Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 6:42 AM CST – China


The Manchurian Campaign

Blood, Brutality, Betrayal

Complex and often contradictory narratives have made it difficult for historians to establish a coherent account of resistance against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, which preceded total war between China and Japan in 1937. New data and renewed interest in the volunteer armies who led the charge are helping shed light into a dark corner of Chinese history

Officers of the “United Army Against Japan in Manchuria” First Route Army Corps Photo by FOTOE

A militiaman on patrol in western Liaoning Province in the early 1930s

Officers pose for a group photo after a field drill, October 5, 1943 Photo by Xinhua

A volunteer bugler with a Manchurian militia

92-year-old veteran Li Min visits a preserved Japanese trench in Heihe, Heilongjiang Province, May 13, 2015

The Chinese people are accustomed to calling the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) “the eight-year war of resistance against Japan.” However, popular resistance movements sprang up alongside the occupation of various Asian territories by the Empire of Japan from the late 19th century onwards. When Shenyang, capital of today’s Liaoning Province, fell under Japanese control in 1931, a region-wide resistance movement in Manchuria, today made up of the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, fought the Japanese for 14 years.

This “allied force” comprised a ragtag coalition of Communist guerillas, Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) auxiliaries, farm laborers, warlords, landlords, bandits, ethnic Koreans and refugees. Dubbed the Army of Volunteers, this force would later be honored in the song “March of the Volunteers,” today the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, and eventually came under the command of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

In 1935, however, difficult terrain, a harsh climate, material deprivation and the steady advance of Japanese forces cut the lines of communication between the allied force and the CPC Central Committee. Numbering less than 3,000 by that point, the surviving resistance fighters were eventually forced to retreat into Soviet territory in 1940, where they continued to launch attacks across the border.

The struggle of the allied force in Manchuria has since been claimed by the CPC as one of its most heroic engagements with imperial Japan. On September 3 this year, a formation dedicated to the “United Army against Japan in Manchuria” marched in a huge military parade through central Beijing that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, calling attention to another chapter in the grand official narrative of the Second Sino-Japanese War.


Mainland histories of the Japanese occupation of China generally begin with the Mukden Incident, which took place on the night of September 18, 1931. When a section of Japanese-built Manchurian railroad near Shenyang’s Liutiao Lake was blown up, the Kwantung Army, Japan’s main force stationed in Manchuria, blamed the bombing on local KMT forces, and immediately shelled Shenyang’s northernmost military camp. Regional commander Zhang Xueliang (or Chang Hsueh-liang) ordered his troops not to resist, and instead organized a retreat south of the Shanhaiguan Pass in today’s Hebei Province reportedly on a pretext of “conserving strength.”

Zhang’s actions led many KMT soldiers to defect and join with Communist guerillas and unaffiliated local militias already engaged in local resistance. A hastily assembled force, today called the Army of Volunteers, marched from the Wusuli River in northern Manchuria to Lüshun, or Port Arthur, a key strategic asset on the southernmost tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, which was formally annexed by the Japanese after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

“Academics have yet to reach consensus on the total number of personnel commanded by the Army of Volunteers,” Ma Yanchao, a researcher from the local CPC history institute of Heilongjiang Province, told NewsChina. “At its peak, it is believed to have reached 300,000. [The force] could be dubbed a ‘miscellaneous army,’ half of whom were farmers, with the rest consisting of former police officers, KMT soldiers, bandits and even teachers and students.”

According to Ma, the unaffiliated Army of Volunteers lacked a unified command structure, system of rank or standardized training program, but within two years it had launched over 200 engagements with Japanese forces stationed in some 93 counties and towns. The first full assault on the Kwantung Army by armed Chinese forces, for example, was led by Ma Zhanshan, the KMT’s military governor of Heilongjiang Province, who flouted the official policy of non-resistance and fought a three-day battle with Japanese troops who attempted to occupy a crucial bridge over the Nenjiang River in early November 1931. As Ma Zhanshan’s forces included a number of bandits – Ma himself was a former outlaw who was brought into the Qing fold in 1908 – his troops earned a reputation as fierce, merciless fighters who battled the Japanese with improvised melee weaponry.

“The [Army of Volunteers] established three defensive lines facing elite Japanese forces, delaying their advance by half a month,” said Sun Wenzheng, general secretary of Jiangqiao Institute of the History of China’s Resistance against Japan in Heilongjiang Province. “This was China’s first organized, full-scale battle against the Japanese army.”

However, when Japan established the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932, enthroning the former Xuantong Emperor, also known as Henry Puyi, as its nominal head of state, Ma Zhanshan joined the new regime. Less than a month later, he switched sides again, allegedly over Japanese interference in his command, though other accounts indicate he never abandoned his opposition to Japanese rule.

