The best books on the second Sino-Japanese War

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the second Sino-Japanese War and why they recommend each book.

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Forgotten Ally

By Rana Mitter,

Book cover of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945

For many years, American views of the China’s role in World War II were strongly influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s best-selling, Stilwell and the American Experience in China published in 1971. Tuchman painted China’s war effort as brave but costly and ineffective thanks to the incompetence and corruption of Chiang Kai Shek. Portrayed as a kind of Chinese George Washington in the U.S. media, Tuchman saw Chiang as being in fact, far less interested in defeating the Japanese than in ensuring that his regime survived the war in a position to vanquish its domestic rivals, especially Mao Zedong’s Communists 

In contrast, Mittar’s focus is not on policy squabbles or specific military issues but on the overall impact of the war on China and its people. He highlights that country’s remarkable achievement, not in winning battles but in surviving the Japanese onslaught for eight long years despite the early loss of almost…

Who am I?

I am Emeritus Professor of History and International Relations at George Washington University. Although I trained at Yale to be a college teacher, I spent most of the first twenty years of my career working in and with the military. I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and later as a reservist on active duty during the Grenada –Lebanon Operations in the early 1980s and during the Gulf War.. As a civilian, I worked at the U.S. Army Center of Military History and subsequently as Director of Naval History and of the Naval History and Heritage Command. I  joined George Washington University in 1990. I am the author of six books about military history, two of which, Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan and In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia are directly about the Asia- Pacific War.   

I wrote...

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

By Ronald Spector,

Book cover of In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

What is my book about?

On the day of Japan’s surrender, General Douglas MacArthur declared in a radio address “ today freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the March.” The question, after Japan’s “Greater East Asia“ crashed in flames was, whose freedom? And, the freedom to do what In the burnt-out ruins of the old empires of the British, the Dutch, the French, and the Japanese?

Everything was up for grabs and new wars soon broke out all through the territories just “liberated” from the Axis. In Indochina and Indonesia Nationalists fought bloody battles against the British Commonwealth forces that had supposedly come to “liberate” them. In China there were two claimants for power,  Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedung; in two Korea two as well, Kim Il Sung and Syngmun Rhee. The thousands of Japanese soldiers still in Asia fought for all sides. Indeed, it might appear to some observers that World War II never ended, everybody just switched sides. In the Ruins of Empire was a New York Times Book Review “Editor”s Choice” book.

Shanghai 1937

By Peter Harmsen,

Book cover of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze

This was a major battle that happened in 1937, right before the Rape of Nanking. After the fall of Shanghai, the Japanese army would march toward, Nanking (Nanjing), the capital of China then. Although it was front page news throughout much of the world then, few people other than historians know it today. It is no hyperbole to call the battle Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The book reads like an engrossing historical novel.

Who am I?

A native of Nanjing (Nanking), China, Shouhua Qi has published extensively in both the United States and China on academic as well as transcultural issues. He is the author of more than twenty books, including fiction, nonfiction, literary translation, and scholarly monographs. Qi’s first novel, Purple Mountain, is about the Rape of Nanking, a horrendous tragic event that happened in his hometown in the winter of 1937-08. A screenplay Qi co-wrote based on the novel has been optioned for production.

I wrote...

Purple Mountain: A Story of the Rape of Nanking

By Shouhua Qi,

Book cover of Purple Mountain: A Story of the Rape of Nanking

What is my book about?

An unprecedented historical novel, Purple Mountain presents a riveting, profoundly intimate portrait of Nanjing and its people during the first six days after its fall to the Japanese army. Within the city, walls are men and women, young and old, soldiers and civilians, Chinese and a dozen foreigners, all caught up in the whirling, turbulent fires of history.

Two Kinds of Time

By Graham Peck,

Book cover of Two Kinds of Time

This book is the comparatively underrated one among my five choices, but I guarantee it worthwhile. Peck went to China in 1935. He served in the U.S. Office of War Information in China throughout the 1940s. This memoir chronicles his life in China from the beginning of the Japanese invasion to the end of the Pacific War, during which the U.S. was the ally of the Nationalists, who lost to the Communists in the following years. The China Peck described was a sleepy, isolated world, characterized by apathetic people, rampant corruption, and senseless internal friction. When the book first came out in 1950, the Communists took over China a few months ago, and the Americans were in a hot debate, “Who lost China?” The valuable historical and political information Peck provided in this book offered a unique voice to answer the burning question. His opinion of China could be summarized…

Who am I?

