The Dark Valley
Japanese Aggression, Nationalist China, and the Rise of Mao

Japanese Ultranationalism
The first great wave of modern globalization ... had begun in the late nineteenth century. In East Asia, it culminated in the 1910s-1920s with China’s May Fourth Movement and Japan’s Taisho democracy. ... The high tide of globalization receded rapidly after the disastrous collapse of the U.S. stock market in 1929, however. By the 1930s, the world was descending into what some historians have aptly dubbed a “dark valley.” As a result of the Great Depression, in the United States, real gross domestic produce had declined 35 percent by 1933, a quarter of American workers were out of work, and there were calls for the newly inaugurated president Franklin D. Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers. In Germany, the Weimar Republic gave way to Adolph Hitler. In China, the Nationalist Republic became an authoritarian single-party state with an increasingly nationalized economy. In Japan, Taisho democracy was thrust aside by the rise of ultranationalistic militarism.

Surprisingly, the industrial sector of Japan’s economy recovered fairly quickly from the depths of the Great Depression, thanks to a sharp devaluation of the yen (which made the price of Japanese exports globally more competitive), low interest rates, and increased government spending on public works and armaments. The volume of Japanese exports actually doubled between 1930 and 1936. But, as much of the world responded to the Great Depression by adopting protectionist measures — such as high taxes or outright quotas on imports, which threatened Japan’s ability to continue exporting — the argument began to resonate that what Japan really needed was to create an economically self-sufficient yen-bloc that would be independent, and under Japan’s own control. Manchuria, in particular, came [to] be viewed as a potential economic “lifeline” for Japan. (HEA, 288-9)
The modern national public school system in Japan promoted ideals of patriotic loyalty to the emperor and military valor. Organized state Shinto religion, although as an institution it was largely a modern creation of the Meiji era, nonetheless emphasized the ancient mythology of imperial descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu, from before the dawn of history. This supposedly divine imperial line was proclaimed to be the core of Japan’s unique national polity (kokutai), which invested modern Japanese imperialism with a special sense of sacred mission. Exaltation of the imperial majesty reached a crescendo in the late 1930s, when over two million copies of the Ministry of Education’s Cardinal Principles of the National Polity were published (beginning in 1937), and it became required reading in Japanese schools.

The Imperial Rescript on Education
Promulgated on October 30, 1890

Know ye, Our subjects,

Our imperial ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof. This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and therein also lies the source of Our education. Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth. So shall be not only ye Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.

The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places. It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain to the same virtue. (Shinto and the State, 1868-1988, 121-2)

