The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937

Marco polo bridgeIf the result were not often so tragic, history would be the best comedy ever written. China’s long history is littered with such events, incidents of absurdity weighed down by their tragic consequences. One such event occurred in July of 1937 and helped to precipitate one of the most deadly conflicts of the twentieth century: the Second Sino-Japanese War or what we in the West might know as the Pacific Theatre of World War 2.

The Marco Polo Bridge or Lugouqiao (卢沟桥) is the site of one of the most disastrous misunderstandings in modern history. Named after the second most important thing to happen there, Marco Polo Bridge is in fact the site of the beginning of the Second World War in Asia.
 
Known by various names here in China, this war fought against the Empire of Japan began in 1937, two years before the war against Nazi Germany started, and lasted until Japan’s surrender in 1945.

It remains an important part of Chinese nationalism with the government a heavy promoter of the themes of that time: Chinese resourcefulness and bravery, and the aggressive motives of foreign powers particularly Japan who seek only to conquer and humiliate the Chinese motherland.

Located south-west of Beijing, the Marco Polo Bridge was situated next to an important transportation link, a railway line that connected Beijing to Tianjin and Taiyuan. Since 1901 the Japanese Army had legal permission to station troops near the bridge and to conduct training exercises next to the nearby township of Wanping (宛平).[1]

But since 1931 the Japanese had been annexing Chinese territory beginning in the north-east Japan as a growing industrial power was hungry for natural resources so had annexed the Korean peninsula and a large portion of Manchuria. They even went as far as recruiting the deposed ‘Last Emperor’ Aisin-Gioro Puyi to lead a puppet government in region.

By 1937 Japanese intentions for the rest of China were becoming clearer and tensions with the Chinese Nationalist Government had been rising.

Around 11pm on the night of 7 July 1937, Japanese troops began an unannounced training exercise that put the Chinese troops in Wanping on guard even resulting in them firing a few shots at the Japanese. Usually the town was warned of training exercise and they did not occur at such a late hour. Regardless, when the exercise was over and the Japanese performed a roll call, one soldier, Private Shimura Kikujiro, was missing.

Immediately the Japanese demanded a search of Wanping to find him accusing the Chinese of kidnapping the private. Chinese troops agreed to conduct their own search for him but the Japanese pre-empted them and entered Wanping but were repelled. Tit-for-tat skirmishes continued for two days until finally a truce was reached.[2]

However both sides were now awakened to the possibility for more open conflict. The truce was broken by both sides and skirmishes near Beijing and Tianjin coupled with the murder of a Japanese sailor in Shanghai throw the two nations into full scale war by the end of July.

 

Why was this tragic incident at Marco Polo Bridge that night so farcical? They involve the whereabouts of the previously mentioned Private Shimura Kikujiro.

In 2013 the National Diet Library of Japan released for the first time their files around what happened to Private Kikujiro that day. Before the Japanese troops even reached Wanping, Private Kikujiro had actually returned to the garrison he was reported missing from.

Where had he been? Why had he been missing from roll call? Kikujiro had snuck off during the training exercise for an unauthorized bathroom break. Finding a nice, quiet spot behind a tree to relief himself, he had become lost and then found it difficult to return to his unit before roll call.[3] Once he had returned events had been set in motion and his presence now was little more than a technicality for both sides.

This ‘call of nature’ in the sequence of events that night helped to precipitate one of modern history’s deadliest conflicts. To be fair, most historians believe war was probably evitable regardless of what Private Shimura Kikujiro was doing. But to think what might have happened if he had returned on time is heart-breaking knowing what was to happen over the next eight years to the people of China.

Today the Marco Polo Bridge has been restored to its former glory and is a mere ten minute walk from Dawayao Station on Line 14 on the Beijing Subway. Wanping also has been restored and is now the home to the ‘Anti-Japanese War of Chinese Resistance Museum’. A somewhat heavy pro-Communist interpretation of what happened; the museum is still a great way to learn about what happened during those years and how it might affect the way Chinese people see themselves and their place in the world.



[1] Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China, New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 445.
[2] Dorn, Frank (1974). The Sino-Japanese War, 1937–41: From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. MacMillan.
[3] CCTV News content, Japanese Invasion, http://220.181.168.86/NewJsp/news.jsp?fileId=248822
 

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