H-Diplo Review Essay 373- "China’s Good War"

George Fujii Discussion

H-Diplo Review Essay 373

1 October 2021

Rana Mitter.  China’s Good War:  How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism.  Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2020.  ISBN:  9780674984264 (hardcover, $27.95/£22.9/€25.00)

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Cindy Ewing | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Sally Burt, Independent Scholar

China’s Good War is yet another insightful work from Rana Mitter that provides valuable perspectives of Chinese politics and global engagement.  Rather than offering a traditional historical analysis, as did Mitter’s previous works,[1] this book explores the narrative of China’s remembering of World War II and reflects on the development and evolution of that narrative over the decades since the end of the conflict.  Drawing on his research into China’s role in the Second World War, Mitter is able to show that the Chinese government has presented that role with a story that benefits its own ends.  Since all governments reflect on their nation’s history and on present narratives that are convenient for political purposes, this observation in itself is not ground-breaking.  Given the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the international community and its behavior over recent decades, however, scholars must try to understand the motives and intent behind different actions.  Mitter’s examination of China’s interpretation of its wartime history and how it has changed over time provides insights into the Chinese perspective of the PRC’s place in the global community.  This benefits scholars and political officials to work to understand the Asia-Pacific region and the globe more generally in the twenty-first century.

China’s role in World War II as an Allied power is a neglected element of studies of the conflict.  Mitter’s previous work, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, aimed to address this situation.[2] It is not uncommon for the war in China to be referred to in the literature as the “backwater” battlefield of the Second World War.[3] This kind of thinking, though, is antiquated and naïve in a world where China and Sino-U.S. relations dominate global interactions and relationships on all levels.  Although in a military sense the conflict in China can be seen as insignificant to the Allied strategy (and even this is actually debateable), in a political sense and in terms of the determination of the post-war global structure, the conflict in China was incredibly significant.  Understanding China’s engagement with the Allies, and the United States in particular, is crucial to a thorough comprehension of the Cold War and the post-war world.  Mitter’s work makes this point (13) and admonishes the narrow focus of the literature on China’s wartime experience on its relationship with Japan both during and after the war. 

Known as the ‘War of Resistance against Japan in China,’ the conflict between Japan and China began long before Pearl Harbor.  The beginning of the conflict can be pegged at different dates and events and, as Mitter explains, the official date according to Chinese authorities has changed over time to suit the narrative being espoused (90-94).  The Western experience of the Second World War and the dominant perspective that this has created in the scholarship about China’s wartime experience needs to be balanced with an understanding of the Chinese perspective of the conflict to develop a deeper understanding.

Mitter thus begins his book with a chapter that examines China’s wartime experience and its role in the Second World War.  The development of anti-Japanese sentiment and the usefulness of Japan providing a common enemy to the different political factions in China through the 1930s is placed in the context of the story of the conflict between the two countries.  As the Cold War in the Asian context was not really all that cold at all, and in fact saw almost continuous conflict in various parts of the region between the end of World War II and the 1980s, Mitter explains that in contrast to the experience of Europe and the United States, there was little opportunity for reflection of the Asian wartime experience in the decades immediately afterwards (55-57).

This leads to a second chapter that examines the post-1980 events in China and the development of a period of historical reflection that allowed the authorities to create a narrative around that wartime experience.  A major complication for the Chinese government in exploring the history of World War II was the inconvenient fact that the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government led the Chinese war effort and Chiang Kai-shek was in power at the time of Allied victory against Japan.  Throughout the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that controlled the PRC from 1949 at the conclusion of the revolution in China did not want to recognise the KMT’s role in the Second World War or place value on its contribution to the inclusion of China in the establishment of post-war international institutions.  According to Mitter, only after the PRC had itself gained a more stable participation in the global community was there sufficient confidence to revisit the Nationalists’ role in the victory against Japan.  Part of the benefit of this recognition was also the ability to espouse the narrative of China’s role in the foundation of the post-war international structure that it is now accused by some in the international community of seeking to undermine (87-88).

In its third and fourth chapters, the book examines some of the sources and representations of China’s reflection on its history and the development of the accompanying narrative through different media.  Mitter examines representations presented in museums, books, and media, such as documentaries, films, and online discussion, and explains how the Chinese authorities have used the story of China’s wartime experience to influence its domestic culture as well as the international community’s attitudes towards the CCP.  A victimisation narrative, that led the Chinese government to make comparisons between the Holocaust and atrocities committed by Japan in China, has been used to provide a moral underpinning of the CCP’s story to its domestic audience in China.  The Chinese government has employed a narrative based on China’s contribution to an anti-fascist war for the international audience in an attempt to gain some traction in the development of Chinese soft power.  These different perspectives and retelling of the wartime story have had to tread carefully through events that have not always been convenient for the CCP to remember.  Mitter skilfully analyses both the complexity in these narratives and their portrayal and is well worth considered reflection by other scholars.  The intersection of Mitter’s analysis and the debate about China’s soft power campaigns[4] will be another area for further engagement between scholars resulting from this work.

