The Chinese Army in Burma, 1942–5

Nationalist survivors of the 1942 fighting in Burma take part in an assault course as part of their training in India. The helmets worn by the troops are M35s brought back from Burma by them, while their P-17 rifles have been donated by the Allies. With good training, regular meals and better uniforms, equipment and weaponry these soldiers soon became the elite of the Nationalist army.

US army instructor looks on as the crew of a PACK 75mm howitzer supplied by the USA fires its gun in the hills around the Ramgarh training centre in September 1943. US instructors were sent to set up a training scheme for the Nationalist artillery which involved new trainees then going on to instruct their comrades. The week-long training course was in most cases found to be adequate to get the Chinese up to a reasonable standard.

Soldiers of Y Force, the Allied trained and supplied army based in Yunnan province, cross a river in June 1943. Y Force was made up of eleven infantry divisions which were intended to enter Burma sometime in 1943–4. Their arms, equipment and training were not up to the standard of their sister organization, X Force, in India but were superior to other Nationalist formations. They were to be pitted against the 56th Division of the Japanese Imperial army fighting in some the most difficult terrain encountered during the Second World War.

When the Japanese Imperial navy’s aircraft attacked the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 China’s war changed. Overnight the Chinese had Allies against Japan who Chiang Kai-shek hoped would aid him in his four-year war. However, the reality was different with the Japanese blitzkrieg tearing through British, US and Dutch territories by early 1942. In the short term the Allies had enough to cope with without sending armaments or any other aid to Nationalist China. French Indo-China had already been taken over by the Japanese in 1940, cutting off supplies to the Nationalists from that direction. When the Japanese Imperial army invaded British Burma from Thailand on 15 December the last land supply line along the Burma Road was threatened. As with Malaya, the Philippines and other Allied territories, the Japanese advanced through Burma. They moved northwards with the British forces retreating in front of them towards the Burma Road in the north-east of the territory.

Disturbed by the Japanese punitive campaign in north China that followed the Doolittle raid, Chiang Kai-shek feared that the loss of the Burma Road and the demands of other theaters would cut Lend-Lease programs for China. His short-term concern was the expansion of the Japanese occupation into western China; his strategic goal was to strengthen the Kuomintang and Nationalist Army against the Communists. Chiang’s special problem was the senior American officer organizationally at his side but physically in India, Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. As early as 1942 Stilwell found himself at odds with Chiang over the reform and employment of the Chinese Army. Stilwell had 2 divisions with him at Ramgarh, India (X Force), and he believed he controlled 12 more divisions in Yunnan province, China (Y Force). After the Burma campaign, none of these divisions had more than half their manpower, and they lacked weapons and training. Chiang did not view either force as adequate for his needs.

Instead, he presented an ambitious plan to Roosevelt in June 1942. The Three Demands, drafted by Brigadier General Claire L. Chennault, argued that China held the key to defeating Japan with land-based air power. Chiang could not wait for Stilwell to reopen the Burma Road with a new extension from Ledo in northern India. Instead, the United States should send three divisions to undertake this mission while Chennault built an American air force of over 500 aircraft in China. This force would employ heavy bombers that would attack Japanese supply lines and bases along China’s coast. Until the Burma Road reopened, air transports from India would supply the air force in China. Chiang demanded an airlift capacity of 5,000 tons a month, an incredible figure, since the designated transport, the twin-engine C-46, had only a four-ton load capacity. At the time of the Three Demands, Chennault’s 130 aircraft required 2,000 tons of supplies per month, which meant a 500-aircraft force would probably need 10,000 tons a month, not 5,000. Moreover, who would guard the air bases? The Chiang-Chennault plan said that an elite, American-armed Nationalist Army (Z Force) would perform this mission, which sent the logistical requirements even higher.

Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew they could not meet the Three Demands, but they could not ignore the fact that the Nationalists might tie down much of the Japanese Army. A military renaissance in China, built around 30 elite Nationalist divisions, would protect the air force Chennault wanted. Despite British skepticism about China, Roosevelt promised to do something about getting money and Lend-Lease supplies to Chungking. He did so for several reasons: a sincere conviction that China might become a regional power; his optimistic expediency in military affairs; and his sensitivity to the China lobby, which included influential members of his own cabinet as well as Republican senators and media moguls.

By March 1942 Chiang had realized that as the fighting continued in northern Burma unless he offered forces to help the British they would soon be defeated. A Chinese expeditionary force, under the command of US General Stilwell, was deployed to north-eastern Burma. The Chinese sent some of their best troops into Burma, consisting of three armies, each with three divisions (Fifth Army: 22nd, 96th and 200th divisions; Sixty-sixth Army: 28th, 29th and 38th divisions; and Sixth Army: 49th, 55th and 93rd divisions). The 200th Division included eighty Soviet-supplied T-26 light tanks. Although this force appeared formidable on paper, each army was only the strength of a British or US division. Over the next two months the expeditionary corps fought well in several battles with the Japanese, especially their superior divisions such as the 22nd and 38th. By late May the British and their Chinese allies were defeated and began a long retreat into India in the north-west and into Yunnan province in China.

Once the British army defeated in Burma had reorganized itself in the relative safety of India, it was decided that the Allies would train and equip a Chinese army. This force would be created from the Nationalist troops who had escaped Burma with the elite 22nd and 38th divisions forming a hardcore. It was agreed that the Allies would provide training, equipment and weaponry for a large number of troops, to be designated ‘X’, or X-Ray, Force. A large training facility made up of various training schools was opened in 1942, with facilities to instruct trainees in military skills such as radio operation, veterinary care for draught animals and artillery operation. With good-quality food, new uniforms, equipment and weapons and proper medical care the Allies were confident they could produce a useful military force. In November 1942 Chiang Kai-shek promised twenty divisions’ worth of troops, which would be flown by Allied transport planes across the Himalayas. Training went well and by 1943 a 50,000-strong X Force with modern small arms, artillery and a tank force was ready to be sent into Burma.

From 1943 onwards, two other forces were trained in China by US advisors, with the first, known as ‘Y’, or Yoke, Force, set up in Yunnan province. The training for Y Force was not as intensive as that given to X Force in India but the troops and officers trained in Yunnan were still superior to most other Nationalist formations. By the early summer of 1943 a force of 100,000 Nationalist troops was available to be sent into Burma. Y Force was designated to advance westwards into Burma along the Salween River to link up with X Force advancing eastwards from India in 1944. A third smaller force, known as ‘Z’, or Zebra, Force was trained in Kwangsi province from late 1943. The intention was to create a thirty-division-strong force which would be given several roles in any 1944 campaign. With over 2,000 US instructors but with less facilities and few arms to hand to their trainees, Z Force would not reach the standard of either X or Y Forces. Z Force’s first role was to advance southwards to link up with any future Allied amphibious landing in southern China. Its other role was to provide a defence force for the US airbases being set up in Nationalist territory from where bombing missions would be launched against Japan.

By December 1943 X Force was ready to begin its advance but the planned linkup with Y Force was to be frustrated by Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang wanted to keep the newly trained troops in Yunnan to counter the threat of rebellious generals, particularly the province’s governor, General Lung Yun. Eventually, after threats by the Allies to withdraw their support, Y Force was sent across the Salween River into Burma in May 1944. Both forces had to fight not only against the Japanese Imperial army but in some of the most challenging terrain in the world. It took X Force until March 1944 to reach their first objective, the town of Maingkwan. When it fell Chinese labourers immediately moved in to start repairs on the vital Burma Road. Meanwhile, X Force continued its slow advance, taking Myitkyina in May and Bhamo in November. By January 1945 X Force was in a position to finally link up with Y Force, which it duly did on the 21st. It had taken Y Force until September 1944 to capture their first major town, Tengchung, after an epic battle. After the reopening of the Burma Road, Y Force had served its purpose and most of its units were sent back into China to defend several provinces under attack by the Japanese. X Force, the best of all the Allied trained Nationalist armies, was to be airlifted into northern China and its divisions were to be destroyed in the civil war in Manchuria in 1948.



In the spring of 1900, the Boxer Rising broke out. Led by a shamanistic secret society devoted to traditional martial arts, the revolt was directed against foreigners, especially missionaries, who, deep in China’s interior, were seen to be undermining and insulting Chinese beliefs and practices. As spontaneous as the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the Rising attracted a motley crowd of disgruntled Chinese including peasants and decommissioned soldiers, smugglers, and even some officials and gentry.

The Boxer Rising revealed the resourcefulness of ordinary people’s resistance as well as the depth of popular resentment of the foreign presence in China, and of the pressures it put on local officials. Few Chinese people ever saw a white man, but their lives were deeply affected by the new facts created by foreigners in China: the subjection to global economic cycles, for instance, which threw people out of work.

A country whose standard of living was superior to Europe’s before 1800 had steadily become through the nineteenth century a helpless giant before Western missionaries, businessmen, diplomats and soldiers. Foreign debts and indemnities placed a crippling burden on the national exchequer. The government had to borrow heavily for the smallest attempt at modernization; even the railway, a symbol of progress everywhere else, only served to push China deeper into debt while opening up large parts of China’s interior to foreign troops.

The Boxers reflected a long-simmering public rage by tearing up railway tracks. When Boxer attacks on Westerners and Chinese converts to Christianity spread to Beijing in June 1900, Western powers protested to the dowager empress, who calculated that she could use the Boxers against the Westerners and rid China of them altogether. The decision reflected a total ignorance of the real balance of power in the world. Her opportunistic declaration of war while the foreign legation was under siege by the Boxers was soon matched by a military mobilization against her by all the major world powers. Twenty thousand troops drawn from several countries, including Japan, marched to Beijing to relieve the siege and loot the city.

Among the British contingent was a north Indian solider, Gadhadar Singh, who felt sympathetic to the anti-Western cause of the Boxers even though he believed that their bad tactics had ‘blanketed their entire country and polity in dust’. His first sight of China was the landscape near Beijing, of famished Chinese with skeletal bodies in abandoned or destroyed villages, over whose broken buildings flew the flags of China’s joint despoilers – France, Russia and Japan. River waters had become a ‘cocktail of blood, flesh, bones and fat’. Singh particularly blamed the Russian and French soldiers for the mass killings, arson and rape inflicted on the Chinese. Some of the soldiers tortured their victims purely for fun. ‘All these sportsmen’, Singh noted, ‘belonged to what were called “civilized nations”.’

