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Reading the orders of battle for the Second Sino-Japanese War, it seems that in the major battles, the Chinese side consistently fields large numbers of divisions, but not as many total troops as that may suggest. It seems that the Chinese divisions are much smaller, especially compared to the opposing Japanese.

Divisions don't really have a standard size since they can be organised differently but generally consist of between 10000 and 20000 troops. But a closer look at some orders of battle shows that the Chinese have much less troops than the expected ratio:

  • Shanghai:
    • NRA: "700,000 troops in 75 divisions and 9 brigades", <9333 per division
    • IJA: "300,000 troops in 8 divisions and 6 brigades", <37500 per division
  • Wuhan:
    • NRA: "1,100,000 (120 divisions)", <9166 per division
    • IJA: 350,000 troops, 16 divisions, <21875 per division
  • Nanchang:
    • NRA: "200,000 troops in 39 Divisions", <5128 per division
    • IJA: "120,000 troops in 3 Divisions", <40000 per division

Not all troops belong to divisions, so the actual ratio is even smaller than those calculations.

Why were the division sizes so different, with the Chinese ones much smaller than typical for divisions?

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    This is because a normal Chinese divisions did not typically have brigades; they were instead directly above regiments. Three regiments per division + support = a total authorised force of ~10000. It is quite pointless to compare this to Japanese numbers, which did have brigades. As you said, different armies organise their divisions differently and in this case you are effectively comparing a reinforced brigade to a division. – Semaphore Dec 22 '15 at 6:46
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    Note that when people say Chinese divisions were "actually at half-strength or less", they meant half strength from their authorised number on paper (generally, 10,000). Not half strength from your expectation of "between 10000 and 20000 troops". So your comparison here actually only shows them at their expected size minus reasonable attrition. The exception is Nanchang, although that is actually 200,000 across 33 divisions. – Semaphore Dec 22 '15 at 6:52
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    @Semaphore that is good enough for answer, with some more light on organisation of militaries in different nations – Rohit Dec 22 '15 at 9:36
  • Why were the Japanese divisions in Shanghai and Nanchang so oversized? – jjack Dec 22 '15 at 17:32
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    @jjack It was four divisions, not three. 2月中旬,日军集中第十一军所辖之第六、第一 0 一、第一 0 六、第一一六等 4 个师团附战车及海军陆战队等部,作进攻南昌之准备 - 江西省军事志 | "In Mid February, the Japanese concentrated the 6th, 101st, 106th and 116th, four divisions and tanks as well as marines, for attacking Nanchang. - The Military History of Jiagnxi Province" – Semaphore Dec 23 '15 at 3:42
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According to The Pacific War: Japan Versus the Allies by Alan J. Levine, corruption was a partial cause:

... The Chinese Army nominally had no less than 182 infantry divisions against 21 regular Japanese divisions. But most Chinese units were actually at half-strength or less, thanks partly to the amiable custom of having commanders pay their own troops—the fewer men a commander had, the more money he could pocket for himself. ...

Wikipedia also suggests that it was due to bickering warlords who could not agree on whose divisions would be merged or disbanded, also citing corruption as a cause:

In 1934 Gen. Hans von Seeckt, acting as advisor to Chiang, proposed an "80 Division Plan" for reforming the entire Chinese army into 80 divisions of highly trained, well-equipped troops organised along German lines. The plan was never fully realised, as the eternally bickering warlords could not agree upon which divisions were to be merged and disbanded. Furthermore, since embezzlement and fraud were commonplace, especially in understrength divisions (the state of most of the divisions), reforming the military structure would threaten divisional commanders' "take".

Eventually the NRA simply compensated by using corps, composed of 2-3 divisions, as the basic tactical unit:

The Chinese Republic had 133 Corps during the Second Sino-Japanese War. After losses in the early part of the war, under the 1938 reforms, the remaining scarce artillery and the other support formations were withdrawn from the Division and was held at Corps, or Army level or higher. The Corps became the basic tactical unit of the NRA having strength nearly equivalent to an allied Division.

So in order to compare formations, you can divide the number of Chinese divisions by 2 or 3 to get the actual strength in numbers.

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