Anna Wang was born and raised in Beijing, China, and immigrated to Canada in her 40s. She received her BA from Beijing University and is a full-time bilingual writer. She has published ten books in Chinese. These include two short story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and two translations. Her first book in English, a 2019 memoir, Inconvenient Memories, recounts her experience and observation of the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989 from the perspective of a member of the emerging middle-class. The book won an Independent Press Award in the "Cultural and Social Issues" category in 2020. She writes extensively about China. Her articles appeared in Newsweek, Vancouver Sun, Ms. Magazine, LA Review of Books China Channel, Ricepaper Magazine,, etc.

I wrote...

Inconvenient Memories: A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After

By Anna Wang,

Book cover of Inconvenient Memories: A Personal Account of the Tiananmen Square Incident and the China Before and After

What is my book about?

Oh, no, another book about the Tiananmen Incident? Inconvenient Memories is a rare and truthful memoir of a young woman's coming of age amid the Tiananmen Square Protests. In 1989, Anna Wang was one of the lucky few who worked for a Japanese company, Canon. She traveled each day between her grandmother's dilapidated commune-style apartment and an extravagant office just steps from Tiananmen Square. Her daily commute on Beijing's impossibly crowded buses brought into view the full spectrum of China's inequalities during the economic transition. When Tiananmen Protests broke out, her Japanese boss was concerned whether the protests would obstruct Canon's assembly plant in China, and she was sent to Tiananmen Square on a daily basis to take photos for her boss to analyze for evidence of turning tides. From her perspective as a member of the emerging middle class, she observed firsthand that Tiananmen Protests stemmed from Chinese people's longing for political freedom and their fear for the nascent market economy, an observation that readers have never come across from the various accounts of the historical events so far.

China's Good War

By Rana Mitter,

Book cover of China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism

I am disturbed by what is happening in Hong Kong and Xinjiang but it’s important to take a long and balanced view if we want to influence China. Chinese dynasties harbour long memories including the humiliation of the Opium Wars and the sacking of the Imperial Summer Palace by colonial powers and the atrocities committed by Japan in WW2 in China. If we start by empathising with this shared but forgotten history of China in WW2, maybe we can help swing the pendulum to one that respects the diversity that is needed in both East and West.

Who am I?

I studied modern Chinese history so, when Qu Leilei told me the story of the Stars Art Movement, I couldn’t understand why I hadn't heard their courageous story. I spent three years interviewing Qu Leilei, researching and visiting China with him before writing the Stars story as a historical novel. I am a freelance writer, author, and speaker.

I wrote...

Brushstrokes in Time

By Sylvia Vetta,

Book cover of Brushstrokes in Time

What is my book about?

Brushstrokes in Time is the fictional memoir of Chinese artist Little Winter, who tries to re-establish the bond with her American daughter, telling the story of her emotional and rebellious past. While growing up in Communist China, Little Winter discovers talent and rebellion, joining ‘The Stars’ art movement for freedom of speech in an era where self-expression and love were a dangerous act.

China expert Guardian journalist, John Gittings read it determined to find fault but says that he failed. He endorses it, as do Harvard and Oxford academics. Dr. Maria Jaschok lived in China between 1980-1996 and says, "Moving but never mawkish, informed yet entirely accessible, this book should have popular appeal."

Lust, Caution

By Eileen Chang,

Book cover of Lust, Caution: The Story

Set in wartime Shanghai in a time of espionage, betrayal, and murder. Chang knew of what she wrote – her own husband worked for the pro-Japanese collaborationist Chinese government of Wang Jing-wei and was considered a traitor. It’s a wartime novel where bombs don’t fall and soldiers don’t fight but everyone, including the main character of Wang Chia-chih (based on a real-life Nationalist Chinese spy Zheng Pingru, but with a fair amount of Chang herself thrown in), is faced with issues of resistance, collaboration, fighting back or staying quiet. A novella, but no less a masterpiece for being short.

Who am I?

I came to Shanghai largely by accident back in the late twentieth century and found a city of art deco and modernism, of influences form east and west – then far less developed, smaller and more intimate, as if a dust sheet had been thrown over the city in 1949 and the metropolis underneath left to await a new era. The old city, the once international city that was the most modern in Asia – jazz, skyscrapers with elevators, streamline moderne villas, a hundred nationalities living cheek-by-jowl was still, seemingly, just within reach. I’ve never stopped being fascinated by that old world, or writing about it.

