When Two Dragons Fight: China and Japan at War in the Twentieth Century

Module code: HS3689

Module co-ordinator: Dr Toby Lincoln 

Module Outline

The Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, as World War Two in China is known, was one of the most devastating conflicts of the twentieth century. In China, an estimated 20 – 30 million people lost their lives, while between 20 and 100 million were displaced by the war. Cities were bombed, lives ruined and the Japanese army committed atrocities, such as the Nanjing Massacre. However, the war transformed China in unexpected ways. Without it, the Communist Party would not have come to power, and many of the changes in Chinese society that we see as being characteristic of the Maoist era after 1949 actually date from this period.

The war was just as transformative for Japan. The invasion of China, South East Asia and then the United States in 1941 marked the culmination of a period of aggressive expansion. At its height, the Japanese empire contained 300 million people, and rivalled those of Britain, and the European powers. Expansion abroad brought pride at home, but this changed to despair as in the closing months of the war Japanese cities were fire bombed, and then subjected to nuclear attack.

In studying China and Japan at war, students learn about the tragedy of conflict, the resilience of governments and societies, and how this history continues to shape Sino-Japanese relations. As China grows to prominence on the global stage, studying the history of war in East Asia helps students to understand how it wishes to engage with the outside world. If the twenty-first century is going to be dominated by China, then the legacy of the war will play a part in shaping all our lives. 

Topics covered

This module begins with a survey of Sino-Japanese relations over the last four hundred years. We explore how China was at the center of a network of East Asian tributary states and had a massive impact on the culture and society of the region. We then move on to look at the birth of the Chinese and Japanese nation states at the end of the nineteenth century, and how in Japan it was ideas of colonialism transferred from the West that formed the basis for Imperial expansion.

The Japanese empire grew steadily in size after the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. We study the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Chinese response to the Japanese threat and then the outbreak of war in 1937. We explore the impact of the war on China, concentrating on Japanese atrocities, particularly the Nanjing massacre, issues of collaboration and how the Nationalist and Communist Governments met the challenge of the war.

After considering how the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the outbreak of the Asia-Pacific War in 1941 made China an ally of the US and Britain, we turn to the impact of war on Japan. We explore how initial optimism gave way to despair and study the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We conclude the module by considering how the war in East Asia has shaped the history of China and Japan and continues to be important in Sino-Japanese relations.


This course is taught through one two-hour seminar every week. Primary sources and secondary readings form the basis for discussing the major themes and historical debates. Many of these are controversial, and the seminars are organized so that issues such as whether the Nanjing Massacre was a Holocaust or whether the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was morally justified can be thoroughly discussed.


Assessment is split 50:50 between essays and exams. Students choose two from a wide range of essays, allowing them to concentrate on those aspects of history that they find most interesting. The final exam is designed to test that they have understood the main themes of the module as a whole. 


  • Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
  • Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival. London, 2013.