THE CON­FLICT THAT CHANGED CHINA

80 years af­ter the July 7 In­ci­dent, a new ex­hibit tells how a mi­nor dis­pute trig­gered all-out war, Zhao Xu re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

“This flag I give you, Keep it al­ways by your side, For it can wipe your blood while you are still alive,

And wrap your body upon your death.”

Those words are from a poem in a let­ter writ­ten by Wang Jiantang’s fa­ther on a piece of white cloth that he gave to his son as the young man left for the front lines of war in De­cem­ber 1937. It later served as a ban­dage when Wang sus­tained leg in­juries.

A re­pro­duc­tion of the let­ter is now dis­played in Bei­jing at the Mu­seum of the War of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres- sion, one of the most pro­tracted and bloody con­flicts of World War II.

The let­ter is dis­played along­side a sec­tion of tree trunk rid­dled with bul­let holes and a metal hel­met un­earthed from be­neath the city wall, a few hun­dred me­ters from the mu­seum. To­gether, they tell a story of sur­vival that started in Wan­ping county in south Bei­jing.

Today, many Chi­nese his­to­ri­ans re­gard the event, known as the July 7 In­ci­dent, as the start of Ja­pan’s fullscale in­va­sion of China and the coun­try’s long, and ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful, fight against the in­vaders.

On the night of July 7, 1937, a Ja­panese army bat­tal­ion sta­tioned in the area, claimed one of its sol­diers had gone miss­ing, and was pre­sumed cap­tured, dur­ing a train­ing ex­er­cise about 1 kilo­me­ter north­west of a citadel known as the Wan­ping Fortress. The Ja­panese also claimed to have heard gun­fire, which they said must have come from within the citadel’s walls.

At mid­night, they de­manded to be al­lowed to search the citadel, which housed the Wan­ping govern­ment.

The de­mand was re­fused, and at about 5:30 am on July 8, Ja­panese ar­tillery be­gan pound­ing the area. Ac­cord­ing to Hu Zongx­i­ang, a sol­dier sta­tioned nearby, the bom­bard­ment “de­stroyed five build­ings, killed two peo­ple and wounded five”.

The next few weeks saw spo­radic fight­ing erupt be­tween the two sides. Dis­cus­sions were held, but Hong Dazhong, then-sec­re­tary of the Wan­ping govern­ment, be­lieved the talks were noth­ing more than a Ja­panese ruse.

“For one thing, they were bring­ing in more and more troops. I knew they were new­com­ers be­cause their dust­cov­ered fa­tigues sug­gested they were at the end of a long jour­ney, and their hats were un­like those worn by the sol­diers I’d seen here for a long time,” he said. “There were many ar­tillery­men among them, busily un­load­ing canons onto the plat­forms of the train sta­tion.”

It was later re­vealed that the sol­dier, Pri­vate Shimura Kiku­jiro, had re­turned to his bar­racks at about 1 am on July 8, but his brief dis­ap­pear­ance was used as a pre­text for con­flict.

Search for wit­nesses

Both Hu and Hong ap­pear in video in­ter­views re­leased by the mu­seum in prepa­ra­tion for an ex­hi­bi­tion that opens on Friday, the 80th an­niver­sary of the in­ci­dent. Be­tween 1999 and 2002, mu­seum re­searchers — in­clud­ing Luo Cunkang, 47, now the mu­seum’s deputy di­rec­tor — con­ducted in­ter­views with sur­vivors and wit­nesses na­tion­wide.

“Dur­ing those years, we trav­eled all over China look­ing for peo­ple who were part of that cru­cial event. Sadly, all those we spoke with have since passed away,” he said.

Cao Yi, 49, Luo’s col­league and fel­low re­searcher, re­mem­bers the vet­er­ans vividly. “The mo­ment they started speak­ing, they were no longer men in their twi­light years, but hot­blooded youths who thought noth­ing of dy­ing,” she said.

One of the video in­ter­vie­wees was Liu Zhao, a mem­ber of the Trainee Reg­i­ment — 1,500 stu­dents who had cho­sen the blood of the bat­tle­field over the com­fort of the class­room.

Liu de­scribes the loss of young lives: “From where I stood, on the bat­tle­ground, I saw three sol­diers shoot­ing at dron­ing Ja­panese air­craft from the top of a block­house. A bomb fell over their heads and the next mo­ment they were all gone.”

Ac­cord­ing to mu­seum re­searcher Du Bin, at the time of the in­ci­dent, the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ists’ 29th Route Army, which was de­fend­ing Wan­ping, had no mil­i­tary air­craft. In fact, by 1937, the full Na­tion­al­ist army only had about 200 mil­i­tary air­craft, while the Ja­panese had about 1,100.

