Hudson on Lary, 'China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949'

Author: 
Diana Lary
Reviewer: 
James Hudson

Diana Lary. China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949. New Approaches to Asian History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xii + 283 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-67826-2; $88.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-05467-7.

Reviewed by James Hudson (University of Tennessee) Published on H-Asia (April, 2018) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50635

Diana Lary’s latest work chronicles the social impact of the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists (GMD) and Mao Zedong’s Communists (CCP) in China from 1945 to 1949. For a more general audience, the first part of the book details how the civil war represented the culmination of intense divisions between these rival groups dating back to the 1920s. A brief discussion of the war with Japan follows, summarizing how the CCP and GMD remained at odds throughout World War II. The remaining chapters then provide a basic chronological framework covering the war’s successive years and stages, with particular focus on the war’s impact on the civilian population.

Traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions are woven throughout the text. In the first chapter, Sunzi’s ancient dictum, “There is no instance of a state benefitting from prolonged warfare,” lends a kind of authenticity to the study, firmly grounded in China’s unique literary and linguistic heritage, and one with a particular tradition of commenting on the destructive capacity of war (p. 22). Other idioms, such as “A land swarming with refugees,” are expressive of one of the book’s central themes, namely, the precarious condition of civilians displaced by the “The Resistance War” (as World War II is known in China) (p. 38). Following the Japanese surrender, the hostility between the two rival camps once again reared its head, causing thousands of refugees to endure carnage of displacement and uncertainty. In keeping with much of her previous scholarship, Lary’s approach is less based on theory than on the study of trauma. Not only was the civil war the devastating conclusion to decades of warfare in China, but the psychological trauma experienced by its victims and survivors also remained for decades and generations to come. Thus the book serves as a cathartic venue for coming to terms with the legacy and painful memories of war in China.

At the end of each chapter are short biographical sections, containing individual stories of intellectuals, activists, writers, artists, soldiers, and scores of others who fought or were somehow affected by the civil war in China. To some, certain biographies may be familiar, for example, the experiences of famous writers, such as Lao She or Ding Ling. The recent publication of oral history interviews and other survivor accounts, such as Guoshiguan’s compilation titled Yicun shanhe yicun xue (One inch of river and mountain, one inch of blood [2001]) and Lo Jiu-jung, Yu Chien-ming, and Chiu Hey-yuan’s edited collection Fenghuo suiyue xia de Zhongguo funu (Chinese women in the fires of war [2004]), have contributed to a new and growing historical knowledge of the war. In many respects these brief sections serve as some of the best narrative jewels of Lary’s book. But placed as postscripts at the end of each chapter, they provide only brief summaries of their relevance or connection to the war’s broader events. While her respect for the war’s survivors is without question, the book could perhaps have been better served by weaving these stories into some of the war’s specific events or stages, or by connecting the stories of these survivors into micro histories of certain provinces or cities.

The book also places China’s civil war within the broader context of civil wars throughout China’s entire history, noting the importance of three types of division, also common to many civil wars: regional divides within the country; separations between city and countryside; and the significance of ideological, religious, or ethnic conflicts. This approach is useful for scholars who teach world history or the history of modern warfare, and can help us better explain, especially to students, the significance and causalities of civil wars within a more global framework. In China, regional divisions between north and south have been a common feature of many civil wars, and even characterized another very bloody and costly war, the Taiping Rebellion. Soon after the fall of the Qing dynasty, similar regional rifts emerged, and during the first decades of the twentieth century resulted in a failed republic, and the inability to create a unified state. Civil wars have also occurred as the result of class divisions between peasants in the countryside and urban elites. This often sparked peasant uprisings. The Communist triumph in 1949 stemmed from their ability to win the hearts and minds of China’s peasants. Lary also frequently reiterates how the separation of families and loved ones remains one of the most tragic legacies and consequences of the war, one still felt among successive generations of Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Separations also occurred within the mainland, and were equally traumatic. Beginning with the war with Japan during the Resistance War (1937-45), followed by the war between the Nationalists and Communists (1945-49), and then the CCP’s million-man commitment to the Korean conflict (1950-53), China remained mired in continuous and bitter warfare for well over a decade. Elsewhere, Lary has written that if one wishes to understand the social turmoil and chaos of the Mao era, one must come to terms with how these wars totally militarized and transformed Chinese society (The Chinese People at War, Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937-1945 [2010]).

The Nationalists drew first blood, initiating the first “Long Civil War,” by deciding in April of 1927 to purge the party and end their nascent alliance with the CCP. Even amid fragile periods of “united fronts,” the two sides battled each other until the end of the civil war in 1949. In the immediate years that followed the CCP victory and the GMD’s flight to Taiwan, Lary also argues, both sides shaped the historical record of those years to advance emerging conceptions of national identity. For the Communists, victories against Japan and Chiang’s Nationalists showed the world that Marxism could inevitably triumph over any aggressor state, but especially the West. For the Nationalists, the CCP won because of aid from the Soviet Union and an international Communist conspiracy. This serves as an example of how “the past is what people remember of their own lives, or what they think themselves about previous times; it may be their own past, or the past of their community and society,” but that ultimately, “history is a loftier, more remote subject” (p. 245). Such poignant observations speak to one of the dilemmas of the book: how to incorporate oral histories and personal narratives into the larger historical discourse, especially when such materials have only recently become available. But for both students and scholars who may be unfamiliar with the subject, Lary navigates the remoteness and complexity of China’s modern history with precision. In contrast to popular histories, this is a study less focused on specific battles or the names of generals, and more on a review of events, scholarship, and oral history, specifically devoted to narrating the devastating and traumatic impact of China’s civil war. It is a thorough, comprehensive, and valuable contribution to the growing literature on the history of warfare in China.

Citation: James Hudson. Review of Lary, Diana, China's Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50635

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