Why Do We Know so Little about China in World War Two?

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Why do we know so little about China in World War Two? Well, the Chinese theatre wasn’t decisive, there’s no consensus narrative about the war there, and China’s archives were off limits for years. But there’s another, more pedestrian factor, Peter Harmsen explains — the difficulty of the Chinese language:

According to the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, it takes 2,200 class hours of devoted study to achieve proficiency in Chinese. This is about twice the amount of time needed to learn Russian or Vietnamese, and four times as much as the time invested in learning French or Dutch.

This is just in order to learn the modern Chinese language. To truly grasp the Second Sino-Japanese War in all its complex intricacy, knowledge of the classical Chinese language is a definite advantage, too. For example, Chiang Kai-shek’s diary, possibly the most important primary source of them all, was written in a terse and elliptical style which comes across as archaic even to many Chinese.

Unfortunately, knowledge of the Chinese language is absolutely crucial in order to do more than just scratch the surface of the complex events in China in the years from 1937 to 1945. Speaking from personal experience, if I hadn’t been able to read Chinese, I could never have completed my own two books on the subject, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City and Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)


  1. Noel says:

    Just curious, what do think about Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China?

  2. Isegoria says:

    The short answer is that Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China reminded me how little I knew about China in World War II.

    I gave a slightly longer answer while discussing America’s Retreat from Victory.

  3. Noel says:

    Having read Tuchman 30 years ago, guess that puts me ahead of the game. I’ll check out your books on Shanghai and Nanking.

  4. Isegoria says:

    They’re not my books, they’re Peter Harmsen’s, and I haven’t read them (yet). I hope that clears things up.

  5. A Boy and His Dog says:

    Iris Chang, who understood neither Chinese nor Japanese nor German, felt qualified to write The Rape of Nanking despite being unable to read the majority of primary sources. So apparently it’s not a huge barrier to playing the expert.

  6. Alrenous says:

    A couple points.

    Does China have a secondary source we could translate?

    Does China have anyone fluent in English who studies history?

  7. Adar says:

    Commie reporters in China at the time were making every effort to portray Mao and his boys as heroes and making every effort to make the Nationalists look bad. The latter did most of the fighting against the Japanese and did quite good in some instances. Wuhan was a major battle [pyrrhic Japanese victory] and Taizherzhwang, a Stalingrad in the east and a significant Nationalist victory.

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