‘Even hearts of stone’, Singh wrote, ‘would have melted and felt compassion.’ ‘It was not necessary for my heart to be moved by pity’, he added, ‘because I had come to fight against the Chinese. But … I felt an emotion that was born not out of duty but in the mind.’ Trying to understand his sympathy for the Chinese, Singh realized it was because the Chinese were Buddhist, like many Indians, and therefore ‘neighbours and fellow residents of Asia’.

Not many soldiers experienced such tender regard for the Chinese. Dispatching a German punitive force to China in 1900, the kaiser had exhorted them to be as brutal with the ‘heathen culture’ as Attila the Hun, so that ‘no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German!’ The French writer Pierre Loti witnessed the devastation inflicted by Western troops on the capital city: ‘Little grey bricks – this is the sole material of which Beijing was built; a city of small, low houses decorated with a lacework of gilded wood; a city of which only a mass of curious debris is left, after fire and shell have crumbled away its flimsy materials.’

Re-living her escape from the barbarian-besieged capital in 1860, the dowager empress fled Beijing disguised in the blue costume of a peasant. Her representatives signed another agreement with Western powers that, among other penalties, imposed an indemnity almost twice the size of the government’s annual revenues. They promised to build monuments to the Christian missionaries murdered by the Boxers and, while accepting restrictions on the size of their military, had to countenance an increased foreign military presence on Chinese soil.

Chastened by this turn of events even the dowager empress now contemplated some radical reforms. She began slowly, but by the time she died in 1908 she had taken enough steps to ensure the construction of a modern state. Soon after Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, she abolished the traditional examinations for the civil service that had served as the backbone of the imperial state for over a millennium. In their place, the Qing court established modern schools with a Western curriculum and sent Chinese students abroad, to Europe and the United States as well as to Japan. The news, reaching the then fiery nationalist Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) in distant India provoked him to rapturous praise for an apparently rising neighbour:

China has been educating, training and arming herself with a speed of which the outside world has a very meagre conception. She has sent out a Commission of Observation to the West and decided to develop constitutional Government within the next ten years. She has pushed forward the work of revolutionising her system of education.

Thousands of young Chinese were thus first introduced to modern sciences, engineering, medicine, law, economics, education and military skills. In his inland province of Hunan, the sixteen-year-old Mao Zedong (1893–1976) was one of the first students at a school imparting what was called the ‘New Knowledge’. The teenaged Mao read about the American and French revolutions and Rousseau and Washington, and he learnt about the full scale of China’s degradation at the hands of the West from a teacher who had studied in Japan. Decades later, he recalled to the American writer Edgar Snow that

I began to have a certain amount of political consciousness, especially after I read a pamphlet telling of the dismemberment of China. I remember even now that this pamphlet opened with the sentence: ‘Alas, China will be subjugated!’ It told of Japan’s occupation of Korea and Taiwan, of the loss of suzerainty in Indo-China, Burma and elsewhere. After I read this I felt depressed about the future of my country and began to realize that it was the duty of the people to help save it.

Among other reforms, the army was modernized. A new, professional elite of army men soon emerged, particularly under Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), a general in the old Qing army. The military academy established by Yuan south of Beijing initially trained, among others, the future Nationalist leader – and Mao’s rival – Chiang Kai-shek (1888–1975). A glamorous militarist strain appeared in Chinese urban life which had so far conferred prestige on silk-robed Confucian gentlemen with a gift for poetry and calligraphy. Voluntary organizations dedicated to modernizing and strengthening China sprang up in both China and the Chinese diaspora.

The reforms also had consequences not obvious to the Qing reformists. Students who had become deeply politicized by their stay in Japan returned to form enduring anti-Qing alliances with like-minded graduates of the new schools and military academies. Many of these were radical nationalists in the European Social Darwinist style, borrowing from the examples of Germany and Japan to posit a Han ‘national essence’ against alien Manchus.

For the radical nationalists, Manchu or ‘foreign’ rule over China constituted a greater evil than Western imperialists. The most famous of them, an eighteen-year-old student from Sichuan called Zou Rong, published a tract titled ‘The Revolutionary Army’ in 1903, which denounced Han Chinese habits of mental slavery and argued for redemption through a bloody extirpation of the Manchus. Anticipating Frantz Fanon’s views of the emancipatory quality of revolutionary violence, Zou wrote that

Revolution is a universal rule of evolution. Revolution is a universal principle of the world. Revolution is the essence of the struggle for survival or destruction in a time of transition. Revolution submits to heaven and responds to men’s needs. Revolution rejects what is corrupt and keeps the good. Revolution is the advance from barbarism to civilization. Revolution turns slaves into masters.

In the same year, Zhang Taiyan, the classical scholar and a close colleague of Zou Rong, wrote an open letter to Kang Youwei ridiculing him for his continuing support of the Manchu emperor, a ‘despicable little wretch who cannot so much as tell the difference between a bean and a noodle’. He also mocked Kang for expressing the fear that revolution in China would lead to terrible bloodletting, dictatorship and foreign invasions: ‘Can a constitutional system,’ he asked, ‘ever be achieved without bloodshed?’ Zhang claimed that violence in the cause of racial-ethnic revenge was as morally justified as revolution for human rights: ‘As for those peoples who, following the model of the devilish [American president] McKinley, engaged in expansionism under the pretext of helping others, we should make it a principle to kill them without pardon.’

Zhang also attacked Kang Youwei’s praise for Indian literature and philosophy. ‘Indians’, he wrote, ‘have generally not cared if their national territory is lost or if their race declines … Chinese determination is stronger than the Indian, and we can foresee that Chinese accomplishments will certainly surpass those of the Indians.’ Zhang was imprisoned for his remarks about the emperor. In jail, where he embarked on a life-changing study of Buddhism, he wrote more rousing missives:

With our people and our culture in their proper places, I must seek to irradiate their splendour. My will has not yet achieved its end. I am still shackled by the enemy state. Others will follow me to renew the golden flame. If our nation’s antiquity and our people’s historical record should come to an end in my hands, and the continuance of China’s broad and magnificent scholarship be severed, this will be my crime to bear.

From Hawaii, Liang Qichao followed the news of China’s greatest humiliation yet, and the last of his old beliefs began to die. In a letter to Kang, he denounced ‘the slavish mentality’ of the Chinese people. In this bleak world that China found herself in, where ‘battle is the mother of all progress’, Confucius could no longer be the sole guide. Nor could constitutional monarchy be the right system for a people who desperately needed to be educated and mobilized around a strong nation-state.

The status quo was intolerable since a self-perpetuating autocratic system treated the Chinese people as slaves, making them indifferent to the public good. In his famous series of essays, ‘Discourses on the New People’, Liang argued that nothing less than a total destruction of the Manchu regime could save China. ‘I have thought and thought again’, he wrote, ‘about the popularly accepted system in China today; there is almost not a single aspect of it which ought not to be destroyed and swept away, root and branch.’ Invoking Social Darwinism again, Liang warned, ‘when a race cannot meet the exigencies of the times, it cannot endure’. Freedom was the absolute necessity for China, he wrote, invoking Patrick Henry’s famous words, ‘Give me Liberty or give me Death.’

Liang was moving close to a break with Kang Youwei, who still believed that a wise and paternalistic monarchy could launch China into modernity. Kang had tried to stoke an armed revolt during the Boxer Rising. Failure forced him to seek refuge in Penang, where he quarrelled with Sun Yat-sen; he then moved to India in December 1901. He spent a year in the Himalayan resort of Darjeeling, during which he finished his treatise called Book of the Great Community, which offered a utopian vision of a post-nationalist harmony. Like many Chinese thinkers of his period, Kang turned out to be less a nationalist than a utopian internationalist. As he saw it, a universal moral community of the future would transcend all distinctions of race, ethnicity and language, and would even dissolve the family – a vision that would be resurrected in China under Mao Zedong.

Battle of Taku Forts (1859)

The London government had originally decided that the new resident ambassador to Beijing should be a very senior official. The French thought the same and offered their appointment to Baron Gros. He declined, on the sensible grounds that the Chinese emperor would hardly wish to receive in person people who had forced such revolutionary concessions on him at the point of the bayonet. But when it became clear that Elgin had, in effect, agreed not to exercise the right of permanent residence, Paris and London decided to appoint persons of lesser rank as ministers, rather than as full ambassadors. By mid-January 1859, it was decided to send Frederick Bruce out to China again to exchange those necessary ratification documents for the 1858 treaty and then to assume the post of non-resident minister plenipotentiary at the Chinese court. However, the government continued to insist that ratification proper must take place in Beijing, though Bruce could see the emperor privately rather than in a public ratification ceremony.

In addition, Bruce was told to relieve Sir John Bowring as superintendent of trade, though Bowring could continue as governor of the Hong Kong colony. Bruce himself should be established at Shanghai, as the base both for his Beijing mission and for the superintendency of trade. Frederick Bruce promptly left London and crossed paths briefly in Ceylon with his brother Elgin, who was now on his way home.

While he was on his way, there was more trouble at Canton. Ye’s successor as viceroy instructed his people to `Go forth in your myriads. and take vengeance on the enemy of your sovereign’. By now, too, the Russians had promised to supply the Chinese with 10,000 rifles and 50 cannon. Meanwhile, in February 1859, van Straubenzee at Canton had finally decided to do something about the guerrilla nuisance. He led a column to destroy a guerrilla fort some seven miles outside the city. Later, when some Chinese set an ambush for a party of military police doing their rounds, and killed seven of them, the general retaliated by demolishing the entire street where the ambush had happened. There was no more trouble. Hope Grant, the general who would command the British force a year later, said afterwards that his wife and Lady Straubenzee `were carried in sedan chairs through the crowded streets and by-lanes without meeting with any incivility’.

Bruce stayed only briefly in Hong Kong before sailing on to Shanghai, now accompanied by his new and fiery little French colleague, Count Alphonse de Bourboulon, the new French minister to China. The Frenchman was a lively professional diplomat, one of whose distinctions was to have married the tall, slim and statuesque Catherine Fanny McLeod during a posting in the USA. The social position of the de Bourboulons was much enhanced by Catherine’s claim that her family was connected with royalty. In any event, Bruce and de Bourboulon arrived at Shanghai in early June 1859, just as the political cycle in London was turning again to bring Palmerston back as prime minister, this time with Lord John Russell as foreign secretary.

