East Asia's Stalingrad: The Battle of Shanghai Was Total Hell

Michael Peck

Key Point: The Japanese victory (and brutality) at Shanghai empowered further Japanese military aggression into the 1940s.

In the summer of 1937, the “Pearl of the Orient” became a slaughterhouse. A million Chinese and Japanese soldiers engaged in savage urban combat in China’s coastal city of Shanghai.

Before the battle, Shanghai had been a thriving metropolis bustling with Western traders and missionaries, Chinese gangsters, workers and peasants and Japanese soldiers and businessmen.

As many as 300,000 people died in the epic three-month struggle that pitted China’s best divisions against Japanese marines, tank, naval gunfire and aircraft.

Yet even in China, few people remember the Battle of Shanghai, says Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze. The clash receded beneath another horrific memory: the Rape of Nanking.

Shanghai “was one of 22 major battles of the Sino-Japanese War that are listed in official Chinese historiography,” Harmsen told War is Boring in an email. “Many Chinese have heard about the individual battles, but it’s mainly just specialists and military history buffs who actually remember when exactly they took place—and how and why.”

It was an unfortunate confluence of forces that brought war to Shanghai in August 1937. China and Japan had been in limited conflict since 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria in search of empire and raw materials. In 1937, Japan seized Beijing after the Marco Polo Bridge incident.

Enough was enough. Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek had spent the 1930s trying to destroy the Communists. Now was the time to stand up to Japan.

Just why he chose Shanghai is unclear, Harmsen explained. “For example, it has been argued that Chiang wanted to demonstrate China’s willingness to resist Japanese aggression in front of a big international audience and therefore picked Shanghai because of its large expat population.”

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