them in 2011 accounted for one-fifth of all Chinese domestic tourism. Heritage initiatives with little political flavouring have also made progress in the generally unequal battle with the bulldozer and property speculation. Some of this apparent political elision is striking: Tianjin’s former Italian concession was revamped as the ‘Italian-style scenic district’ after 2004. In this case an Italian colonial enterprise now serves as an example of cosmopolitan heritage style. The repackaging of the colonial as the cosmopolitan is now quite common. It serves the purpose too of stressing continuities over time despite China’s shutdown during the Maoist era. The iconic modern skyline in China is still Shanghai’s. Its high-rises were the stuff of the movies viewed across the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, and this persisted. But now the vista representing Shanghai in its room at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing is of the Pudong skyline, across the river from the Bund. To appreciate this, which thousands of tourists from all over China do every day, one needs to turn one’s back on the old Bund and its buildings, on the British Consulate, the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and Co., the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel, the North China Daily News Building, Yokohama Specie Bank and the Shanghai Club.

But even when backs are turned the memory is kept alive. On 1 October every year, China’s national day, city officials in Shanghai gather on the north end of the Bund at what is still called a park, although little trace of anything much like one remains. What dominates the site now is a ‘Monument to the People’s Heroes’ that was unveiled in 1993. Three granite pillars lean together at the top to form a three-sided obelisk reaching 60 metres into the air. They represent the ‘eternal glory’ of the ‘people’s heroes’ who died in the liberation war, in revolutionary movements more widely since the 1919 May Fourth Movement and since the Opium War. In a sunken area around its base are seven bas-relief friezes depicting key incidents in the revolutionary history of the city down to 1949, culminating with students dancing the yangge in Shanghai’s streets in May 1949. For some decades prior to 1943 another much less imposing obelisk stood close to this very same spot, a memorial erected in 1866 to the foreign officers of the Ever Victorious Army, the unit led by General Gordon that supported Qing forces in the battles around Shanghai against the Taiping. The city’s histories, like all of China’s, overlay and echo one another. And not far away you can read the twentieth century’s changes on what was formerly the China headquarters of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries. Shorn now of the allegorical reliefs with which it was adorned on its unveiling in 1923, its own name is just still visible, and so are huge sets of Cultural Revolution slogans running down the building, wishing long life to the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao. It now houses a securities firm.

The annual ceremony at the memorial on the Bund is of fresh vintage. Recently the event commenced early in the morning with the playing of the national anthem by a military band, while the participants stood in contemplative silence. Then, without a word, the Shanghai Party Secretary, the Mayor and representatives from other official organizations stepped forward to lay wreaths in front of the obelisk. So the ceremony itself echoes another, the one that took place annually from 1924 to 1941, and then again from 1945 to 1948, on 11 November, Remembrance Day for the Allied dead of the world wars. That took place at the other end of the former International Settlement Bund, in front of Shanghai’s tall war memorial. This is a powerful testament to the reach of imported practices and forms, and their acculturation – including the ceremonial silence, and the playing by a military band using European instruments, of a national anthem indebted to Western musical forms, and indeed to the very idea of a ‘national anthem’. The concrete forms of memorialization – those obelisks – are linked in a similar way. But none of these are any less authentic facets of modern China and modern Chinese culture. Most of Shanghai’s tourists do not pay any homage at the memorial, despite the fact that it is a ‘patriotic education base’. Most do not even really visit that end of the promenade: the blindingly neon-lit Pudong skyline at night is the draw instead. Such is the pervasiveness still of the humiliation narrative that they hardly need to, for the stories it tells remain at the heart of the nationwide system of patriotic education.

Reactions to bilateral and other disputes that unfold or erupt today are still nearly always addressed through the prism of the past, or they are about that past. There were violent street and online protests during the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in 2012, which were inflamed by its coincidental timing with the anniversary of the Japanese Kwantung Army’s attack on Manchuria on 18 September (usually simply ‘918’ in Chinese). The islands themselves are another legacy issue from the longer history of territorial disintegration in the nineteenth century: ‘No longer learn from Li Hongzhang,’ shouted demonstrators in Nanchang, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s curt rejoinder to Margaret Thatcher over Hong Kong. ‘Never forget National Humiliation; Remember 9.18; Recover the Diaoyu islands’, ran another slogan. Since 2000 controversy over demands for the repatriation of artefacts looted from the Yuanming Yuan in 1860 has also gathered tremendous momentum. And over forty years after Prime Minister Tanaka’s incompetent first apology, and the 1972 Sino-Japanese joint declaration, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s official statement in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War was closely read, and sharply criticized for its perceived inadequacies in Chinese and others’ eyes. The sullen and resentful language of the text was a mark not only of Abe’s own conservative politics and revisionist leanings, but also of a wider exasperation in Japan with the never-ending war. For China the past is becoming more important. And what’s clear in all of this is that the Chinese state is now often playing catch-up, struggling to keep abreast of the popular nationalism that it has nurtured and encouraged, and which runs riot in social media, on foreign university campuses and sometimes in Chinese streets. The state needs to be agile, for its perceived inadequacies in defending China’s honour have frequently diverted popular hostility towards it and away from Japan.