Before leaving Hong Kong to sail north, Bruce learned that the emperor was so angry about the Tianjin Treaty that no envoy would be received in any kind of audience. He also heard that military preparations were going ahead not only at Tianjin and Beijing but also at the river’s mouth at Dagu, where new cannon were being cast, and that the task of preventing any foreign armies from approaching Beijing had been entrusted to one of China’s most eminent soldiers, who also seemed to have headed the pro-war party at court. This was the renowned Mongol cavalry general, Prince Sangkolinsin (naturally the cheeky British soldiery promptly translated that to `Sam Collinson’ and started a rumour that, far from being a Chinese prince, he was a rebellious Irish marine). He brought some 4000 elite Mongolian cavalry with him and was later said to have, altogether, some 50,000 Manchu and Mongol troops under his command. Sangkolinsin came from the Horqin Left Black Banner of Inner Mongolia that traced its ancestry back to the founding Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. In 1825 he became a Chinese imperial prince of the second degree. He also became adjutant-general under the old Daoguang emperor, who was his patron. After Daoguang’s death, he became in 1853/1854 a national hero when he and his Mongol cavalry pushed back a Taiping rebel drive into North China and captured one of its leaders. Two years later still he became a prince of the first degree. As the Anglo- French campaign loomed, he was appointed imperial commissioner to lead the campaign against the invaders.

He was very ready to sound warlike but was also a realist. Two of his memorials to the throne, presented back in 1858, were pessimistic about the defences between Tianjin and Beijing and stressed the low morale of his soldiers. All the same, it remained fairly obvious to the allies that, given Chinese preparations, the Franco-British mission would need to be backed by an adequate force if it was to make an impression. Not only that, but the news about Prince Sang only strengthened Bruce’s determination to insist on sailing upriver to Tianjin and showing the flag there, if only because `on the Mongol prince in charge of the works, the hopes of the war party (at Beijing) repose, and if he is defeated in his attempt to keep us out of the river, pacific counsels will prevail’. Moreover, Bruce was helped by the fact that, even before leaving China, Elgin, who knew how dilatory Seymour could be, had told the admiral to collect some shallow draught gunboats to escort his brother to the mouth of the Haihe.

At Shanghai, Bruce and de Bourboulon were told that the two senior Chinese commissioners who had negotiated the 1858 treaty had arrived and wanted to discuss a few points. The allies responded much as the Chinese had responded in previous years to allied pleas to tweak the texts of previous treaties: the texts were the texts and there was nothing to talk about. So now Bruce replied, with de Bourboulon’s agreement, that there was nothing to discuss until the treaty had been properly ratified at Beijing. When the two Chinese commissioners tried to argue, Bruce and de Bourboulon simply sailed north without seeing them and arrived at the mouth of the Haihe, but beyond the sand bar, on 18 June. This time, the allies had 16 warships in place, including one ship of the line, all commanded by Rear Admiral Sir James Hope, a Scot who had succeeded Admiral Seymour a couple of months earlier. Hope had joined the navy at age fifteen and reached the rank of captain by the age of thirty. The French had only two small ships present since most of the French navy in the East, and a force of some 4000 under Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, was now busy in Indo-China, in operations against Annam.

On arriving at Dagu, it was at once clear that the forts had indeed been greatly strengthened since the allies had so easily occupied them the year before. There were many more guns and men in place, and chains and heavy bamboo trunks had been installed as booms across the river entrance.

Here was obviously a foretaste of trouble. But, contrary to various later conspiracy theories, it was not, it turned out, that the Chinese necessarily wanted to bar all access to Beijing. It was true that the court still hoped to deal with ratification of the 1858 treaty at Shanghai, but it was willing to let the negotiators come to Beijing. On the other hand, the Chinese did want the embassies, if they had to come to the capital, to go to there by road after landing at Beitang, a small coastal town about ten miles up the coast from Dagu, not just because they wanted the details of the new Dagu defence arrangements kept secret, but for overriding reasons of national politics and morale. (Also, did the very idea of a British fleet of sixteen warships sailing up the Haihe seem too much like a victory parade?) In any case, on 18 June the Grand Council ordered that three buildings be prepared as residences at Beijing for the British, French and American ministers `in conformity with the precedents of various tribute-bearing barbarians’. So the buildings were outside the eastern gate of the capital.

The new American minister, John Ward, did as the Chinese demanded. He had also arrived at Dagu on his way to the capital for the ratification of his treaty and was also invited to go, with an escort, via Beitang. He did. He was left to cool his heels at the small port for some three weeks. Then, on the first stage of their 160-mile journey to Beijing, the Americans were taken along the Haihe River in large sampans and then by some rough carts pulled by mules – a normal mode of transport for subject peoples and tribute-bearers – over some very stony roads. The carts were so uncomfortable, having no springs, seats or cushions, that for the last stretch of the week-long journey the Americans chose to walk. By now, of course, they were entirely in the hands of the Chinese without any support or protection of their own. They entered Beijing on 27 July before a crowd eager to see the vanquished enemy make his submission – after all, had not the Americans had a hand in the Dagu battle? Ward’s group was accommodated in large, comfortable houses and given servants and food. But they were not allowed to fly their own flag and were prevented from moving around the city or from contacting the Russians (who had already ratified their own 1858 Treaty of Tianjin with the Chinese; this had been done on 24 April by the Russian representative and Sushun, the president of the Board of Revenue). Ward wanted to hand over President Buchanan’s letter of credence personally to the emperor, in the manner normal in the West. But that immediately ran into the problem of the kowtow. The Chinese explained that though the emperor regarded the US president as quite his equal, the formalities would have to be maintained. They had to insist on having the envoy at least bow and kneel. And if the formalities of an imperial reception for the minister had to be omitted, the normal formalities of handing the president’s letter to the emperor would have to be omitted as well. The American refused to kneel, so talks broke off, Buchanan’s letter was handed to Guiliang for transmission to the emperor and the American delegation returned to Beitang. There, on 16 August, the ratification ceremony was held with Guiliang and the governor of the province, and the Americans left to sail home. In effect, the Chinese had skilfully managed to ft the American approach to Beijing into the traditional manner in which tributary princes and delegations normally approached the throne, which was precisely what the British insisted on avoiding. The minister, deeply conscious that his mission had ended poorly, submitted to the president a request allowing him to retire.

However, President Buchanan professed himself entirely content with this outcome. He put it this way to Congress:

On the arrival of Mr Ward at Peking he requested an audience of the Emperor to present his letter of credence. This he did not obtain, in consequence of his very proper refusal to submit to the humiliating ceremonies required by the etiquette of this strange people. Nevertheless, the interviews on this question were conducted in the most friendly spirit and with all due regard to his personal feelings and the honor of his country. When a presentation to His Majesty was found to be impossible, the letter of credence from the President was received with peculiar honors by Guiliang `the Emperor’s prime minister and the second man in the Empire.’ The ratifications of the treaty were afterwards, on the 16th of August, exchanged in proper form at Beitang (Pehtang). It is but simple justice to the Chinese authorities to observe that throughout the whole transaction they appear to have acted in good faith and in a friendly spirit toward the United States. The conduct of our minister. has received my entire approbation.

The British envoy, Bruce, was, of course, from the start very conscious of the overriding political importance of the style and manner of his approach to Beijing. The foreign secretary had given firm instructions that he should approach Beijing by travelling via Tianjin `in a British ship of war’. Lord Malmesbury had not only told Bruce to beware of possible Chinese treachery but warned that every detail of his visit to Beijing, being the first mission of its kind to the Chinese capital, would inevitably be taken by the Chinese as a precedent for the future.

Admiral Hope therefore requested peaceful passage up the Haihe River. He asked that the Chinese barriers be removed so that the emissaries could sail through. Nothing happened, so on 21 June Bruce and de Bourboulon gave formal permission to the admirals to clear the obstacles. Four days later Bruce received a letter from the local viceroy, Heng Fu, suggesting that he make his way to Beijing, not via Dagu but through Beitang. For the usual reasons, the Chinese also wanted the allies to use a more indirect, modest and quasi-tributary way of getting to the capital. There were additional reasons for Bruce to find Heng Fu’s note unhelpful. Among other things, in the Chinese note the name of Queen Victoria had been written at a lower level than that of the emperor – in Chinese usage a not very subtle assertion of superiority, even dominance. In any case, Malmesbury had already stipulated that Bruce should go to Tianjin in a warship. That was not just to make a demonstration. Only if Tianjin was threatened by the guns of a British warship was a British envoy likely to be properly treated by, and in, Beijing. Conversely, if Bruce did go via Beitang and travel overland, with his gunboats still outside Dagu, his chances of success at Beijing itself would obviously be greatly reduced.

However, by the time Bruce saw Heng Fu’s letter he could in any case no longer communicate with Admiral Hope, who was on the verge of launching his attack on the Dagu forts. Hope therefore went ahead. But his movements were slow and, reflecting a confidence in British superiority, undertaken virtually without proper reconnaissance. Only after 2 p. m. 25th June, did one of the British boats, the Opossum, start to cut a passage. Only when she, followed by three other gunboats, got to the second barrier did some thirty to forty Chinese guns open an uncomfortably accurate fire. Within a few minutes the gunboats were heavily damaged and had to retreat behind the first boom. Admiral Hope himself, on board the Plover, was twice severely wounded and fell down. His own gunboat was left with only nine men left standing out of a crew of forty. The artillery duel continued but had died down towards evening, by which time 6 of the 11 British gunboats were out of action, most of them with heavy casualties and some even aground.

The American naval contingent on the scene, there to observe events but remain neutral, also got involved. Its colourful commander, Commodore Josiah Tatnall, had been appointed flag officer of the US Asiatic station in the previous October. Shortly before the allied action began he found his own flagship aground and having to be towed off by the English. Later, when he rowed over, through Chinese fire, to see his wounded friend, Admiral Hope, he could not stand the sight. A good many of his American sailors seem actually to have helped to man British guns during the fighting. He even ordered his own steamer to tow several launches filled with British marines into action and others, filled with wounded, away from the fire. Later, when pressed on all this, he famously replied (since the English were, after all, cousins) that `blood is thicker than water’ and found himself backed by public opinion and the government back home. When the American civil war broke out shortly afterwards, Tatnall resigned his commission and became a captain in the Confederate Navy and commander of naval defences in South Carolina and Georgia.