I wrote...

City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir

By Paul French,

Book cover of City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir

What is my book about?

1930s Shanghai could give Chicago a run for its money. In the years before the Japanese invaded, the city was a haven for outlaws from all over the world: a place where pasts could be forgotten, fascism and communism outrun, names invented, fortunes made – and lost. ‘Lucky’ Jack Riley was the most notorious of those outlaws. An ex-Navy boxing champion, he escaped from prison in the States, spotted a craze for gambling, and rose to become the Slot King of Shanghai. Ruler of the clubs in that day was ‘Dapper’ Joe Farren – a Jewish boy who fled Vienna’s ghetto with a dream of dance halls. His chorus lines rivaled Ziegfeld’s and his name was in lights above the city’s biggest casino.

In 1940 they bestrode the Shanghai Badlands like kings, while all around the Solitary Island was poverty, starvation, and genocide. They thought they ruled Shanghai; but the city had other ideas. This is the story of their rise to power, their downfall, and the trail of destruction they left in their wake.

Champions Day

By James Carter,

Book cover of Champions Day: The End of Old Shanghai

Shanghai, which was once called the “Hollywood of Asia,” has always been a cinematic city par excellence, so a good way to describe the charms of this book is via movie terms. In one sense, it zooms in tightly on a specific day in the history of the city and what was happening in a single setting. It mixes close-ups of a horse race and some people who came to watch it, though, with wide-angle shots and flashbacks. The author, a skilled historian with deep knowledge of Chinese history and a stylish writer, moves effortlessly between Shanghai in the early 1940s as the Japanese military’s World War II era grip on the city and much of China was tightening and earlier points in its past. He also moves fluidly between the racecourse—a potent symbol, as during the height of the British imperial period, Britons would often build these to mark…

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by history since I spent a year in Britain as a ten-year-old. I became hooked on novels set in ancient Greece and Rome and found it incredibly exotic to walk through old buildings and imagine the lives of the people who had walked through those same doors. In college, I began studying history in earnest and grew intrigued by China, especially Chinese cities during periods of upheaval and transformation. My first passion was Shanghai history, and I spent time there in the mid-1980s before the soaring Pudong skyscrapers that are now among its most iconic structures were built. I have since shifted my attention to Hong Kong, a city I had enjoyed visiting for decades but had not written about until after I completed my last book on Shanghai. My fascination with cities that are in China but enmeshed in global processes and are sites of protest has been a constant.

I wrote...

Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom,

Book cover of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink

What is my book about?

Written between June and October of 2019, while Hong Kong was in the midst of the most dramatic social movement it had ever experienced, Vigil combines elements of history and reportage. A short book, it is written in a lively and engaging style and draws on the author’s deep familiarity with Chinese history and expertise in the comparative analysis of protests and authoritarianism. It is also shaped by the experiences the author has had during many visits to Hong Kong, some before and most after the 1997 Handover changed it from a British colony to part of the People’s Republic of China. While introducing many events from Hong Kong’s complicated past, it is above all a work to read to understand and place into perspective recent developments in a David vs. Goliath struggle, in which activists, facing impossible odds, pushed back against efforts to tighten controls on local political life.

China’s War with Japan 1937-1945

By Rana Mitter,

Book cover of China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

In my opinion, you cannot fully understand the Pacific War without grasping the tragedy of the undeclared Sino-Japanese War which preceded Pearl Harbor by virtually four and a half years. Remarkably, however, the story is not well known. It’s often passed over as if it was of hardly any consequence at all. Far from being a minor item on the road to war, however, China’s horrendous struggle with Japan is pivotal because it managed to suck in arguably the best troops of the Imperial Japanese Army and kept them fighting throughout the duration of the Pacific War. This ensured that they couldn’t be released to go elsewhere because China refused to give in. Mitter’s excellent book reveals why this dramatic fight for survival influenced Chinese leaders both then and now.

Who am I?

I lived and taught in Asia for over 30 years and love the place to bits. Leaving Oxford for Singapore may have seemed like a daring adventure in 1980, but it complemented my doctoral research and introduced me to a wonderful set of students who have enriched my life ever since. Asia has a fascination for me that I can’t resist. I have written and edited 15 books on naval and defence themes, much of which have been set in the Asian continent. An associate editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the past 25 years, I am also the editor for the series Cold War in Asia. 