Yasukuni Shrine

Until the late nineteenth century, much of Manchuria — with the exception of the southern agricultural regions that, although they lay beyond the Great Wall, had long functioned as something of an extension of China proper — remained a sparsely populated frontier. ... By the nineteenth century, the Russians had become a dynamic presence in the far northeast. ... But Russia was defeated by Japan in a war, largely fought on Manchurian soil, in 1905. As a result of this victory, Japan acquired control over Russian installations in southern Manchuria. These included the leasehold at the tip of Liaodong peninsula and that portion of the railway leading north from there as far as Changchun. This line now became known as the South Manchurian Railway (in Japanese, Mantetsu), and it became the single largest Japanese corporation of the early twentieth century. The Japanese government provided half of its initial capitalization, and although the balance came from private investors, it was government controlled. In addition to the railway itself, the South Manchurian Railway also handled the administration of policing, taxation, schooling, and other important public functions along the line of the tracks. (HEA, 291)
The Chinese warlord in Manchuria, Zhang Zuolin, had cooperated with the growing Japanese interests there, but he also moved his headquarters to Beijing in 1926 and exhibited signs of increasingly national Chinese ambitions. When Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition for the military reunification of China approached Beijing from the south in 1928, Zhang Zuolin was informed by his Japanese advisors that he must either withdraw to Manchuria immediately or be disarmed by Japanese guards at the pass separating Manchuria from China proper if he tried to do so later. He accepted the Japanese warning and returned to Mukden ... immediately, but was blown up and killed in his railway car anyway by the unauthorized action of rogue Japanese army officers. His assassination was presumably intended to provoke an incident that might allow the Japanese Kwantung Army ... to seize control over Manchuria. The attempt backfired, however ... [when] Zhang Zuolin’s son, now understandably hostile to Japan, inherited his position. This son reached an agreement with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese government to bring Manchuria into the reunified Chinese Republic, which in 1931 also announced a goal of regaining Chinese control over the Japanese Liaodong leasehold and the South Manchurian Railway. (HEA, 293)
The Mukden Incident
The combination of this new Chinese Nationalist threat to Japanese holdings in Manchuria, the global economic crisis created by the Great Depression, and changing domestic Japanese politics, all made a second attempt in 1931 to provoke a Japanese military takeover in Manchuria by staging an explosion much more successful. ... On September 18, 1931, a senior officer from the Japanese general staff arrived in Mukden with orders to restrain the Kwantung Army from taking any unauthorized rash actions. Forewarned, however, the conspirators decided to strike before they were ordered not to. The distinguished visitor from the Tokyo general staff was taken immediately on arrival to a restaurant to be entertained. While he was thus diverted, around ten o’clock that evening a bomb exploded on the tracks of the South Manchurian Railway north of Mukden. The damage was so slight that a train was able to pass over it soon afterward with little difficulty, but the explosion was blamed on Chinese saboteurs, and the Kwantung Army sprang into action, swiftly grabbing control over a growing portion of the northeast. ... Japanese media now celebrated the ease with which such a relative handful of Japanese troops defeated the much larger force of two hundred thousand Chinese soldiers stationed in Manchuria — conveniently ignoring the fact that the Chinese were under orders not to resist. The modern mass media in Japan, notably the still new radio, found the eager popular hunger for war news to be a valuable commercial opportunity and helped generate a burst of patriotic war fever in Japan following the Manchurian incident in 1931. For now, at least, the actions of the Kwantung Army on the continent were highly popular back home in Japan. (HEA, 293-4)

In Manchuria, the Japanese sought to portray themselves as saving the common people from brutal warlords, as upholders of an ideal Confucian “Kingly Way,” and as promoters of a new order of ethnic harmony among the Chinese, Manchu, Mongol, Korean, and Japanese populations of the region. The Japanese Empire differed from most other colonial empires of that era in acknowledging a degree of racial and cultural commonality with its East Asian subjects. “Co-prosperity” became an important slogan in the 1930s, and many individual Japanese people were undoubtedly sincerely inspired by a genuine sense of idealism. The Concordia Association that was established in Manchukuo, for example, was intended to transcend not only the old-style imperialist exploitation of the colonized but also the enforced mass uniformity of modern nationalism by creating a harmonious multicultural new nation composed of many ethnicities. Such ideals were fatally undermined, however, by pervasive (and highly contradictory) Japanese assumptions of their own racial superiority. In practice, the Concordia Association merely became another tool of Kwantung Army rule. (HEA, 294-5)

As the troops commanded by Chiang pressed northward from Canton, their new Hunan allies fought a path through to Changsha, which they captured on July 11. ... In extremely heavy fighting during the last week of August, the Nationalists seized the bridgeheads — heavily fortified with barbed wire and machine guns — that guarded the approaches to Wuhan. ... In early September the tricities of Wuhan, where Wu Peifu planned a determined stand, began to fall to Guomindang forces. ... In late 1926, the Guomindang and the Communists began to consolidate their hold over Wuhan, and Chiang Kai-shek shifted his attention to the Jiangxi campaign. The fighting was heavy ... [but by mid-November] the National Revolutionary Army had firm control over both Jiujiang on the Yangzi, and Nanchang, the key road and rail junction on the west of Boyang Lake. ... Despite heavy fighting, in mid-December 1926 the troops of the National Revolutionary Army entered the Fujian capital of Fuzhou. (The Search for Modern China, 315-6)