In any case, by 6 p. m. it was clear that if the Dagu forts were to be taken that day, the storming parties would have to go ashore at once. It would be risky because some of the Chinese guns were still in action and it was clear that behind the walls of the forts were lots of Chinese troops with infantry weapons. On the other hand, a British withdrawal and resumption of the attack next day would mean simply abandoning the four gunboats now aground within easy reach of the forts. Withdrawal would therefore mean rescuing the crews but not the ships. With Admiral Hope being too badly wounded to make a sensible decision, his number two, Captain Charles Shadwell, made it, deciding to press the attack.

By now, though, the tide was out and the landing boats had to leave the marines to wade across deep mud to reach land, with ammunition and weapons often soaked and no protection from heavy Chinese fire for the 150 or so men who landed. Some fifty of the landing party managed to reach the wall of the southern forts but were pinned down there.

Eventually they were ordered to withdraw, with their wounded, and the evacuation was completed at 1:30 in the morning. Altogether, the British lost 519 soldiers and sailors killed and 456 wounded out of the 1100 engaged. Some of the men who were veterans of the Crimean War were heard to mutter that they would rather fight the Battle of Balaclava again three times over than have another go at the Dagu forts. (Later, Palmerston even thought that the Chinese guns had been so effective that they must have been manned by Russians.)

In the next few days Admiral Hope recovered and managed to make all his boats seaworthy again – except three. By 1 July he acknowledged to Bruce that he could not tackle the forts again. It was clear that everyone would have to move back to Shanghai, where there were no signs of any Chinese wish to open a new `front’ against the allies, whose governments were anyway happy to think that there was no need to expand the war, especially to places where peaceful trading with the Chinese was still possible. Indeed, Lord John Russell, the new foreign secretary, took care to tell Bruce later that, whatever might have happened at Dagu, `there are no reasons for interrupting friendly relations with the Chinese at Shanghai, Canton and elsewhere’.

Among the allies, both in China and back home, the Dagu defeat was so entirely unexpected that a series of conspiracy theories were immediately concocted to account for it, including stories that the Chinese had indeed been helped by Russians. The most important theory was that the Chinese had never intended to ratify the Treaty of Tianjin but had simply laid a trap for the peaceful British negotiators: the Chinese had wantonly attacked the British, who were trying, peacefully, to go about their diplomatic business by sailing upriver. Tom Wade, thinking it over once he was back in Shanghai, had an only slightly less complicated explanation. As he wrote on 14 July: `The Chinese knew we were coming to Peking. If the Government had said, you don’t go by such or such a route, which is closed for military reasons, I don’t see how, professing peace, we could have forced the door; but they carefully kept all officials out of the way. The villagers who met our marines at Taku (Dagu) maintained that none were near, and that the works were all the work of the people for the exclusion of pirates etc. I am much puzzled and believe that pride, vindictiveness, treachery, and yet great cowardice are all jumbled together in the producing causes of the collisions.’.

Yalu River 20 September 1894

The year 1862 was a momentous one. Civil war raged in America, Britain was in the full flush of her Industrial Revolution, and continental Europe, as ever, hovered on the brink of internal conflict. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a gauntlet was thrown down at the feet of Western interference. On the Japanese island of Kyushu, a British merchant, Charles Richardson, when about his lawful business in the port of Kagoshima, was murdered by the locals. The British Government demanded recompense, but none was forthcoming – the insular Japanese did not even offer an apology for Richardson’s murder. The inevitable retribution came early in the following year, when a British fleet commanded by Admiral Kuper sailed into Kagoshima Sound and reduced the port to a smoking ruin.

At that time Japan had no fighting ships to defend the realm, but the forts of Kagoshima, equipped only with primitive stone-shotted guns, hit back defiantly at Admiral Kuper’s warships. Amongst those manning the guns of Kagoshima on that infamous day was 16-year-old Heihachiro Togo, a young Samurai of the Satsuma clan. When the battle was over – and lost – Togo swore on the graves of his ancestors that Japan would never again suffer the humiliation of being unable to meet an aggressor at sea, ship for ship, gun for gun. There were many in Japan who shared Togo’s determination.

A few years after Kagoshima, Japan slipped into civil war as the Shogun Princes fought to subdue the emerging forces for change. The Princes failed, and the nation that for centuries had been content to stagnate in genteel isolation threw off the feudal yoke and began to industrialize along European lines. With industrialization came a swelling population and a desperate search for export markets. This led to a desire – again, following the European example – to reach out and colonize. As a means to this end, the new Japan first required a powerful navy.

Since Nelson’s crushing defeat of France and Spain at Trafalgar more than half a century earlier, Britain had dominated the seas around Europe and beyond. No other nation had such expertise in the building of warships and the training of crew to man them, and so it was to her that Japan turned to for help in setting up her own navy. She ordered the best ships British yards could build and sent her officers to be taught the arts of seafaring and sea-fighting by the Royal Navy. With them went Heihachiro Togo.

Togo took command of his first ship in Japan’s Imperial Navy in 1879, at the beginning of a period of great turbulence in the affairs of the Far East. Much of the trouble could be laid at the doors of the big European trading powers Britain, France, Germany and Russia, all of whom were intent on securing new markets in the East. As the end of the century drew near, the focus of attention became the Korean peninsula, long dominated by China but now showing an increasing tendency to lean towards its next nearest neighbour, Japan. Under the pretence of establishing peace and stability in Korea, Japan had been quietly working to take over her weaker neighbour by stealth. China, fearing the loss of her erstwhile satellite, was making threatening noises. While the two Eastern rivals were thus preoccupied, Britain had moved into Burma, the French had moved into Indo-China and Russia was working on a take-over of Manchuria. All the ingredients for war were in the mixing pot, waiting for the catalyst to be added.

In the morning of 20 July 1894 a Japanese Flying Squadron of three ironclad cruisers was on patrol in the Gulf of Asan on the west coast of Korea. The ships were an impressive trio, led by the 4,150-ton Naniwa Kan, which was under the command of Captain Heihachiro Togo. The Naniwa Kan, British-built and said to be one of the most powerful ironclad cruisers in the world, was almost 300 feet long and carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch guns, four torpedo tubes and fourteen machine guns. She had a top speed of 18.7 knots. Her consorts were the 4,180-ton Yoshino, armed with four 6-inch and eight 4.7-inch guns and also British-built, and the Japanese-built Akitsushima, a third-rate cruiser of 3,150 tons mounting four 6-inch and six 4.7-inch guns. The latter had a speed of 19 knots; the Yoshino was reputedly capable of 23.

Togo’s orders were to sweep the Gulf of Asan for Chinese transports rumoured to be landing troops on the Korean coast. However, as, to the best of his knowledge, China and Japan were not yet at war, the captain was somewhat unsure what to do should he come upon such vessels. But the sea was calm and the day promised to be pleasantly warm, and he decided to meet that challenge when he came to it. He did not have long to wait.

Just before 9 o’clock the Japanese squadron was nearing the head of the gulf when two unidentified ships were seen emerging from the entrance to the port of Asan. As they drew nearer, it became clear that the approaching ships were Chinese men-of-war, and, purely as a precautionary measure, Togo ordered his men to stand by their guns. The Chinese ships were the 2,355-ton ironclad cruiser Tsi Yuen, carrying two 8.2-inch and one 5.9-inch guns, and the 1,300- ton Kwang Yi, a lightly armed sloop. Both ships were steaming at full speed for the open sea, and they had no transports with them. In the circumstances, Togo decided to let them pass unchallenged.

It was at this point that an uneasy peace changed to war, for the leading Chinese ship, the Tsi Yuen, suddenly altered course and headed straight for the Japanese squadron, her bow-wave foaming and her funnels belching black smoke. Her actions caused Togo to assume that she was about to attack with torpedoes, and he gave the order to open fire. The Naniwa Kan heeled under the blast as her great 10.2-inch Krupp guns thundered out in unison. The Yoshino and Akitsushima joined in with their lighter guns, the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi replied, and within minutes a full-scale battle was in progress – the first action ever to be fought by Chinese and Japanese ironclads.

The British-trained Japanese gunners were soon bracketing the Chinese ships, and then scoring hits. The Tsi Yuen sustained heavy damage and the Kwang Yi was unscathed, but neither of the ships’ captains had any stomach for the fight: before long they had turned tail and were fleeing back towards the shelter of Asan harbour, with the Yoshino and Akitsushima in pursuit.

The Naniwa did not join in the chase, for Togo had seen two more ships entering the gulf from seaward. These proved to be a merchant ship flying the British flag, escorted by another Chinese warship. This raised serious problems for Togo, for, although, following the attack on his ships by the Tsi Yuen, he assumed that his country must be at war with China, he thought it unlikely that the British would be involved. Yet, through his telescope, he could see that the merchantman was crowded with troops, almost certainly Chinese, and on their way in to Asan. They must be prevented from landing.

Togo opened fire on the Chinese warship, which turned out to be the sloop Tsao Kiang. Without more ado, the latter ran away at full speed, leaving her charge to fend for herself. Togo was reluctant to interfere with a ship flying the Red Ensign, but he patently could not ignore her military passengers. Holding her under his guns, Togo sent away a boarding party, which returned with the news that the trooper was the 2,134-ton Kow Shing, owned by the Indo-China Steam Navigation Company of London and commanded by Captain T. R. Galsworthy. She was under charter to the Chinese Government and had on board 1,500 Chinese soldiers, fourteen field guns and their ammunition and a German artillery officer, Captain C. von Hanneken. Galsworthy protested loudly against his detention, declaring that he was on a lawful voyage, Britain and Japan not being at war, and that Togo had no right to hold his ship. Galsworthy was technically correct, but Togo was not about to allow 1,500 fully armed Chinese troops to land on Korean soil. He demanded surrender.

The situation on board the Kow Shing was chaotic. Galsworthy was in favour of surrendering, but he and his officers were surrounded by Chinese with loaded guns, who made no secret of what would happen to them it they refused to take the ship into Asan. The Chinese general argued that the Japanese would not dare sink a ship under the British flag, but Galsworthy was not convinced. Much as he feared the Chinese guns, he feared the wrath of his owners more. He declined to continue the voyage. It was stalemate.

