July 7 Incident and Start of the Second Sino-Japanese War

This July 7 will mark the 74th anniversary of  an incident that ultimately led to the killing of over 20 million Chinese and the additional wounding of over 10 million Chinese.   This incident is known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, or Lugouqiao Incident (盧溝橋事變, or 七七盧溝橋事變).  This is an important date for all Chinese, historians, and peace-loving people of the world, because this incident marked the beginning of the Eight Year War of Resistance that China fought against the invasion and occupation of China by Japan, or the beginning of the Asian part of World War II.

Actually, Japan’s invasion and occupation of China began even earlier when it occupied Manchuria, the northeastern part of China, starting on September 18, 1931 (known as the 918 Incident), and then set up the puppet government in Manchuria known as Manchukuo.  What was special about the July 7, 1937 incident was that it triggered the large-scale war between China and Japan, which during the eight years of 1937-1945 resulted in the huge casualty previously mentioned.   Between 1931-1937,  there were also intermittent fighting against the Japanese invaders from various Chinese segments, including the regular army of the Chinese Nationalists, the guerrilla army of the Chinese Communists, or various Chinese insurgent fighting forces.  That is why sometimes the War of Resistence is known as the Fourteen Year War of Resistance from 1931-1945, and the Second Sino-Japanese War can sometimes be thought of starting in 1931.  [1]

After the invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931, in the following years Japan had expanded its invasion and occupation of the northeastern part of China, essentially controlling all areas north, east and west of Beijing.  Marco Polo Bridge is a bridge just outside of Beijing in the southwest direction next to the town Wanping.  It has strategic importance because the Pinghan Railway that links Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist-controlled parts of China south of Beijing passed by this bridge.  Prior to 1937, Japan had repeatedly demanded that all Chinese military forces be withdrawn from this area even though this is territory belonging to China!  Japan had also attempted to purchase nearby land to build an airfield.  All these attempts were refused by the Chinese, because if Japan had control of this bridge and the nearby area, then Beijing would be completely isolated from the Nationalist-controlled south.

Shortly before July 7, 1937, Japan had carried out intensive military training exercises in the vicinity of Marco Polo Bridge.  These exercises were held every night, and these exercises greatly alarmed the local Chinese forces.  On July 7, the Japanese army telegraphed the Chinese Nationalist forces stating that a Japanese soldier was missing and believed to be hiding inside the town of Wanping, and demanded that the Japanese army be allowed to enter the town of Wanping to search for the missing soldier. [2]  This request was denied by the Chinese army, although China responded that Chinese troops would conduct a search with an attached Japanese officer.  Then Japan sent an ultimatum that Japanese troops must be allowed to enter the town within the next hour or the town would be fired upon.  Around midnight, Japanese artillery started bombarding the town and shortly afterward, their infantry with tanks marched across the bridge.  After a seesaw battle of advances and retreats, the two sides agreed to negotiate.  After several days of negotiation but before the two sides were able to reach an agreement, Japan launched a full-scale attack on Wanping and Beijing.  Just before they were surrounded by the Japanese army, the Chinese Nationalist army retreated from Beijing to the south.  Beijing fell to the Japanese on July 29, and the nearby city of Tianjin fell on July 30; this led eventually to the control by the Japanese of the North China Plain by the end of 1937.

The exact details and sequence of events of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident may be subject to some debates, e.g., was a Japanese soldier really missing, who fired the first shot, when and how did the negotiation break down?  However, there should not be any ambiguity in understanding why it happened and the motive behind it.  After all, Japan had invaded and occupied a large part of China and set up various puppet governments.  Japan had demanded and obtained all kinds of concessions from China, including stationing in China a significantly larger number of troops than granted to any other foreign power, conducting threatening, large-scale military maneuvers on Chinese soil, and demanding that Chinese forces be withdrawn from strategic Chinese territories. If one takes into account this background information, then it should be crystal clear that the Marco Polo Incident was nothing more than an excuse to invade further into China, including occupying Beijing, Tianjin, and south of those cities.

After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, major fighting began on a continuous basis between China and Japan.  This continued for eight painful and horrifying years, including the Nanking Massacre, and the deaths of over 20 million Chinese, more than 75% of these were civilian deaths, and the additional wounding of over 10 million Chinese, again with the large percentage being civilians.  This Eight-Year War of Resistance also weakened significantly the Japanese army, killing more than half a million and wounding several hundred thousands.  It was also a morale booster, because Japan had claimed that they would be able to conquer China in three months.  The fact that more than a million Japanese soldiers were tied down in China for many years definitely affected in a negative way the ability of the Japanese to carry out its war in the Pacific and other parts of Asia, thus helping to shorten WWII.

It is important to remember this part of history, especially when the conservative segments of Japan deny many of the happenings of the Second Sino-Japanese War and try to position Japan as being the victim, rather than the aggressor.   We should keep in mind the quote from the Spanish American philosopher George Santayana “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This is why all peace-loving people of the world should remember the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, and understand its true significance, not only with respect to the Second Sino-Japanese War, but also with respect to the larger perspective of WWII and world peace.

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[1] The First Sino-Japanese War took place between China and Japan in 1894-1895, with Japan being the winner.  This led to (1) the independence of Korea from being a traditional tributary state of China, (2) China ceding Taiwan and Penghu Islands to Japan, (3) China paying Japan three billion Yen for reparation, and (4) several other Chinese concessions.

[2] This soldier was later found unharmed.

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4 Responses to “July 7 Incident and Start of the Second Sino-Japanese War”

  1. Charles Y. Wang says:

    Don,

    Thank you so much for the valuable reminder of the permanent scar in Chinese history. I never get tired of reviewing this part of history. I was fascinated by the video series “一寸河山一寸血” (aka. 國殤)a few months ago.

    The Japanese started bullying China since 5/3 濟南慘案[ or even earlier. From military technology perspective, China had zero chance to stand up for a fight. But when millions of our brave countryman and women made up their mind to fight to the end, miracles that startled the Japanese happened. We even scored many victories on various battlefields.

    It was the Chinese who had trapped millions of Japanese army in a hellish quagmire for years, driving the Japanese navy nuts and eventually carried out the self-dooming Pearl Harbor attack out of desperation.

    Although we paid a heavy price during the war, we had earned respect in the international community. This part of history provides me with deep inspirations, and made me awe-struck by the grace of God who had saved China at the brink of extinction.

    Charles Wang

  2. Victor C.Yeh says:

    Dear Don: I congratulate you on your new website. I read your article on July 7, 1937 Incident, which provided many unknown details, with great interests. I was then in elementary school in Beijing. China had suffered greatly from 1931-1945 with the Japanese invasion. Japan is a country NOT to be trusted at all. Will try to spread the word on your web site. Victor Yeh

  3. John Shanton says:

    Thank you for your political/social commentary regarding the July 7, 1937 incident. I have been interested in the history of China for a long time. Here is a country that has seen so much strife. Yet, one that until this generation never had much interest in the implements of war. The reason, I daresay, is the basic Chinese philosophy that it is good and natural to live in peace with one and all. Pretty naive, may I add. Why? No country should be seen as weak militarily. I am therefore, glad that China has begun to build up its forces. As its immense population has assured its survival all through the last centuries, its continued investment in its fighting forces will see it through the new millennium. This country has every right to ensure that nothing like what happened on July 7, 1937 will ever happen again.

  4. Rich Braverman says:

    Don

    Thanks for another history lesson. China will no longer be attacked but will China now so powerful become an agressor?

    Rich

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