On March 21, 1927, the General Labor Union in Shanghai, under CCP direction, launched a general strike and an armed insurrection against the warlords and in support of the approaching Guomindang forces. Some 600,000 workers were involved, and again the city came to a standstill. ... The next day the first division of Nationalist troops entered the city, and on March 27 the General Labor Union, now with no need for concealment, held a public inauguration of its new headquarters in a former guild hall, with 1,000 delegates representing 300 union branches. In all, according to their released figures, there were now 499 unions in the city, representing 821,282 workers. ... Chiang Kai-shek himself entered the city at the end of March. He issued reassuring statements to the foreign community and praised the unions for their constructive achievements. While the CCP kept the union membership conciliatory and muted, pressed them to disarm, and withdrew their demands that the foreign concessions be returned to China, Chiang held meetings with wealthy Shanghai industrialists, centrist Guomindang figures like Wang Jingwei and former Peking University president Cai Yuanpei, and leading Green Gang and underworld figures. These Green Gang leaders formed a so-called Society for Common Progress, headquartered at the house of the chief of detectives in the French Concession. This was a front organization under cover of which a force of around 1,000 armed men was built up. At the same time, Chiang arranged for generous loans from Shanghai bankers, and transferred out of the city those army units known to be sympathetic to the workers.
At 4:00 A.M. on April 12, the men of the Society for Common Progress, heavily armed but dressed in civilian clothes of blue cloth with white arm bands, launched a series of attacks against the headquarters of all the city’s large unions. These paramilitary anti-union groups operated with the knowledge (and at times the assistance) of the foreign-concession authorities, and as the fighting wore on through the day they were often assisted by troops from the National Revolutionary Army. Many union members were killed, hundreds arrested, and the pickets disarmed. When Shanghai townspeople, workers, and students staged a protest rally the next day, they were fired on by Guomindang troops with machine guns and almost 100 were killed. Arrests and executions continued over the next several weeks, the General Labor Union organizations were declared illegal, and all strike activity in the city ceased. The Shanghai spring was over. (The Search for Modern China, 320-1)
Purging the CCP
Official Guomindang Statement, April 1927
To understand clearly the objects of the movement for the purification of the Guomindang Party, it is necessary to know first the actual conditions of the present time. We have not yet accomplished the aims of the Revolution. We are only at the beginning of the task; and while victory is already in sight, it is of the utmost importance at this juncture to carry on the Revolution to a successful end. We must stand together and face the common cause with a united mind. The slightest neglect on our part will not only defeat the Revolution, but will also make it impossible to attain the objects of liberty and equality for the Chinese nation.
       Therefore, all members of the party must know the gravity of their responsibility. At this critical moment, the undesirable elements are unscrupulously and untiringly doing the work of destruction, and if we do not check it in an effective manner, it will not only mean the fall of the Party but also the failure of the Revolution. With this in view, we adopt the following for the purification of the Party. First, to purge the Party of the Communists, and Secondly, to purge the Party of the opportunists and other undesirable elements.
       It will be remembered that when Dr. Sun Yat-sen admitted members of the Communist Party into the Guomindang, he was quite aware of the fact that Communism was not fit for China. But as the Communist Party members were ready to give up their Communist belief, and willing to be directed by the Guomindang in order to co-operate in the work of the Revolution, it was only natural that they should be admitted into the Party. But since the beginning of the Northern Expedition, while members of the Guomindang have been labouring faithfully either on the field of battle or elsewhere, and while the militarists of the country have been gradually eliminated, the Communists, taking advantage of our success, have seized important cities as their centers for propaganda and usurped the power of the Party. Our military successes are being utilized by them to inflame the undesirable sections of the populace to undermine our forward move and to create disturbances in the rear. (
The Search for Modern China: Documentary Collection, 252-3)