This dangerous confrontation went on for nearly four hours, with the Japanese threatening, the Chinese obstinately refusing to surrender and Galsworthy and the Kow Shing’s British officers caught in the middle. Then Togo did something of which his Royal Navy mentors would not have approved. He torpedoed the helpless merchantman, pounded her with his big guns and, when she sank, machine-gunned the troops struggling in the water. Only Captain Galsworthy, his chief officer, his boatswain, Captain von Hanneken and 41 Chinese survived.

Togo’s ill-judged and brutal action elicited a howl of protest from Admiral Fremantle, commanding the British Far Eastern Fleet, and, later, rumbles of disapproval from the Foreign Office, but as far as Britain was concerned the incident was soon closed. For the Chinese, however, the attack on the Tsi Yuen and Kwang Yi, followed by the slaughter of more than a thousand of their troops in the Kow Shing, could mean only one thing: China and Japan were at war.

The cruel irony of the Asan Gulf incident was that it all came about as the result of an unfortunate accident. The Tsi Yuen did not intentionally charge Togo’s Flying Squadron, as it had appeared to the Japanese. The ships would have passed each other with no more than the exchange of hostile stares if the Tsi Yuen’s steering gear had not jammed at the crucial moment, causing her to take an involuntary run at the Naniwa Kan and her consorts. The Sino- Japanese War, although brewing for a long time, was, like so many wars, sparked off by an unfortunate misunderstanding – and the callous actions of Heihachiro Togo following the confrontation destroyed any hope of negotiation.

Togo’s masters in Tokyo were certainly not pleased with his heavy-handed diplomacy. They feared that Russia might come to China’s aid, in which case the Imperial Japanese Navy would have to face not only the Chinese Fleet in the Yellow Sea but also the Russian Asiatic Fleet operating out of Vladivostok, both of which were believed to have superior ships. But, for the time being, Russia stayed uncommitted, and the build-up to the war on land went ahead. At the northern end of the Yellow Sea, in Korea Bay, the Chinese Fleet, under Admiral Ting, occupied itself with covering the landing of troops near the Yalu River, while further south Admiral Yuko Ito’s Japanese ships did the same on the Taidong river. For six weeks after the declaration of war the rival fleets had no contact with each other.

On 16 September the Japanese Navy, having carried out a landing operation at Chinnampo, was returning to sea. Admiral Ito had with him a powerful force comprising ten cruisers, a gunboat, an armed merchantman and a flotilla of torpedo boats. Ito’s flagship, the 4,277-ton Matsushima, mounted one 12.5- inch and eleven 4.7-inch guns, as did her sister ships Itsukushima and Hasidate. The Fuse and Takachico carried two 10.2-inch and six 5.9-inch, the 2,200-ton Hiyei one 10.2-inch and two 5.9-inch and the 2,450-ton Chiyoda ten 4.7-inch guns. Togo’s Flying Squadron, the Naniwa Kan, Yoshino and Akitsu- shima, were also in company.

Having completed his mission, Admiral Ito, tired of playing nursemaid to a flock of troop transports, took his ships north into Korea Bay looking for action. He had an unconfirmed report that the Chinese were landing troops at the mouth on the Yalu River, about 100 miles to the north. Steaming in line abreast, their immaculate paintwork gleaming and their funnels trailing black smoke, the Japanese ships stretched from horizon to horizon, an impressive sight. Unfortunately, they were constrained by the speed of the slowest ship, the 1,650-ton armed merchantman Saikio Maru, and progress was made at little more than 10 knots. Ito fumed, for he was anxious to demonstrate the prowess of his fleet.

The report received of Japanese landings at the head of Korea Bay was correct. Six Chinese transports, carrying 4,500 troops and 80 pieces of artillery, had entered the Yalu River and were discharging their cargo as Ito steamed north. Offshore, at the mouth of the river, the escorting force of two battleships, nine cruisers, four gunboats and six torpedo boats had anchored, forming a shield to prevent any interference with the landings from seaward. Admiral Ying, in command of the expedition, flew his flag in the battleship Ting Yuen, a German-built ship of 7,430 tons. She had a top speed of 14 knots and carried four 12-inch and four 6-inch guns in barbettes, armour-protected raised platforms on deck; her sister ship, the Chen Yuen, anchored close by, was identical. The larger cruisers, the King Yuen, Lai Yuen and Ping Yuen, each of 2,850 tons, were 16-knot ships armed with 8-inch and 6-inch guns, while the 2,300-ton Tsi Yuen and Chi Yuen were similarly armed. The smaller Chinese cruisers, the Kwang Chia, Kwang Ping, Yang Wei and Chao Yung, the latter pair British built, were, at 1,300 tons, little more than sloops but carried an assortment of 10-inch and 4.7-inch guns. It was a large and formidable fleet, but the presence on board the ships of a number of British, American and German advisers, including Captain von Hanneken, late of the Kow Shing, indicated some weakness in the calibre of the Chinese officers. That may have been so, but the fact that Admiral Ting had chosen to anchor his ships rather than stand off the river entrance with full steam up did not say much for the advice his foreign experts were presumably giving him.

At daybreak on the 17th the Japanese fleet was in sight of Hai-yang Island, 35 miles off the coast at the northern end of Korea Bay and 100 miles east of Port Arthur, China’s main naval base. As the grey light of the dawn paled and the first rays of the rising sun touched the tall peaks of Hai-yang, Admiral Ito’s lookouts were on full alert, but they could see no sign of the Chinese fleet. The gunboat Akagi was sent to check the deep-water anchorage on the western side of the island, but here again there was no trace of the enemy. Ito decided to continue on towards the mouth of the Yalu River, some 70 miles to the north-east. It was the typhoon season, but as the sun climbed in a flawless blue sky it showed the promise of a fine autumn day unmarred by strong winds. With the Matsushima impatiently in the van, the great fleet swept on majestically, eager for confrontation.

Hai-yang dropped astern, and for the next three and a half hours the fleet steamed at full speed, working up to 18 knots and leaving the hard-pressed gunboat Akagi and the Saikio Maru straggling in its wake. The enthusiasm of the Japanese stokers sent tall columns of smoke drifting skywards, where, trapped by a temperature inversion, the smoke merged to form an extensive black cloud in an otherwise unmarred sky.

Ito’s unintentional warning beacon was sighted by Admiral Ting’s lookouts at around 10.30 that morning, by which time the disembarkation of the troops and their equipment was nearing completion. Ting recognized that the smoke signalled the imminent arrival of a large enemy fleet, which left him in something of a dilemma. He could not leave the transports unprotected, but, on the other hand, if his fleet remained at anchor it would be at a distinct disadvantage. After some deliberation he gave the order for all ships to weigh anchor and steam out to sea. Forty minutes later the Chinese warships, in some disarray, had formed a ragged line of battle across the entrance to the Yalu River. Behind them, with the landing operation suspended, the transports had also weighed anchor and were seeking refuge in the shallows.

The opposing fleets came in sight of each other at 11.40, ten ironclads on each side and probably the greatest concentration of guns seen afloat since Trafalgar. The Japanese mounted in all three 12.5-inch, seven 10.2-inch, eight 6- inch, twenty 5.9-inch and fifty-seven 4.7-inch, while the Chinese mustered eight 12-inch, five 10-inch, thirteen 8-inch, eighteen 6-inch, one 5.9-inch and sixteen 4.7-inch. In weight of firepower it was a fairly even match, but it was the men behind the guns who would decide the outcome of the day, and Admiral Ito, leading his ships in his flagship Matsushima, harboured no doubts as to who would see victory.

Heihachiro Togo, whose Flying Squadron formed the rearguard of the battle fleet, supported the Admiral’s view. He had the advantage of having inspected the Chinese ships when they were on a courtesy visit to Yokohama before the war. He had been amazed by the casual attitude of the Chinese officers, the lack of discipline of the men and the generally slipshod state of the ships. Further¬ more, the experience of the Gulf of Asan, when he had easily put to flight three Chinese warships, was proof enough of their reluctance to fight. From the neat, orderly bridge of the Naniwa Kan Togo could see nothing to frighten him.

Admiral Ting, the quality of his ships and men apart, was already at a great disadvantage. If he kept his ships close inshore he would be unable to manoeuvre freely for fear of running aground on the numerous shoals off the river entrance. On the other hand, if he steamed out to meet the Japanese fleet there was the risk of some of the enemy’s smaller ships slipping through his line to get at the transports. He compromised, advancing a few miles out to sea, then formed his cruisers into line abreast, with the two battleships at the centre of the line. The smaller cruisers Kwang Chia and Kwang Ping, with four torpedo boats, he sent back to guard the transports against attack.

As he approached the enemy, Admiral Ito manoeuvred his ships into two parallel lines ahead, the heavier cruisers, with the Chiyoda, Hiyei and the torpedo boats, bringing up the rear. In every ship men stood to their guns, loaded and ready to fire on the command. At the Matsushima’s yardarm a huge Japanese Imperial Standard, which carried a gold chrysanthemum on a deep red background, whipped defiantly in the breeze. The flag provided the only frivolous splash of colour in the well-drilled formation of sombre-painted ships. The Chinese ships, on the other hand, with their gaily painted, ornate woodwork on deck and multi-coloured displays of bunting at the halyards, might well have been taking part in a carnival. But even carnivals must be organized: Ting’s undulating line of battle appeared to lack all coherence, and its advance was now noticeably lacking in enthusiasm.

Ito had eased back the speed of his ships and the opposing fleets moved towards each other at a closing speed of 17 knots. The sun was nearing its zenith and, without a single cloud to veil its brilliance, reflected back from the mirror-like sea with a dazzling glare. This put the south-facing Chinese ships at a double disadvantage, which might have accounted for some of their lack of co-ordination. There was, however, a great deal of apprehension on both sides, for, with the exception of Togo’s Flying Squadron and the foreign advisers in the Chinese ships, most were yet to hear a gun fired in battle.

For the next 45 minutes the two fleets stood slowly on towards each other, the distance between them closing yard by yard, but, so it seemed, each resolving not to be the first to fire. It was a silent game of poker, played out on a silver sea. The stakes were high, the penalty for the loser certain death and destruction.

