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War, State-Building, and International Connections in Nationalist China

  • Helena F. S. Lopes (a1)
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In a recent survey of modern China, historian Rana Mitter noted: “The war between China and Japan may have been the single most important event to shape twentieth-century China”. This perspective hasn't been around for very long. The relevance of China's War of Resistance against Japan (KangRi zhanzheng) has been revaluated by historians in recent years, a prime example of this being Mitter's book on the subject and the work of Hans van de Ven. For years, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 was crystallised into a crucial turning point and the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party/KMT) was seen as corrupt and ineffective, as epitomised by Lloyd Eastman's studies. Eastman's verdict is not entirely contradicted by some of the new scholarship, although important revisionist works have led to a reassessment of the KMT state-building efforts, in particular during their pre-war decade in power, the so-called Nanjing decade (1927–1937). Although the ‘rediscovery’ of the war came later in the English-language than it did in Chinese, it is undeniable that recent years have seen a growing interest in the period, both in academia and in popular culture. The three monographs under review here are, in many ways, illustrative of the best new research on the conflict. They provide comprehensive insight on the impact of the war on the Nationalists' state-building efforts in fiscal policy, propaganda, and justice. All are first monographs, springing from meticulous doctoral and post-doctoral research anchored on a plethora of new primary sources. They make important contributions to our understanding of the impact of the war in China, as well as to economic history, media studies, and legal history more broadly.

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1 Mitter, R., ‘The War Years, 1937–1949’, in Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. (ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China (Oxford, 2016), p. 150.

2 Mitter, R., China's War with Japan, 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (London, 2013); van de Ven, H., China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China, 1937–1952 (London, 2017); van de Ven, H., War and Nationalism in China, 1925–1945 (London, 2003).

3 Eastman, E.g. L. E., Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937–1949 (Stanford, 1984).

4 Recent examples (amongst several others) include van de Ven, H., Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China (New York, 2014), Ladds, C., Empire Careers: Working for the Chinese Customs Service, 1854–1949 (Manchester, 2013); Chang, C., Government, Imperialism and Nationalism in China: The Maritime Customs Service and its Chinese Staff (London, 2012); Bickers, R., ‘Anglo-Japanese Relations in Treaty Port China: The Case of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, 1899–1941’, in Best, A. (ed), The International History of East Asia, 1900–1968: Ideology, Trade and the Quest for Order (London, 2010), pp. 3556; Bickers, R., ‘The Chinese Maritime Customs at War, 1941–1945’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 36:2 (2008), pp. 295311; Brunero, D., Britain's Imperial Cornerstone in China: The Chinese Maritime Customs Service 1854–1949 (Abingdon, 2006).

5 Thai, P., China's War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842–1965 (New York, 2018).

6 E.g. MacKinnon, S. R., China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Berkeley, 1987); Coble, P. M., China's War Reporters: The Legacy of Resistance against Japan (Cambridge, MA, 2015).

7 Zanasi, M., ‘Globalizing Hanjian: The Suzhou Trials and the Post-World War II Discourse on Collaboration’, The American Historical Review 113/3 (2008), pp. 731751.

8 Kushner, B., Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice (Cambridge, MA, 2015), p. 302.

9 Wakeman, F. Jr., ‘Hanjian! (Traitor!) Collaboration and Retribution in Wartime Shanghai’, in Yeh, W. H. (ed), Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond, (Berkeley, 2000), pp. 298341.

10 On the wartime experience of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia see, for example: Lee, Y. H., KangRi yu FuRi: Huaqiao, Guomin zhengfu, Wang zhengquan [Anti-Japanese and Pro-Japanese: Overseas Chinese, the National Government, the Wang Regime] (Taipei, 2003); Koh, E., Diaspora at War: The Chinese of Singapore between Empire and Nation, 1937–1945 (Leiden, 2013).

11 Kirby, W. C., ‘The Internationalization of China: Foreign Relations at Home and Abroad in the Republican Era’, The China Quarterly, 150 (1997), p. 433.

12 van de Ven, China at War, p. 12.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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