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The Sino-Japanese War began with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937. Many historians consider this the first battle of World War II.

Buildup to the War

The Japanese had been encroaching on eastern China since 1931. The goal of such aggression was to win a base of natural resources for Japanese industry. Resistance efforts were crippled by the rivalry between the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, headed by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Chiang Kai-shek was determined to destroy the Communists before he turned his attention to the Japanese.

Japanese Invasion

On the night of July 7, 1937, Japanese troops in northern China clashed with Chinese troops in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident about 10 miles west of Beijing. The Japanese Army used this as a pretext for a full scale invasion of China, and their troops quickly captured important northern cities. As they advanced west and south, they gained control of Jinan, capital of Shandong province. By December 13, they had taken Chiang's capital of Nanjing. The period of terror and destruction that took place when the Japanese troops entered the city of Nanjing went on for seven weeks, and ranks among the worst in the history of modern warfare.

Within a year, Chiang's government retreated a thousand miles up the Yangzi River to Chongqing. This location became a symbolic center of resistance to the Japanese. The Communists, meanwhile, were isolated in Shaanxi province. The Japanese by now held all of China's major industrial centers and its most fertile farmland. However, the undeclared war remained inconclusive in part because of the tremendous distances involved in occupying China and in part because of the determined resistance of the Chinese people.

In June 1938, as the Japanese Army marched west to capture a railroad junction at Kaifeng, Chiang ordered his engineers to blow up the dikes of the Yellow River. This caused a tremendous flood that halted Japanese progress and destroyed many troops, supplies, tanks, trucks, and guns. It also destroyed more than 4,000 Chinese villages and killed thousands of peasants, as the Yellow River reverted to its former course.


At the end of 1938, the fall of Wuhan marked the end of Japan's first assault on China. Puppet regimes were installed in the large provinces of eastern China and showed preferential treatment in their relations with the Japanese government. It would take nearly a decade for the Chinese to regain control of their country as Chiang Kai-shek fought with the support of the Allies, and the Communists waged guerrilla campaigns.

Further Reading

Dorn, Frank. The Sino-Japanese War, 1937-41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. New York: Macmillan, 1974; Hu, Pu-yu. A Brief History of Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Taipei, Taiwan: Chung Wu Pub. Co., 1974; Wilson, Dick. When Tigers Fight: The Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945. New York: Viking Press, 1982.

MLA Citation

"Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/309967. Accessed 19 Mar. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2181011

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