Ting was the first to crack. At 12.45, unable to bear the tension any longer, he gave the order for a ranging shot to be fired. Instantaneously – the Chen Yuen’s gunners had been nervously fingering their lanyards for some time – one of the battleship’s 37-ton, 12-inch guns thundered out and slammed back in recoil, scattering its unwary crew to the four corners of the barbette. The heavy shell screeched through the still air, reached the top of its trajectory, curved downwards and fell half a mile short of the leading Japanese ships. At 6,000 yards, the range was far too great for the 12-inch, but, the flagship having fired, and in the absence of orders to the contrary, the rest of Admiral Ting’s ships now opened up with every gun they could bring to bear. It was a noisy exhibition of indiscipline that served only to provide rich pickings for the fishermen of Korea Bay when they came sailing out to cast their nets.

The Japanese ships made no response to the provocation but continued to bear down on the Chinese in their impeccable line-ahead formation. Then, when Ito judged the range to be right, a string of flags was broken out at the Matsushima’s yardarm and the two lines of Japanese ships wheeled to port and formed one line ahead, exposing their full broadsides to the enemy. Speed was increased to 14 knots and, on another signal from the flagship, the guns of the fleet roared out in unison, adding a disciplined voice to the ragged cannonade begun by the Chinese. The battle had commenced.

Much of the Japanese fire was directed at the two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen, and both were hit repeatedly. As Ito’s ships were now steaming across the bows of the Chinese vessels they were at a temporary disadvantage; their line might easily have been pierced, with disastrous results, if Ting had increased speed, but he made no attempt to do so. The Chinese fleet in fact appeared to be in state of paralysis, plodding doggedly on at 6 knots and throwing out a wall of shot and flame they hoped would clear a path for their advance. The truth was that, since the outbreak of the war six weeks earlier, the Chinese had not thought it necessary to exercise their ships, and, face to face with the enemy for the first time, they had no clear plan of action. The cruiser Tsi Yuen, survivor of the brush with Togo’s Flying Squadron at Asan, was the first ship to be hit, and, true to form, she broke away from the line and ran for the sanctuary of Port Arthur. She was closely followed by the Kwang Chia.

The gap in the Chinese ranks left by the fleeing ships offered the Japanese an unexpected opportunity to break through and attack from behind. Ito was quick to act, and he sent in the cruisers Yoshino and Akitsushima with three torpedo boats in support. Panic broke out in the Chinese fleet. The Chi Yuen and Chao Yung went full astern, and all ships in the immediate vicinity turned their guns on the Japanese infiltrators, who were beaten back by the sheer weight of fire directed at them. In the melee the Chao Yung, twisting and turning to avoid the Japanese torpedo boats, ran ashore, and all efforts to refloat her failed. She was soon reduced to a blazing hulk by the accurate fire of Ito’s gunners. The battleship Chen Yuen was hit several times above and below the waterline, and her 12-inch guns were put out of action, but she fought on, using her smaller guns to some effect. Her determined fight was in no way due to her commander, Commodore Lin, who had deserted the battleship’s bridge in a blind panic when the shells began to fall. Lin’s American adviser, Commander Philo N. McGiffin, had taken over, and would fight the ship to the end.

In the midst of their nightmare, the Chinese found another weakness in their ships exposed. The profusion of carved and painted woodwork on their decks showed itself to be a serious hazard, any shell-burst almost certainly leading to a fire. In the Chao Yung and Yang Wei, fires on deck prevented ammunition reaching the 10-inch guns, thereby rendering these ships all but useless as fighting units. The Yang Wei, engulfed in flames, followed the Chao Yung ashore.

The cruiser Chi Yuen, commanded by Captain Tang, and with Chief Engineer Purvis, a Scot, in the engine-room, had taken a severe battering from the Japanese guns and was making so much water that Purvis feared she would sink. He conveyed his fears to Captain Tang, who then foolishly decided to inflict some damage on the enemy while he was still able to do so. Ringing for full speed, Tang charged at the nearest Japanese ship with the intention of ramming. Unfortunately for the Chinese captain, he had chosen as his target the 23-knot Yoshino, the fastest ship in Ito’s fleet. The Japanese cruiser had no difficulty in avoiding the Chi Yuen and opened fire on her with all guns at close range. Other Japanese ships joined in, and the Chi Yuen was quickly reduced to a burning hulk. She sank, taking most of her crew with her.

And so the battle raged on throughout the afternoon, with the Chinese, having recovered some of their nerve, giving as good as they received. The cruiser Lai Yuen was ablaze from end to end but her guns fired on; her sister ship, the King Yuen, took a plunging shell through her decks, caught fire and capsized. The two battleships Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen each received between three and four hundred direct hits. On the Japanese side, the flagship Matsushima was hit by a 12-inch shell which exploded among some ready-use ammunition and caused terrible carnage. Otherwise, only the Yoshino and the armed merchant ship Saikio Maru sustained heavy damage. By nightfall the opposing sides had fought each other to a standstill, many of the ships being out of ammunition. The battle ended with Admiral Ito withdrawing his ships to the south, leaving the remains of the Chinese fleet to limp back to its base at Port Arthur.

One who was later to express his puzzlement over Ito’s decision to discontinue the action when darkness fell was Commander McGiffin, adviser to the faint-hearted Commodore Lin of the Chen Yuen. The American reported that by then the Chen Yuen was down to her last twenty rounds of ammunition for her big guns, while her smaller guns were without a shell among them. This was, in fact, the situation in many of the Chinese ships. Additionally, they had suffered heavily, losing the 10-inch gun cruisers Chao Yung and Yang Wei, the Chi Yuen, Admiral Ting’s fastest ship, and the 2,850-ton cruiser King Yuen. Most of the remaining ships had sustained major damage, and Ting had lost nearly 1,000 men, with another 500 wounded, including himself. The Japanese fleet was relatively intact, having only three ships damaged, 90 men killed and 204 wounded. If Ito had chosen to press home his advantage that night he might well have destroyed the Chinese fleet altogether and thus shortened the war considerably. As it was, Ting’s surviving ships were repaired within a few weeks, and although they were reluctant to put to sea again they remained a real threat to Japanese troop movements around the coast.

Interested observers, especially the Europeans, considered the Battle of Yalu River to have been a victory for the Chinese, for although the Japanese appeared to have won the day they failed to prevent the landing of Chinese troops, which was the primary object of their attack. For those same Europeans, certainly the British and Germans, having built many of the ships and guns involved, Yalu River, regardless of its final outcome, was of great significance. It was the first major encounter involving ironclad ships using heavy breech-loading guns. The battle had, in other words, been a test run for much of the new maritime technology coming out of Europe at the time. The lessons learned would be of considerable value in the future.


Chinese Type 59 series

After Mao Zedong and the communists took power in China in 1949 they obtained several hundred Soviet T-34/85s. These were used to equip a single mechanized division. After some delay the Chinese began to produce a copy designated the Type 58, but this was swiftly redundant with the appearance of the T-54. It is not clear if the Chinese ever had a full manufacturing capability for the T-34/85 like the Czechs and Poles, or simply conducted sub-assembly and refurbishments.

Initial Chinese perceptions of the utility of the tank were greatly influenced by their experiences in Korea and Indochina. In Korea the terrain had confined the North Korean tanks to the roads and they had proved vulnerable to enemy air attack. General Wei Guoqing, the chief Chinese advisor to the Viet Minh in Indochina, had witnessed how they had defeated the French without recourse to tanks. China’s most significant contribution to the Viet Minh’s war effort had been artillery and anti-aircraft guns, not tanks. The French had employed the M24 Chaffee light tank and the M4 Sherman medium tank which had given then little discernible strategic advantage.

Many senior Chinese generals saw little scope for the tank in the `people’s war’ again the capitalists. They were steeped in the tradition of the `human wave’ attack, as used during the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Besides, the neighbouring Soviet Union was a fellow communist state so there was no threat from that quarter – or so the Chinese thought.

In the 1950s Moscow supplied the People’s Republic of China with a number of T-54As. The Chinese subsequently built their own version, the 36-ton Type 59 MBT that appeared in late 1957. These were constructed by Factory N. 617 in Baotou in Chinese Inner Mongolia. The Chinese selected the location because it was a city built up around heavy industry, in particular steel. In addition being close to Mongolia meant that it was remote. Once Baotou became the site of a plutonium plant the Chinese had to disperse their tank-building facilities for fear of nuclear attack by America or the Soviet Union.

The early-model Type 59 looked almost identical to the T-54 but was not equipped with a main armament stabilizer or infra-red night vision equipment. Later models were fitted with a fume extractor similar to the T- 54A, an infra-red searchlight for the commander and gunner plus a larger one above the main gun, with a laser rangefinder just to the right of it. To arm the Type 59 China produced a copy of the D-10T tank gun but the Chinese designation for this weapon is not known.

Type 59 Main Battle Tank

Subsequent upgrades resulted in the Type 59-I and Type 59-II, the latter being armed with a 105mm rifled gun. outwardly the Type 59-I was the same but featured a simplified fire-control system and laser rangefinder, plus low pressure engine alarm and an automatic fire extinguisher. Also the cupola door cover and safety door cover were fitted with a hydraulic booster to improve opening and closing. On the Type 59-II the barrel was fitted with a distinctive fume extractor and thermal sleeve. The Chinese produced up to 700 Type 59 a year by the 1970s, rising to a rate of about 1,000 a year by the early 1980s.

Type 59 Armoured Recovery Vehicle

This consisted of a Type 59 with its turret removed. As it did not have a winch, it functioned purely as a towing vehicle. Armament was provided by a single 12.7mm machine gun. It is thought this ARV may have been a field modification rather than factory built.

Type 62 Light Tank

A derivative of the Type 59 was the Type 62 light tank, developed to cope with China’s harsher environments, especially hilly terrain and soft ground where the former could not operate. This was essentially a scaled-down version with slightly smaller dimensions and from a distance it was hard to tell the two apart. The layout was identical to the Type 59. The designers ensured the tank, armed with a shorter 85mm gun, had lower ground pressure and was 15 tons lighter than the Type 59. About 800 were built for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and around 500 for export.

Type 62 Armoured Recovery Vehicle

Some of the light tank variant were converted into armoured recovery vehicles. It is not clear if these were production vehicles or simply field conversions.

