China at War is far superior to any comparable treatment I have seen. Sober, comprehensive, and well written, it is a book that will last.
China’s mid-twentieth-century wars pose extraordinary interpretive challenges. The issue is not just that the Chinese fought for such a long timefrom the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 1937 until the close of the Korean War in 1953across such vast territory. As Hans van de Ven explains, the greatest puzzles lie in understanding China’s simultaneous external and internal wars. Much is at stake, politically, in how this story is told.
Today in its official history and public commemorations, the People’s Republic asserts Chinese unity against Japan during World War II. But this overwrites the era’s stark divisions between Communists and Nationalists, increasingly erasing the civil war from memory. Van de Ven argues that the war with Japan, the civil war, and its aftermath were in fact of a piecea singular process of conflict and political change. Reintegrating the Communist uprising with the Sino-Japanese War, he shows how the Communists took advantage of wartime to increase their appeal, how fissures between the Nationalists and Communists affected anti-Japanese resistance, and how the fractious coalition fostered conditions for revolution.
In the process, the Chinese invented an influential paradigm of war, wherein the Clausewitzian model of total war between well-defined interstate enemies gave way to murky campaigns of national liberation involving diverse domestic and outside belligerents. This history disappears when the realities of China’s mid-century conflicts are stripped from public view. China at War recovers them.
A masterful narrative of the fifteen long years of war during which China was destroyed and transformed. For readers interested in military history on a global scale who may or may not have much knowledge of modern Chinese history, this book will become a classic of its kind.
China in the twentieth century was as much at war with itself as with Japan and, in Korea, with the United States. In this outstanding account of modern China through the lens of war, van de Ven narrates this history with immense clarity, while also taking care to show how the violence of these decades shaped, and often consumed, the lives of individual Chinese fated to live in difficult times.
Van de Ven’s book challenges contemporary memory by not only returning to the ‘war within the war,’ but also reclaiming war as a medium of politics. In doing so, his sensitive account recovers the Communist Party’s ‘People’s War’ (or ‘National Liberation War’ in van de Ven’s words), rather than Nationalist anti-fascism, as China’s most consequential legacy from World War II.
This is one of the best [books on China] I’ve seen in recent years…An exceptionally rich work of history, wary of moral posturing, unusually subtle, and beautifully written.
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