“Light ma­chine guns were the best weapons they (the Chi­nese) had. Most of the sol­diers were given broadswords, which some of them used to en­gage the Ja­panese in close com­bat at the Nanyuan Air­port, 20 kilo­me­ters from Wan­ping and fiercely fought over by the two sides, on July 28th. But that was af­ter the Ja­panese bombers had al­most com­pletely de­stroyed all the camps,” Du said.

Hav­ing spent the night of July 27 with his gun hid­den un­der his clothes, Liu couldn’t wait to join his com­rades when his reg­i­ment was or­dered to with­draw.

“To re­treat, we had to cross an air­field that used to be our train­ing ground. The Ja­panese had taken over the eastern perime­ter, and as we ran, the sound of con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing filled our ears,” he said.

“Bul­lets whis­tled past. Fel­low stu­dent sol­diers were hit and fell one af­ter an­other as the rest of us kept run­ning. ‘Lie down!’ our in­struc­tor, a vet­eran, shouted. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the Ja­panese needed to reload, and that’s when he shouted ‘Run!’ and we all jumped up and started run- ning fran­ti­cally un­til the shoot­ing re­sumed,” he added.

“We did this a cou­ple dozen times be­fore we reached our camp at the other end of the air­field. Of the 120 peo­ple in our group, only about 40 made it.”

The stu­dents tried to move fur­ther north, into Bei­jing, but the Ja­panese had cut off the short­est route, so they had to de­tour, duck­ing into ex­pan­sive fields of sorghum, be­fore even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at the Zuo’an Gate, one of the en­try points to the cap­i­tal.

“Chi­nese sol­diers guard­ing the gate tower shouted down to us, say­ing they had or­ders not to let any­one in. Gun­fire erupted as we spoke: the Ja­panese were com­ing! The next minute, we jumped into a road­side trench and pro­vided sup­port­ing fire for those in the tower un­til the Ja­panese re­treated,” Liu re­called.

Still re­fused en­try, Liu and his group trav­eled fur­ther west to the Yongding Gate, where, af­ter be­ing given per­mis­sion by head­quar­ters, the de­fend­ers used wicker bas­kets to lift them over the wall and into the city, one by one. At this point, only 30 of the sol­dier stu­dents were still alive.

“Once inside, we were sur­rounded by crowds of peo­ple who ap­plauded our brav­ery. But all we felt was guilt: the Nanyuan Air­port was lost,” he said. Bei­jing fell the next day, and Tian­jin was cap­tured on July 30, sig­nal­ing the start of Ja­pan’s eight-year in­va­sion.

A heavy price

Be­tween 1937 and 1945, about 2.6 mil­lion young men — in­clud­ing Wang Jiantang, the re­cip­i­ent of the farewell let­ter — left their homes in the south­west­ern prov­ince of Sichuan to fight the Ja­panese; 640,000 never re­turned.

The War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45) rav­aged the land, but also united the Chi­nese, ir­re­spec­tive of po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion.

One telling photo in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion was taken in 1944, when 12 mem­bers of the same fam­ily posed for the snap­shot, stand­ing next to a gi­ant date tree in front of their home in Shan­dong prov­ince. They were all Com­mu­nist sol­diers who had fought in and out­side their na­tive prov­ince in East China.

Over­seas Chi­nese also joined the war ef­fort. While many do­nated money, oth­ers re­turned to China to serve as fighter pi­lots, driv­ers or me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neers. About 4,000, most from South­east Asian coun­tries, worked along the “Burma Road”, a cru­cial sup­ply line link­ing Kun­ming in Yun­nan prov­ince with Lashio in Burma, now Myan­mar. They helped to trans­port about 300 met­ric tons of wartime ma­te­ri­als ev­ery day.

Only 1,800 sur­vived; the rest died in bomb­ing raids, of dis­ease, or were re­ported miss­ing in ac­tion.

Although 2 bil­lion peo­ple across the globe fought in WWII, the num­ber of Chi­nese com­bat­ants was 450 mil­lion, 22.5 per­cent of the to­tal. In all, 35 mil­lion Chi­nese, in­clud­ing civil­ians, died, com­pared with 27 mil­lion Soviet cit­i­zens, 1.2 mil­lion Bri­tons and 1 mil­lion United States na­tion­als.

Endgame

On Sept 9, 1945, Ja­pan for­mally sur­ren­dered to China at a cer­e­mony in Nan­jing, cap­i­tal of Jiangsu prov­ince, 25 days af­ter Em­peror Hiro­hito an­nounced his coun­try’s sur­ren­der to the Al­lies on Aug 15.