Type 63 Light Amphibious Tank

The Chinese Type 63 was based on the Soviet PT-76 light amphibious tank, so the hull and wheels bear no resemblance to the T-54. However, the Chinese version is noteworthy as it featured a turret similar to the Type 62 and was likewise armed with the same 85mm gun. Its roof though was flatter, had smaller commander/loader hatch mountings, no ventilator dome and single handrails either side. About 1,200 were built for the Chinese Army and a number were exported to North Korea and North Vietnam.

Thanks to regular border wars with India and the Soviet Union the Chinese had need of both the Type 62 and Type 63. The frontier with India is dominated by the Himalayas so is not tank country. In contrast the border to the north-east with the Soviet Union along the Ussuri River is very marshy territory.

Type 69 Main Battle Tank

A further development of the Chinese Type 59 was the Type 69 that appeared publicly in 1982, though it may as its designation implies have gone into service some years earlier. The differences in appearance between the two were minimal. It drew on the Soviet T-62, an example of which was captured in 1969, though it did not copy the latter’s 115mm gun. The Type 69 had a infra-red/white light headlamp arrangement that differed from that on Soviet tanks.

It also had distinctive cage-like `boom shields’ or `grid shields’ on the turret sides and rear as well as a bank of four smoke grenade dispensers on either side of the turret. The `boom shields’, consisting of metal louvres mounted 450mm from the turret, were designed to detonate HEAT warheads and developed as a result of experience in the 1979 war with Vietnam. Side skirts were also fitted to protect the upper track. Another distinctive feature was a semi-circular protrusion on the bottom of the rear hull plate to allow for a new fan copied from the Soviet T-62.

Although the Type 69 drew on improvements featured on the Soviet T- 62, it remained closer to the T-54 in design. The Type 69-I was armed with a smoothbore 100mm gun (this was slightly longer than the 100mm rifled bore on the Type 59 and has a bore evacuator near the end of the muzzle), while the Type 69-II had the rifled 100mm gun and a different fire-control system. The first variant does not seem to have been very successful and was superseded by the second model after just 150 Type 69-Is had been delivered. A Type 69-III or Type 79 was produced for the export market armed with a 105mm gun, but only just over 500 were ever built.

Type 653 Armoured Recovery Vehicle

This vehicle was produced to provide battlefield support for the Type 69 main battle tank. Whereas the Type 59 ARV was only a towing vehicle the Type 653 was much more capable. It could not only recover stranded tanks, but also conduct major repairs such as replacing engines, remove obstacles and digging firing positions for gun tanks and artillery.

It comprised a Type 69 hull and chassis minus the turret. In place of the latter to left a fixed superstructure was installed, while to the right was a hydraulic crane. The latter was mounted on a 360-degree turntable situated in line with the driver’s position. A hydraulic dozer blade could be fitted to the front. The main winch enabled it to haul up to 70 tonnes. The Type 653 required a five-man crew.

Type 84 Bridgelayer

This likewise consisted of a Type 69 with its turret removed and replaced with bridge launching system. The bridge of light steel folded in half with one on top of the other when in transit. This extended to 18m and could bridge a 16-metre gap. It could take wheeled and tracked vehicles weighing up to 40 tonnes. A hydraulically-operated stabilizer blade was mounted under the front of the hull and this was employed during the last phase of bridgelaying; it could also be used as a dozer blade. The Type 84 required three crew including the driver.

Type 80 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun

This was the Chinese version of the Soviet ZSU-57-2. It utilized a modified Type 69-II equipped with an open-topped turret armed with twin 57mm cannon. This had a vertical range of 8,000m, though it was only effective to 5,000m, and a horizontal range of 12,000m. The Type 80 had a six-man crew. During the 1980s the Chinese also built several prototypes armed with twin 37mm guns but these did not go into production.

Considerable quantities of Type 59/69s were cynically exported to both Tehran and Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War. Pakistan also proved to be a major customer for both models – these though proved unreliable – as well as Thailand and Zimbabwe. Small numbers of the Type 653 ARV were also supplied to Bangladesh, Iraq, Pakistan and Thailand. Drawing on these tank designs the Chinese went on to produce the Type 79, 80, 85 and 90 tanks. The Type 85-II was also built for the Pakistani Army. China produced somewhere in the region of 10,000 Type 59/69s.

Ju Lang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles

The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has begun replacing its small and aging fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, i. e., five Han-class nuclear-powered attack boats (SSN) and one Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN). The first in a new class of SSNs, the Type- 093 Shang-class was launched in 2002 and commissioned in 2006; one additional Type-093 has since also entered service, and some sources estimate that up to eight boats in this class could be built, though other analysts expect that the PLAN will field more advanced Type-095s instead. The PLAN has also launched two new SSBNs of the Type-094 Jin-class, each intended to carry 12 JL- 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,000 kilometers (three times greater than that of the JL-1 SLBM carried by the Xia) once the JL-2 enters operational readiness.

The Type 094 “Jin” class, is expected to be much more capable overall platform. Similar to other nuclear submarines of Chinese design, this class also experienced reactor problems at first. Four boats are reportedly operational, but are expected to remain without ballistic missiles until the ongoing trials of the intercontinental-range JL-2 ballistic missile system are completed. This missile is predicted to have a range of 7,000-8,000 km and could reach targets in Alaska or India from positions in the Yellow or South China Seas. However, due to the missile’s unknown operational status as of October 2014, it is not entirely clear whether China already has a fully functioning sea-based nuclear deterrent capability in place. Given the Cold War era SSBN requirements listed above, providing the necessary technologies is obviously only a minor part of the conditions that need to be fulfilled to reach this goal. Rigorous crew training, regular exercises, and extended global patrols would need to be continuously demonstrated in order for China to match the criteria set by the U. S. Navy.

Compared to other types of warships, reliable information about technical performance data on Chinese nuclear submarines is even harder to come by through open sources. In order to arrive at plausible estimations regarding the maximum level of quieting reached by a submarine design, photographic evidence can be used at least to some degree. Bell describes a method of `visual qualitative analysis comparison’ for making noise level estimations of the Type 094 class: The proper approach involves breaking down the images into separate hydrodynamic design categories. By looking at obvious design factors, including shape, skin friction (sail/surface), flood openings, and propellers a better assessment can be made. […] In addition, utilizing estimated speed to complement these factors would help narrow the sound estimate. Overall, many design features found on acquired technologies from advanced submarine builders, such as the French and Russians, should be considered in use on the Type 094. When discussing these features separately, Bell concludes that “[t]he additional height needed for the JL-2 missile certainly imposes noise penalties.” The shape of the submarine is not optimal as a result of a need to accommodate the missile. All in all, Bell expects the Type 094 class to be markedly more noisy than e. g. the U. S. Ohio class SSBN:

Overall, based on visual qualitative analysis comparison, the Type 094 is likely much louder than the super quiet Ohio. It has a large sail, deviates from the ideal shape, and includes vents. An advanced propeller will mitigate, but not eradicate these problems. However, this is not to say that the Type 094 is going to be a loud platform overall; it is likely a small step ahead of the Delta III SSBN. It is important to consider that the average speed of an SSBN on station is less than five knots; comparisons made in terms of attack boats, which travel in excess of 15 knots have limited applicability. According to reports, the Delta III registered between 125-130 dB at 4-8 knots, the likely speed of an SSBN on patrol. Considering modern propeller design, this correlates with certain Chinese reports, which argue that the Type 094’s acoustic signature was 120 dB (Bell 2009: 34-35).

Regarding a classification of noise levels, Bell notes: “According to E.V. Miasnikov, Senior Research Scientist [. . .] at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a very quiet submarine registers about 100 dB, a quiet submarine about 120 dB, and a loud submarine about 140 dB. If the Type 094 puts out 120 dB at sea, it will be very difficult to track. When the limitations of using one platform (SSNs) to track the Type 094 are considered, the United States Navy will have to make adjustments”

Given the practical difficulties of tracking SSBNs en route, the Type 094 class is thus likely to be a relatively capable and quiet submarine that will effectively provide China with a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent if adequate training and mission competency can be achieved. Moreover, according to Bell, the submarine was “released at the opportune moment in United States anti-submarine warfare (ASW) decline”. After the end of the Cold War, ASW skills in many countries including the U. S. gradually deteriorated due to decreasing emphasis and practice. Citing Christopher McConnaughy, Chief of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Quality Assurance at the United States Strategic Command, Bell notes that nuclear attack submarines are the only platforms capable of continuously tracking SSBN at sea. He further adds:

Once at sea there are a limited number of platforms capable of finding and tracking an SSBN on patrol. There is no guarantee that these platforms will actually find the SSBN, only a probability. The more assets and efforts used, the higher the probability of detection and tracking.

Effective tracking, moreover, requires the integrated use of cues from very diverse sources of information such as “satellite imagery, antisubmarine aircraft, and fixed, passive underwater acoustic arrays”.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why the Chinese leadership decided to build a submarine base at Hainan island that provides nuclear submarines with direct access to deeper waters from underwater tunnels drilled into the rock. It is also apparent why China did not publicly announce the building of that base before it was discovered in satellite images published by Jane’s in 2008 (cf. `Secret Sanya’ 2008). The strategic advantages of such a base for China’s nuclear submarines are obvious: “[I]f China bases the Type 094 from this Island, in port satellite imagery becomes impossible”

According to latest source, 094 SSBN armed with JL-2 missiles began deterrent patrol in 2015. The United States Department of Defense believes the missile will give the PLA Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

As of 2017, 48 JL-2 launchers are deployed on submarines. As of 2018, China is developing the JL-3 as a future replacement.

China continues to produce the JIN-class SSBN, with four commissioned and at least one other under construction. China’s JIN SSBNs, which are equipped to carry up to 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs, are the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.

The problems resulting from China’s narrow and shallow territorial waters are most relevant for submarine operations but also affect naval surface vessels, at least to some degree. The defining characteristic of the submarine as a naval weapon system is, after all, its ability to hide from enemy view. This ability is compromised in shallow waters, at least for transiting submarines, because “[t]he deeper the submarine can go the bigger the volume of sea it can hide in”. Shallow waters are also difficult terrain to navigate safely, especially for larger submarines such as China’s giant new Jin class SSBN. At over 130 m in length, its hull diameter must be large enough to accommodate the JL-2 missile, which is about 13 m long. Shallow waters therefore not only make such vessels vulnerable to detection, but also to accidental grounding.

China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s. Based on the 40-plus-year service life of China’s first-generation SSNs, China will operate its JIN and Type 096 SSBN fleets concurrently.



