25 November, 2015Issue 29.3History

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Lingering Suffering

Helena F.S. Lopes






China’s Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949
Diana Lary
Cambridge University Press, 2015
293 pages
ISBN: 9781107678262

A renewed interest in the Republican period in China has been taking place in Western historiography in recent years. But although excellent works have been written on China’s War of Resistance against Japan, the Civil War that followed has remained less prominent in the English-language scholarly landscape. Diana Lary’s most recent book, China’s Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949, is thus a welcome addition, shifting the main focus from the political, diplomatic, and military dimensions that framed the key existing books (in English) on the topic—Suzanne Pepper’s The Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 and Odd Arne Westad’s Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950—to a predominantly social dimension. Lary’s book focuses on “the painful and divisive social impacts of the war, impacts that deepened the process of fundamental, jarring change that had started in the Resistance War.” This focus is not a novelty in her body of work. Lary, a Professor at the University of British Columbia, has written extensively on aspects of the human experiences of war in China, from Warlord Soldiers to latter works on the War of Resistance (such as the edited volume with Stephen R. MacKinnon Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare in Modern China). China’s Civil War holds a number of similarities with her previous book on the Sino-Japanese War, not only in its overarching topic (“human suffering and social transformation” in a war context) but also in its structure: a chronological presentation in chapters subdivided in thematic and biographical sections, accompanied by short case-studies (often with resource to extended quotations of a single source) in text boxes and, most particularly, the option to punctuate the text with pertinent chengyu, Chinese idioms often formed by four characters.

As with the abovementioned volume The Chinese People at War, and a previous tome by the author on China’s Republic, China’s Civil War is part of the ‘New Approaches to Asian History’, a series of books by Cambridge University Press intended as introductions for students. As such, this volume is not conceived as a thorough historiographical reappraisal of the Civil War based on archival sources. It differs from Frank Dikötter’s recent work The Tragedy of Liberation, which also covered the civil war before concentrating on the first years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Instead, Lary’s book synthesises a myriad of published materials and provides a general overview of some major issues of the social history of the war. It draws from some of the historiography in English and Chinese and from a variety of memoirs and oral histories from intellectuals, diplomats, missionaries, soldiers, overseas Chinese, and others, hailing from the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, Britain, France, or Canada. An interesting use of artistic works as sources, from novels to films, is also made. Rejecting Marxist and postmodernist theoretical frameworks for this topic, Lary saw trauma theory as the most useful to analyse the social experiences of this period of modern Chinese history.

In the introductory chapter, the author places the Chinese civil war of 1945-49 within a national and transnational context of civil wars, including a brief comparison with Russia’s civil war in the early twentieth century. It also pinpoints the start of the ‘long Civil War’ in China in 1927, stating that the main difference between the two opposing forces, the Chinese Nationalist Party/Guomindang (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was ideology. The focus on the book however, is the ‘four-year Civil War’ between 1945 and 1949, where overt military confrontation was more widespread. Ultimately, Lary states, the “outcome of the war was decided not in an ideological struggle, but by soldiers on the battlefields,” while a “propaganda struggle for the hearts and minds of key elements of the Chinese population” took place. The CCP won both fights.

The introduction also presents some of the issues that the volume will explore, such as social disintegration and transformation manifested in family separations, economic chaos or the shifting status of women. The first chapter on the “social background to the Civil War” established a necessary link with the Resistance War against Japan (1937-1945). Indeed, the author’s choice of dating the Civil War from 1945 is itself a statement on the continuous reality of conflict and of the deep scars that did not heal after the Second World War officially ended in 1945. During the conflict with Japan, the “extended family had lost much of its force and could no longer be relied on for financial help” and the “old circles of trust […] had lost their viability”. After the war ended, “a tidal wave of confiscation throughout the once-occupied regions” alienated many from the GMD. One of the key issues that emerge from the book is the role of youth, many of whom had known only war while growing up, and how they were successfully mobilised by the CCP.