As with the different regions in any vast country, the experience of those in China during the war was varied.  The focus of the fifth chapter is on the impact of these different perspectives of the war and how different regions have responded to the development of the narratives and memory of the war.  Various locations in China were bombed or invaded by the Japanese and the Japanese also occupied territory with the aid of collaborationist Chinese leaders.  Obviously, the population experienced the war differently depending on the situation in which they found themselves as determined by their geography.  These locational differences also played into the story of the CCP and KMT-based narratives of the war as different parts of the country were more or less influenced by the two parties and their leadership.  As the dynamic between the two political parties has altered since the Second World War, so too has the way their contributions to the war have been commemorated and the acceptability of publicising the different experiences of geographical regions within China.  Again, Mitter’s analysis is a key contribution to the literature and scholarship on Chinese politics and international relations.[5]

Another important area explored by Mitter’s analysis is the impact that China’s role in the Cairo Conference in 1943 had and how that event played into China’s narrative of its war history.  Chapter six presents an exploration of how China uses its involvement in this Allied conference to justify certain territorial claims and its attitude towards other international relationships.  Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss post-war institutions and strategy in the Pacific at the November 1943 Conference.  This event and its implications for the organisation of the international community in the post-war world has been another neglected area of wartime history literature.  Mitter explores how China uses its involvement in the Conference to justify territorial claims and to create positive messaging about its current role in the international community and its institutions.  Again, there are complications to China’s use of this narrative that Mitter is able to examine in an effective way.

The book concludes with a summary of the development of the narrative of China’s wartime history that it uses to its political advantage.  Mitter extrapolates some of the complications in the development of the narrative caused by inconvenient elements of the history that undermine it.  The conclusion, to some extent, reflects some of the incoherence in the way the ideas are presented in the book.  There is no neat thread of chronology or thematic transition as appears in more traditionally presented studies of history.  Mitter points to this in his introduction, explaining that the book comes from “reflections and experiences” (page citation) that allowed him to think about how China portrayed its wartime history.  This is not to say that the book does not flow or have a logical structure, but the interweaving of different parts of the argument around the interaction between the narrative presented to China’s domestic audience and that directed at an international one, the shifting dynamic of the CCP’s relationship with events and persons that complicate its telling of its wartime history, and focus of the portrayal of it and the use of different media to do so, ensure that the reader must pay attention as they progress through the book following these different threads.

China’s Good War presents a collation of ideas and analyses that form the beginning of a very important conversation about China’s use of its wartime experience.  There is more work to be done in order to continue this discussion, and some elements of the analyses need to be teased out and grappled with more thoroughly.  This will surely occur as this work makes its way into the scholarship on China’s political story and history.[6] Mitter weaves a review of the existing literature into the early chapters in an effective way that does justice to the work of other scholars and values the contributions their work has made.  The sources used to conduct the analyses, including movies, museum exhibitions and interviews, provide a broad range of historical interpretations to support the study.  These are bound to also stimulate further discussion and exploration.

Understanding the origins of modern Sino-U.S. relations is crucial to understanding politics and international relations today.  Those origins are the Second World War and its aftermath and are the subject of too few monographs.  Mitter’s work in previous volumes as well as with China’s Good War makes a significant contribution to both the scholarship of Sino-US relations and Chinese politics and history.  Scholars with an interest in any of these fields will benefit from this latest instalment.  There are many areas in which future scholars can engage with Mitter’s argument. 


Sally Burt received her Ph.D. from the Australian National University in 2011 in diplomatic history examining Sino-US relations in World War II.  She has taught at ANU, Monash University and UNSW (Canberra) and has been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Florida and West Point Military Academy in New York.  Sally and a colleague, Daniel Añorve Añorve, have co-edited two volumes, Global Perspectives on US Foreign Policy, (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2013) and Global Perspectives on US Democratisation Efforts, (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016).  She has also published other journal articles and book chapters and a sole-authored monograph At the President’s Pleasure: FDR’s Leadership of Wartime Sino-US Relations, (Brill, 2015).


[1] Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (London: Allen Lane, 2014); Mitter and Aaron Moore, “China in World War II, 1937-1945: Experience, Memory and Legacy,” Modern Asian Studies 45:2 (2011): 225-40.

[2] Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (London: Allen Lane, 2014).

[3] For example, see Jeremy Black, Rethinking Military History (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[4] For relevant works discussing the debate around China’s soft power diplomacy, see Yi Wei Wang, “Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 257-273; Kejin Zhao, “The Motivation Behind China’s Public Diplomacy,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 8:2 (2015): 167-196; and Cao Wei, “The Efficiency of China’s Public Diplomacy,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 9:4 (2016): 399-434. 

[5] See, for example, Robert Ross and Jo Bekkevold, eds., China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2016); Angela Poh and Mingjiang Li, “A China in Transition: The Rhetoric and Substance of Chinese Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping,” Asian Security 13:2 (2017): 84-97; Duan Xiaolin, “Unanswered Questions: Why we may be Wrong about Chinese Nationalism and its Foreign Policy Implications,” Journal of Contemporary China 26:108 (2017): 886-900; and John Friend and Bradley Thayer, How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics (Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2018).

[6] See, for example, Barry Buzan and Evelyn Goh, Rethinking Sino-Japanese Alienation: History Problems and Historical Opportunities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Mitter cites C. Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962); and Hans Van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of New China (London: Profile Books, 2017).