I wrote...

Naval Warfare 1919-45: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea

By Malcolm H. Murfett,

Book cover of Naval Warfare 1919-45: An Operational History of the Volatile War at Sea

What is my book about?

Naval Warfare 1919-1945 is an analytical and interpretive study that examines why things happened at sea when they did. Vividly written, it ranges far and wide: sweeping across all naval theatres and those powers performing major, as well as minor, roles within them in these years of peace and war. 

Professor Murfett re-examines the naval past in a stimulating way and takes issue with those aspects of it that deserve closer attention. He demonstrates that superior equipment and the best intelligence, ominous power and systematic planning, vast finance and suitable training are often simply not enough to guarantee success at sea. Sometimes the narrow difference between victory and defeat hinges on those infinite variables: the individual’s performance under acute pressure and sheer luck.

The Library of Legends

By Janie Chang,

Book cover of The Library of Legends

Chronicling the real-life evacuation of Chinese university students during the Battle of Nanking, Janie Chang makes history and magic come alive in The Library of Legends, perfectly tying together the trials and tribulations of a group of students evacuating Nanking with the myths and legends that they’re sworn to protect – and which protect them in turn over the dangerous 1,000-mile journey to safety. Quite simply, this book is magical.  

Who am I?

When I was young, my family accused me of being a “full contact reader.” My hands still bear the scars of books I’d read while slicing carrots, the knife edging ominously close to a curled knuckle. As an adult, I’ve managed to temper my more reckless tendencies – mainly thanks to audiobooks, which allow me to read whilst intersecting traffic or sautéing onions. To me, the best books are those you can’t bear to put down: the ones you read late into the night, unaware that the ticking clock is edging ever closer to dawn. Here’s a list of five of my favourites… preferably to be read without sharp or flammable objects in the vicinity. 

I wrote...

The Last Grand Duchess

By Bryn Turnbull,

Book cover of The Last Grand Duchess

What is my book about?

Grand Duchess Olga comes of age amid a shifting tide for the great dynasties of Europe. But even as unrest simmers in the capital, Olga lives within the confines of her sheltered life, hiding from the world on account of her brother Alexei’s secret affliction and rising controversy over Father Grigori Rasputin. Olga’s only escape from the seclusion of Alexander Palace comes from her aunt’s grand tea parties.
As troubling rumors about her parents trickle in from the front, Olga dares to hope that a budding romance might survive whatever the future may hold. But when tensions run high and supplies run low, the controversy over Rasputin grows into fiery protest, and calls for revolution threaten to end 300 years of Romanov rule.

Killing Commendatore

By Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel (translator), Ted Goossen (translator)

Book cover of Killing Commendatore

This book plays hide and seek with reality. You’re never a hundred percent sure if you’re in the normal mundane world or the world of magic and danger. The story moves swiftly and compellingly between worlds and raises questions about what we can and cannot believe in.

Some parts seem like drug trips gone wrong and others like the comfort and assurance of close relationships no matter how long they’ve lasted.

Murakami is a master at juggling worlds in such a way that sometimes the fantasy worlds are more real than the actual worlds.

Who am I?

Surrealism and magical realism are the blood of my art. All my novels, and especially my short stories, jump in and out of the world of schedules, deadlines, and certainty. It’s what I read and how I think, and it flows through my writing, drawing, and photography. I can’t imagine a world without magic, a world in which everything has a logical explanation and nothing moves beyond a set of rules that can be measured and accounted for. It’s the unaccountable rules, the ones that hint of something going on just under the surface of what we see, that rule my art.

I wrote...

Blowing Up

By Biff Mitchell,

Book cover of Blowing Up

What is my book about?

Welcome to the World You Live In. It’s a mess. It’s diseased, polluted, over-populated, and too close to the sun. But it’s all we have and we’re losing it fast, so we may as well have a good laugh before the sun reaches out and reclaims us.

Nothing is sacred, nothing is spared. Nothing is safe in a world accumulating too much ammunition for too few targets. Welcome to Mitchell’s world of ghosts who have to get the last word, ball-busting muses who torture for the hell of it, a woman who sheds rabbits from her eyes instead of tears, an office of petty-minded workers fused together in a nuclear holocaust and a world where you write grammatically correct essays or starve to death. But there will be laughter.

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