“On Aug 16, the fire­work celebrations by peo­ple of the Repub­lic of China went on from night un­til the next morn­ing. All we could do was lower our heads, and go from be­ing Ja­panese sol­diers to sim­ply be­ing Ja­panese,” wrote Ken­suke Kon­ishi on a home­made Ja­panese flag he had kept since leav­ing his home­land in Jan­uary 1945, and on which he dili­gently recorded the ma­jor events dur­ing his pe­riod of ser­vice. The flag is now owned by the me­mo­rial mu­seum in Bei­jing.

The jour­ney took the new re­cruit first to Korea and then North­east China, both Ja­panese colonies at the time. From there, the Ja­panese army marched south, ar­riv­ing in Nan­jing in mid-Fe­bru­ary.

‘Inevitabil­ity’

In re­cent years, Xu Yong, a se­nior re­searcher at Pek­ing Univer­sity in Bei­jing, has reg­u­larly vis­ited Ja­pan, where he has re­searched archival ma­te­ri­als that shed light on what he be­lieves was the “inevitabil­ity” of the July 7 In­ci­dent.

“We found a file re­leased by the Ja­panese army at around 3 am on July 8, 1937, two and a half hours be­fore they bombed Wan­ping. The doc­u­ments say the con­flict was due to ‘the il­le­gal con­duct of the Chi­nese army’,” he said. “This was the ver­sion of events used by all Ja­panese me­dia in the fol­low­ing days. Given the time of the re­lease, we have rea­sons to be­lieve the doc­u­ment had ac­tu­ally been pre­pared be­fore­hand.”

There was no men­tion of a miss­ing sol­dier in the doc­u­ment. In fact, in an in­ter­view pub­lished by the Ja­panese news­pa­per Asahi Shim­bun on June 30, 1938, Kiy­onao Ichiki, an of­fi­cer who had taken part in the in­ci­dent, ad­mit­ted that Pri­vate Kiku­jiro had re­turned to camp be­fore 1 am on July 8, 1937.

Du, from the me­mo­rial mu­seum, said: “The Ja­panese army, by the way, was out­side of Bei­jing at the time as a di­rect re­sult of the un­equal treaties signed be­tween China and Ja­pan in 1901. The mil­i­tary ex­er­cise they put on was an un­am­bigu­ous ges­ture of provo­ca­tion.”

Now, de­spite the changes that have taken place — Wan­ping is now of­fi­cially part of the ex­panded city of Bei­jing — re­minders of the war are still vis­i­ble.

The walls of the citadel, built in the mid-17 th cen­tury, still carry the scars of the bombs, and 500 me­ters away, on the other side of the Yongding River, sits the Dai­wang Tem­ple, which served as the head­quar­ters of the Chi­nese sol­diers who guarded the area in 1937.

Be­tween the county wall and the tem­ple is the 267-me­ter-long Lu­gou Bridge, also known as the Marco Polo Bridge named af­ter the Ital­ian ex­plorer (1254-1324) who raved about the 12th-cen­tury stone struc­ture in his mem­oirs. The bridge, known for its 501 dis­tinctly in­di­vid­ual stone lions, is prob­a­bly the old­est wit­ness to the events of July 7, also known as the Lu­gou, or Marco Polo Bridge, In­ci­dent.

For nearly 20 days, be­fore the Na­tion­al­ists’ re­treat on the af­ter­noon of July 28, Ma Bux­ian guarded the bridge. The river was al­most dry, and the Ja­panese, backed by heavy ma­chine gun fire and ar­tillery, charged re­peat­edly over the muddy riverbed to­wards the Chi­nese de­fend­ers.

Ma, who ap­pears in the mu­seum’s video footage, said he had felt no fear.

“I heard noth­ing but the deaf­en­ing roars of my fel­low Chi­nese,” he said.

Contact the writer at zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

To re­treat, we had to cross an air­field that used to be our train­ing ground. The Ja­panese had taken over the eastern perime­ter, and as we ran, the sound of con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing filled our ears.” Liu Zhao, a mem­ber of the Trainee Reg­i­ment, which com­prised 1,500 stu­dents who vol­un­teered to fight

YANG BO / CHINA NEWS SER­VICE

Wang Qiu, 95, and 30 other vet­er­ans

WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY

Tourists ex­am­ine the stone lions at the Lu­gou Bridge in south Bei­jing.

LU JINFU / FOR CHINA DAILY

Visi­tors view the ex­hibits at the Mu­seum of the War of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A re­pro­duc­tion of a let­ter given to Wang Jiantang by his fa­ther on the eve of Wang’s de­par­ture for the front.

WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY

Peo­ple stroll past the gate of the Wan­ping Fortress.

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