The Sand Pebbles is an American adventure epic/war film directed and produced by Robert Wise. Based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Richard McKenna, the film tells the story of a U.S. Navy machinist’s mate (played by Steve McQueen) aboard the fictional gunboat USS San Pablo in 1920s China: a country in the throes of anti-Western fervor and civil strife.


In 1953, following a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy as a chief machinist mate, Richard McKenna (1913–1964) undertook a second career as a writer. After dabbling in science fiction, McKenna wrote his only novel: The Sand Pebbles, a 597-page epic about the travails of an American gunboat on China’s Yangtze River in 1926 (McKenna had served on such a gunboat, but a decade later, in 1936). The book proved to be a huge hit: a condensed version was serialized in three issues of the Saturday Evening Post in November 1962; it won the $10,000 1963 Harper Prize Novel, was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and became a national bestseller. Furthermore, McKenna sold the movie rights to United Artists (UA) for $300,000 ($2.4 million in 2017 dollars). Shortly thereafter 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from UA and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck greenlit the project for producer-director Robert Wise in September 1962. The search for suitable filming locations in Asia, script writing, and other pre-production work would keep the project on hold for another three years. Paul Newman was tapped for the lead role of Jake Holman but turned it down. Teen crooner Pat Boone lobbied hard for it but it finally went to Steve McQueen (who was paid $650,000), after he achieved true stardom in John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963). A former Marine with a rebellious streak and lover of all things mechanical, McQueen was perfectly suited to play a feisty Navy machinist mate. When Julie Christie turned down the role of Shirley Eckert, it went to Candice Bergen (who was just 19). Richard Attenborough (an Englishman playing an American who had appeared with McQueen in The Great Escape), Mako (a Japanese American actor playing a Chinese man), and Richard Crenna (in his first major film role) filled out the rest of the main cast. Pre-production work on The Sand Pebbles included the construction of the movie’s most important and expensive prop: the San Pablo, a 150-foot, steel-hulled gunboat closely modeled on the USS Villalobos (PG-42), an 1898 gunboat captured from Spain during the Spanish-American War and used on Yangtze River patrol from 1903 to 1928. Built in Hong Kong by Vaughn & Yung Engineering Ltd. at a cost of $250,000, the San Pablo was powered by reliable Cummins diesel engines, not a period steam engine liable to break down and cause production delays. The San Pablo emitted black smoke from her smokestack that came from old tires and other rubbish burned in a special compartment on the boat. Jake Holman’s beloved engine—a working 20-ton, 1,000-horsepower, triple expansion steam engine built by Vickers in 1920 and salvaged from a Norwegian whaler in Vancouver, British Columbia—was actually located in an engine room set built on Stage 16 at 20th Century Fox studios in Burbank, not on the San Pablo.


Shooting in mainland China, where the novel was set, was out of the question, so much of The Sand Pebbles was filmed on the Keelung and Tam Sui Rivers at Taipei, on the island of Taiwan. The narrow, crowded streets of Taipei were used for street scenes supposedly taking place in Shanghai, San Pablo’s home port. In the Tamsui district of Taipei, 900 of the 5,000 locals were recruited as extras to storm across the “Changsha Bund” and hurl lighted torches at the San Pablo. Po-Han’s poignant death scene was also filmed in Tamsui. Filming on Taiwan lasted four and a half months (22 November 1965–21 March 1966). The company then moved on to Hong Kong to film the movie’s climactic fight between the San Pablo and 30 Chinese junks blockading it, supposedly on the Chien River in mainland China, but it was actually shot on a narrow inlet in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district—the massive 1,000-foot bamboo rope that linked the junks together weighed 25 tons. Filming of the battle scene, which took two months, was completed 15 May 1966. The 135-person cast and crew then returned to California to shoot interior scenes at the studio in Burbank and some additional exteriors at Malibu Creek State Park in Calabasas in June and July. The grueling nine-month shoot was finally concluded on 2 August 1966 at the USS Texas, near Houston, where what was supposed to have been the film’s opening scene was shot (i.e., Jake’s departure from an American battleship in Shanghai harbor). Included in a test rough cut, that scene and some other scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in order to trim the film’s running time from 196 minutes down to 182 minutes. Due to production delays, mostly caused by inclement weather but also due to the language barrier in Taiwan, unpredictable tides, etc., the film greatly exceeded its $8 million budget, coming in at $12 million. Steve McQueen was so exhausted that he took a year off to rest.

Plot Summary

In 1926, Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) transfers to the Yangtze River Patrol gunboat USS San Pablo (nicknamed the “Sand Pebble” and its sailors are dubbed “Sand Pebbles”). The officers have hired coolies to do most of the routine work, leaving the sailors free for military drills or just lounging about. An industrious individualist and avid mechanic, Holman takes over the operation and maintenance of the ship’s engine—inadvertently insulting the chief engine room coolie, Chien (Tommy Lee) in the process. Holman also alienates most of his fellow sailors, who are lazy, but he does become close friends with a watertender named Frenchy Burgoyne (Richard Attenborough). Holman discovers a serious problem with a crank bearing on the boat’s engine and informs the captain, Lt. Collins (Richard Crenna), but Collins refuses to have it repaired until his executive officer declares an emergency. Chien asks to complete the repair and is accidentally crushed to death when a jack slips. The chief coolie, Lop-eye Shing (Henry Wang), blames Holman, believing that a “ghost in the machine” killed Chien. Holman selects Po-Han (Mako) as a replacement for Chien, and the two men soon become friends. Po-Han is harassed by “Ski” Stawski (Simon Oakland), a brutish sailor, and the two box while the rest of the crew places bets on the outcome. Po-Han wins the fight, creating greater friction between Holman and the other crew members. Lt. Collins orders the crew to refrain from any hostilities with the Chinese, as they don’t want to add fuel to the propaganda fire. The boat embarks, but Po-Han is sent ashore to avenge Chien’s death. Po-Han is run down, taken captive, and tortured by Chinese peasants while the crew watches from the boat. The Chinese refuse to release Po-Han, and Collins shoots him to relieve his suffering. The San Pablo moors on the Xiang River due to low water levels, and Lt. Collins begins to fear a mutiny. Frenchy dies from pneumonia after too many swims ashore to visit his new wife Maily (Emmanuelle Arsan). Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) army soldiers locate Holman as he tries to comfort Maily, beat him, and drag the grieving woman away. The next day, the Chinese claim that Holman has “murdered” Maily and her unborn baby and demand that he is turned in as a criminal. The crew worries for their safety and asks Homan to surrender, but then Collins shocks the Chinese with a gunshot to their boat, and Holman is left alone. In the spring, Collins begins river patrols anew, but is then ordered back to the Yangtze River. Before heading to his new post, Collins steams upstream to rescue Jameson (Larry Gates), an idealistic missionary and his schoolteacher assistant, Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), from their remote China Light Mission. After a good deal of fighting between the sailors and the Chinese near Dongting Lake, Collins leads three sailors, including Holman, ashore. Jameson does not want to be rescued, claiming that Eckert and he have renounced their U.S. citizenship and are committed to their post. Collins orders Holman to evacuate Eckert and Jameson, but just as Holman declares that he is going to stay with them, Jameson is suddenly killed by Nationalist soldiers in a surprise attack. Collins is killed trying to provide cover for Holman, leaving him in command. He tearfully parts from Eckert and is then fatally wounded right as he goes to join the others on his boat. His last bewildered words are: “I was home [free] … what happened … what the hell happened?” as the San Pablo sails away.


Four years in the works, The Sand Pebbles finally premiered on 20 December 1966. Proving a hit at the box office, the film grossed $30 million ($226.4 million in 2017 dollars). It received seven Oscar nominations, eight Golden Globe nominations, and one win (a Golden Globe for Richard Attenborough as Best Supporting Actor). Reviews were, however, mixed. Philip K. Scheuer called it “a stirring movie … adventure on the grand scale” (Scheuer, 1966). Richard Schickel found The Sand Pebbles to be “a clumsy and lumbering film, but it has a way of haunting the corners of your mind, as historical footnotes are sometimes wont to do” (Schickel, 1967). Many reviewers complained about the film’s sheer length; at 3 hours it was judged too long to be consistently engaging.

Reel History Versus Real History

Having served in the China River Patrol in 1936, novelist Richard McKenna brought a good deal of authenticity to The Sand Pebbles in his rendition of daily life on an American gunboat plying the waters of the Yangtze River in pre-revolutionary China. The novel is set between June 1925 and June 1926, whereas the film is set in 1926–1927, but both settings encompass a particularly volatile moment in China’s modern history: a time when the country was a powder keg, seething with anti-imperialist ardor and internecine political conflict. During the setting of the novel, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party of China) was in the throes of a power vacuum following the death of its founder, Sun Yat-sen, in March 1925. On 5 June 1926 Chiang Kai-shek was named commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). Five weeks later he finally launched Sun’s long-delayed Northern Expedition, aimed at conquering the northern warlords and uniting China under the KMT. Chiang disapproved of Sun Yat-sen’s alliance with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China (CPC) but he still needed Soviet aid, so he could not break up the alliance at that time. The film shifts the novel’s temporal framework forward about a year and distills and streamlines McKenna’s fictional saga, but still manages to capture the politically explosive political climate, an uneasy time for gunboats of foreign powers on the Yangtze, with their very presence stirring intense resentment among Chinese nationalists and communists sick and tired of “gunboat diplomacy,” that is, thinly disguised imperialist intervention. The culminating attack on the USS San Pablo may have been inspired by the so-called “USS Panay incident” (12 December 1937), when Japanese forces invading China bombed, strafed, and sank a U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River, killing 3 and wounding 43, a sinking that caused a diplomatic rift between the United States and Japan and presaged Pearl Harbor. The plot element involving the killing of missionary Jameson at China Light Mission may have been inspired by the killing of American Christian missionaries John and Betty Stam (8 December 1934) by Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War. Another possible antecedent: the “China Martyrs of 1900”: hundreds of American and European Christian missionaries and converts who were killed during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). One final note: a number of film critics erroneously assumed that The Sand Pebbles was meant to be an implicit critique of American intervention in Southeast Asia—the Vietnam War was in full swing when the film came out at the end of 1966—but that was never Richard McKenna’s intention when he published the book in 1962, or the intention of the filmmakers four years later.