Wang Xiliang, a researcher into Chinese resistance against Japan in Manchuria who works with the Heilongjiang branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told NewsChina that a paucity of reliable sources make it difficult to determine whether or not Ma’s pledging allegiance to Manchukuo was merely a feint. What is clear is that the disparate volunteer armies in Manchuria often engaged in internecine conflict over power and resources. As many armies drew personnel from armed gangs of outlaws, looting, extortion and banditry by troops was commonplace.

In October 1, 1932, the National Salvation Association Against Japan in Manchuria, a Peking-based non-governmental organization consisting of prominent citizens and former KMT soldiers and officers who opposed the government’s official policy of non-resistance, solicited donations in the capital and dispatched commissioners to help fund and reorganize the volunteer armies in Liaoning Province. Even KMT Marshal Zhang Xueliang, by now a symbol of KMT capitulation, donated to their cause. However, the volunteer forces continued to struggle in the face of relentless Japanese attacks. According to The Introduction to the Army of Volunteers in Manchuria edited by the strategic intelligence expert Yan Baohang (1895-1968), around 150,000 people were involved in the resistance movement by 1932, yet the volunteer forces possessed only 60,000 guns, meaning that the bulk of personnel went armed with melee weapons or barehanded. Even those who owned a firearm often had no ammunition with which to load it.

The Japanese, meanwhile, had deployed seven divisions plus several brigades in Manchukuo, all of which were armed with advanced weaponry and supported by planes, tanks and artillery. In late October 1932, Japan launched a decisive offensive against the Army of Volunteers, wiping out most of its strength and forcing the remnants to retreat to the city of Jehol, bordering the provinces of Hebei, Liaoning and Inner Mongolia.

New Leadership

In China proper, the CPC was still guided by Leninist theories espoused by the Communist International, or Comintern, which downplayed the role of guerilla operations in furthering the objectives of socialist revolution. As a result, the CPC leadership paid little attention to the resistance movement in Manchukuo until it became apparent that Japan was preparing a full-scale invasion of China proper.

On January 26, 1933, the CPC issued an open letter to Party sub-committees and organizations active in Manchukuo, declaring that the Army of Volunteers consisted of four forces, with the one led by the CPC as the most advanced and capable. The letter called on Party organizations to unite the disparate forces into a single army capable of coordinated resistance.

From early 1933 onwards, the CPC began to send troops and military officers into Manchuria to fight alongside local militias, in many cases winning eager recruits to the Communist cause. By the fall, the CPC had set up more than a dozen resistance cells in Manchukuo, and had moved its provincial committee to downtown Harbin, a crucial city in Heilongjiang Province controlled by Japan since 1932, with the rationale that “the most dangerous area is the safest when it comes to better guiding the fight.”


Since assuming leadership over the Army of Volunteers, the CPC had established several areas of operations in Manchukuo centered on Hulin, a desolate plain located between the southern Wanda Mountains and the Wusuli River bordering Soviet territory.

Covering an area of 9,000 square kilometers with a population of barely 30,000, mostly refugees fleeing the brutal three-decade Japanese occupation of Korea, Hulin was viewed by regional warlords as a wild, remote frontier. The Japanese, however, viewed its proximity to Russia, whose Manchurian territorial holdings had been seized by Japan in the preceding years, as a potential entry point for a Soviet invasion. Calling the areas around Hulin “the Maginot line of the East,” the Japanese command in Manchuria launched a huge effort to fortify the area between 1934 and 1939, reportedly using 200,000 Chinese laborers and prisoners of war to construct underground fortifications and transport the largest artillery array in Asia at the time, designed to destroy Russian supply lines in the event of a Soviet invasion, into the area.

In order to also sever the supply lines used by local resistance fighters, the Japanese army implemented a particularly brutal form of “centralized management” of Hulin’s residents, dividing up and fencing off sections of the population, and imposing a niggardly system of rationing. Since 1934, the Japanese army, along with forces nominally commanded by Manchukuo, encircled and annihilated anti-Japanese forces, forcing surviving guerrillas to subsist on game, wild berries and snow. However, even in the nine-month-long winter, CPC alpine divisions were able to launch strikes against Japanese targets using crude sleds.

On February 10, 1936, the CPC delegation to the Comintern published a draft plan on uniting anti-Japanese forces in Manchuria, officially renaming the resistance movement “the United Army against Japan in Manchuria.” Remaining forces were finally regrouped into 11 armies by 1937. These were comprised of former members of the Army of Volunteers, defectors from Manchukuo, KMT soldiers and officers, and local militias and farmers. One army was almost entirely made up of ethnic Koreans, one of whom was future North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.