The second to sixth chapters detail in chronological order the unfolding events of the civil war between the GMD and the CCP from the campaigns in Manchuria until the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Although some attention is paid to military and economic aspects, these are mentioned mainly to detail their effects on the social fabric, from the dislocation of soldiers to provinces far from their home to how the effects on inflation were more felt in the urban areas than the rural areas controlled by the CCP where “subsistence economies made the economic crisis less severe”. The author focuses on many different social experiences of the conflict, from idealistic students to left-behind elders, from women to orphans, from foreign observers to alleged ‘traitors.’ Many passages deal with the situation in Taiwan and Hong Kong, notably the repression suffered by the Taiwanese in and after the ‘2-28 Incident’ in 1947—an uprising in Taiwan against the GMD administration that started in February 1947 and was brutally suppressed, initiating a long period of ‘White Terror’ in the island—which was, for Lary, “a deliberate, and, in the short run successful, attempt to destroy or silence the Taiwanese intelligentsia.” Other sections detail how the relocation of many people and businesses to Hong Kong during the civil war was an important factor in the city’s post-war economic success. Although only glancing over the international dimension of the Civil War, with its links to the two great Cold War powers, Lary amply treats the war in a context of ‘Greater China’, explaining clearly how events on the Chinese mainland reverberated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese communities overseas (Macau is also alluded to, but only briefly). The author estimates that “several million people had left China by the end of 1949, fleeing on their own or with the GMD.” Between one and two million headed with the Nationalists to the island of Taiwan while, according to the author, in the last half of 1949 as many as a million people went to Hong Kong where the authorities “allowed the refugees to stay, seeing […] that these people would help to build the future prosperity of the colony.”

If the Civil War transformed Chinese society, how were its vicissitudes experienced by those living in mainland China and beyond once the nationwide military conflict was over? The seventh and eight chapters delve into the outcomes of the war in general, and social changes in particular, from the early 1950s until today. Going through roughly half a century of Chinese history in some forty pages risks leaving many important issues untreated, and although some major issues are well summarised, there is a looser sense of chronology that only gives an introduction to very complex dynamics. The conclusion, while continuing the assessment of the outcomes of the conflict, also briefly touches upon larger themes such as memory and identity, with some ideas that could be taken as starting points for further studies (for example, “art and memory”, “trauma and ghosts”). However, one of the great merits of this book is to transmit what the author sees as the “sadness of much of modern history [that] has no real place in official history.” This is best accomplished when individual stories, both from well-known political and intellectual figures and from unknown citizens, are used to illustrate the real impact that warfare and political changes had on their personal and family lives. These will certainly make compelling reading to anyone interested in modern China.

Despite the great amount of interesting data provided, the book would have benefited from a more thorough revision. Occasional spelling confusions occur, such as the rendering of Wang Jingwei’s wife name as both “Chen Bijun” and “Chen Pijun” or the of the pinyin romanisation of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film Beiqing chengshi as “Beijing chengshi” and its translation as both “City of Sorrows” and “City of Sadness”, including separate entries in the index. The various illustrations that enrich the book lack any reference to their sources. The author’s engaging style successfully engrosses the reader but some absolute statements should be treated with a degree of caution, such as Lary’s suggestion that “GMD agents were thugs rather than ideologues, capable of brutality but without vision” or that “The most devoted revolutionary couple were Zhou Enlai, the most handsome of men, and his homely wife Deng Yingchao,” and the idea that “the implicit ban on intermarriage [between mainland soldiers] with native Taiwanese was upheld by both sides.”

The Chinese Civil War did not really end in 1949. A peace treaty was never signed and military confrontations in the Taiwan Strait existed for years. As Lary explains throughout the book, families remained separated for decades, until visits to mainland China became easier from the late 1970s onwards. The recent meeting in Singapore of the top political figures in the PRC and Taiwan has raised more questions that it provided answers for the complex echoes of this topic in the present. The author’s portrait of the conflict’s effects on Chinese society at times makes a few sweeping generalisations, but its humanistic style is a praiseworthy endeavour. Without losing sight of a degree of empathy, even admiration, for those at the centre of her book, Diana Lary places human suffering in China at the core of the history of the Civil War, highlighting its relevance for the study of twentieth-century China and showing how some of its issues remain relevant today.

Helena F.S. Lopes is reading for a DPhil in History at St Antony’s College, Oxford.