The story of the world outlined in this book is on the whole not well enough known. It certainly lives on in saga, romance or thriller, or through cinema – J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical Empire of the Sun, mediated through Hollywood, for example. As we have seen, it was portrayed as romance back in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, and this persists. But it is still too easily thought of as a sideshow, far away and involving people with whom there is little connection. In most cases there was always a profound asymmetry in relations: the West was always far more important in China than China seemed to be at home. As we have seen, this was not always in fact actually true, although it generally holds good. What it does mean is that a significant imbalance in knowledge and understanding persists. In 2011 I was invited to give a talk about The Scramble for China at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. It seemed wise to signal in advance that I could not provide much by way of enlightenment on contemporary policy. I did not know what the then CCP leader Hu Jintao thought, or much about climate change or healthcare initiatives. I was not to worry, was the response, leave policy to us, but we really need to know more about the history. Our recruits have learned little of it before they join us, yet the Chinese still talk about it all the time. Given how profoundly modern China has been shaped by its relationship with the United Kingdom, this was a telling admission.

They know this well in China, of course. And in which other state does a new leadership team, on the day that it is unveiled, change into more sombre clothing, and make a pilgrimage to a history museum? (What other state has so many history museums?) This is what Xi Jinping and the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo did on 29 November 2012. The most powerful leaders in the land paid homage to the past through this visit to the National Museum of China, and its permanent display ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’ (the official translation of the Chinese Fuxing zhi lu). The design aesthetic in the first galleries is darkness. Art works and artefacts illustrate a stridently captioned narrative of China’s story of humiliation and weakness from 1840 onwards. But then comes the light, and in the second set of galleries a different aesthetic decorates a record of events and triumphs since 1949 (and in a discreet and selective way some disasters). The exhibition concludes, or at least did on my own last visit – when it was thronged with school groups assiduously taking notes – by paying homage to China’s space programme, and then with a display of mobile phones. The promise of a project that generates intense national pride, and the history of China’s economic growth and individual prosperity, are both framed in a story of release from the shame of the past. The promise at the end of the black tunnel of history is a smartphone.

The story of the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century, as much as in the nineteenth century or in any part of China’s modern history, is too important today to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state and this approved script. Its sanctioned narrative is partial, self-serving and ultimately incendiary. A new nationalism in which angry demonstrators have been heard many times clamouring for war and for killing Japanese is pregnant with the potential for calamity. But this is not a Japanese problem alone. No nation complicit in the degradation of China after the 1830s – which includes most European states as well as the United States – is ultimately secure. Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage. In this book I have aimed to show that world in all its complexity and all its contexts – and that word ‘complexity’ is no coy cover for nostalgia or an apologetics. The foreign presence in China in the twentieth century had more than its fair share of bigotry, racism, violence, greed, or simple callous indifference. This is on display in profusion in the National Museum of China. In that world, too, you can find collaboration, cohabitation, alliance and coalition. Many other voices also spoke for China and stood up for it against its enemies and against ignorance and prejudice overseas, and on China’s streets. This is all but absent in the displays in Beijing. There was also self-delusion and self-conceit, as well as genuine humanitarian concern and disinterested technical interest. This was a world in which the imperatives or norms of a world in which colonial power was exercised overlapped with (and helped shape) new forms of globalization and the movement of people, goods and ideas. It was a world in which people in China incorporated into their lives all sorts of innovations that came from overseas, and equally made their own new culture, promiscuously mixing all sorts of foreign ingredients and indigenous ones too. Chinese of all political hues and none worked with and against the unequal and unjust exercise of foreign political power in China and the treatment of China in international forums and organizations. The Chinese Communist Party holds no monopoly of nationalistic virtue, and it was itself complicit in the continued degradation of Chinese sovereignty in the 1950s.

‘The Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history,’ said Xi Jinping in November 2012 at the end of his museum visit. Its people ‘have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny’. Xi’s rhetoric then and since has promised a ‘China dream’, the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation’ and individual aspiration, subsuming along the way the hopes of Ai Jing’s song ‘My 1997’. The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.