Official data claim that, at its peak, the United Army commanded more than 30,000 soldiers and officers, fighting running battles in southeastern and northern Manchuria and eastern Jilin, managing on many occasions to outmaneuver numerically and technologically superior Japanese foes.

However, as some 200,000 Japanese and Manchurian troops continued the campaign to pacify Manchukuo, intensifying operations with a three-year suppression plan issued in 1936, the United Army’s strength was failing.

“In spring and summer, we fed on wild herbs and game, but in winter, we had nothing to eat… we had to dig crude caves to keep warm and treat the injured, [caves] easily destroyed by the Japanese enemy, and hard to restore,” recalled Manchurian campaign veteran Wang Minggui.

Li Min, a former female auxiliary and United Army veteran, also recalled horrific deprivation. “In 1938 and 1939, we often starved for days at a time and had to eat tree bark and grass,” she told NewsChina. “I was so hungry that I felt my stomach shrink to the size of a tiny bun.”

“Without salt, many soldiers suffered such serious edema that they could not open their eyes,” she continued. “Our clothes were in tatters and it was too much to hope for a uniform.”

Pushed beyond their breaking point, many former rebels defected to the Japanese. Yang Jingyu, a decorated CPC officer leading the United Army, for example, was killed in a Japanese ambush into which he was led by one of his aides. A Japanese autopsy revealed that he had been subsisting on tree bark, grass and the stuffing from his greatcoat.

According to Li Min, the commanders of the eighth and ninth armies both defected. Three leaders of the first army, she claims,  leaked strategic information on the United Army, its means of supply and communication, as well as details of the CPC command structure. She even claims her own division commander attempted to surrender.

As the war dragged on, the 11 army groups of the United Army gradually split and formed into three route armies under CPC leadership, led by the CPC committees of southern and northern Manchuria and eastern Jilin – the CPC’s provincial committee had been dismissed by the Central Committee’s delegation to the Comintern in January 1936 amid a political dispute.

“Officially, as they were on the same level, no one committee could overrule another, so there was no coordinated resistance against Japan in the three zones under the guidance of one headquarters,” Zhao Junqing, another expert in the history of the Manchurian theater, told NewsChina. “They each fought their own battles and seldom cooperated. The heads of the three committees also argued over certain issues, such as whether or not to fight against the puppet Manchukuo regime as well, which further hampered military operations.”

By 1935, the United Army had lost contact with the CPC Central Committee, due to major KMT offensives against the Communists in southern China. Instead, the Soviet-dominated Comintern, which retained its influence in Manchuria, assumed command.

In 1937, Zhao Shangzhi, a renowned CPC commander of the United Army, visited Soviet across the border to ask for assistance, only to find himself detained for illegal entry, a situation, Chinese historians claim, caused by a suspected turncoat who allegedly forged the Russian invitation. Zhao was held for over a year, during which he was subjected to relentless criticism from the CPC for not implementing Comintern directives, including making peace with Manchukuo, further weakening the already disintegrating command structure of the United Army.

By the winter of 1940, the United Army’s forces had dwindled to fewer than 3,000 people operating across the Soviet border. Based on an agreement concluded between the CPC and the Comintern, the guerrillas continued to receive military training and helped the Soviet Red Army collect data on Japanese military operations in Manchuria. In 1945, its remnants ultimately joined the Russian offensive that obliterated the Kwantung Army.

Due to the complexity of contemporary geopolitics and an incomplete historical record, few are aware of the scale of resistance to Japan in Manchuria, with some modern-day Chinese people still holding to a view of the Manchurian population as having, at best, submitted meekly to the Japanese occupation, and, at worst, openly collaborated. However, new oral histories and renewed interest in the period have shown that many Manchurians took up arms against the Japanese.

No evidence has confirmed this with greater emphasis than the meticulous records kept by the Japanese during the occupation. According to imperial Japanese army data, 4,200 Kwantung Army soldiers were killed in action between 1931 and 1935, with another 171,300 injured or incapacitated by disease. By September 1937, 178,200 Japanese soldiers and conscripts had died or got injured. Statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare showed that the Japanese army lost around 46,000 personnel in Manchuria from 1937 until the end of the war, with another 132,000 injured or captured, excluding those killed in border engagements with Soviet forces.

“We should study not only the eight-year resistance since Japan’s overall invasion in 1937, but also [the years] before it. The Mukden Incident was the beginning of Chinese resistance against Japanese aggression, and also the prelude to the global fight against fascism,” claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping at a Politburo conference in August. During his speech at the 2015 military parade, Xi re-emphasized China’s “14 years of resistance,” instead of “eight years,” indicating a shift in official attitudes regarding the historical narrative of one of the bloodiest and most drawn-out conflicts in history.


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