Marco Polo Bridge and the Coming of War

In the afternoon of July 7, 1937, soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the Japanese Army stationed at the city of Fengtai near the old capital of Beijing, assembled in the area north of Marco Polo Bridge. It was going to be another long night out in the Chinese countryside. Maneuvers like these happened all the time.

Well after sunset, while the Japanese infantrymen were groping around in the dark, the sound of rifle fire tore through the night. As tension spread among the soldiers, it turned out that one of them had gone missing. A frantic search took place, in an area where they knew full well that they were considered the enemy.

The commander of the Japanese soldiers believed that the soldier had been captured by Chinese troops known to be in the area, and he suspected that he was kept within the walled town of Wanping, just next to Marco Polo Bridge.

When the Chinese defenders of Wanping refused to grant the Japanese entry into the town, a firefight ensued. Amid the escalating fighting, the missing Japanese soldier suddenly turned up again. But by this time, it was almost irrelevant. Lives had been lost amid fierce fighting around Wanping and the Bridge.

Within hours, however, cool heads in both the Chinese and Japanese camps managed to meet and bring about a ceasefire. Many questions remained unanswered, and are still answered to this day. For example about who fired the shot at the start of the incident. Still, after the agreement to halt hostilities, it could have gone both ways.

Japanese soldiers near Wanping

Japanese soldiers near Wanping

Even so, it ended in war. The ceasefire was simply not sufficient to prevent tempers flaring, especially among Chinese officers and soldiers who had been watching for the better part of the decade, as Japan had taken over an ever growing part of their motherland, turning it into a semi-colony ruled from Tokyo.

Within days, fighting was still erupting all over the area around Beijing and the nearby port city of Tianjin. The genie was out of the bottle. Full-scale war between China and Japan was a reality, and it would last for another eight years.

There is no doubt that July 7, 1937 was a significant date, not just in Chinese history, but in Asian and even world history. It can be argued that Pearl Harbor and even Hiroshima are in a direct causal relationship with what happened on that warm night in north China eight decades ago.

That being said, the Second Sino-Japanese War would in all likelihood have happened anyway, even without the Marco Polo Bridge incident serving as a trigger. Mutual animosity was so intense that any incident, any little skirmish, could have acted as the spark setting Asia ablaze.

Categories: War

4 Comments

  • George Kulstad says:

    Few in the USA are aware of the significance of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, and concentrate instead on Pearl Harbor. Thank you for posting this item, and possibly the July 7, 1937 edition of the newspaper “The China Press” to see what their lead story was, and if they continued to lead with the Amelia Earheart story, or whether they published something about the Marco Polo Bridge incident.

  • Harland says:

    Gosh, you mean a country concentrates on its own history and not incidents in distant foreign lands? How many Chinese people could tell you what Pearl Harbor was?

    At any rate, the Americans were not unaware of the war at the time and sent massive amounts of aid to China, which is almost totally forgotten today. You’d think China wouldn’t forget about something that important, but they did.

    • barf says:

      Chinese people know A VERY HELL LOT about Pearl Harbor ! Much more than the average westerner. Till today, Chinese everywhere can never forget the big red dot emblazoned on every jap plane that attacked Pear Harbor. That dot is most often referred to as the …. red skin ailment patch ! (a patch for unwanted illnesses)

  • George Kulstad says:

    Thanks, Barf, for your contribution. I felt that having written my memoir “A Foreign Kid in World War II Shanghai” wherein I account my experience in the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai, only a few hours after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, should restrain me.

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