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Buy for $24.47
Chinese leaders once tried to suppress memories of their nation’s brutal experience during World War II. Now they celebrate the “victory” - a key foundation of China’s rising nationalism.
For most of its history, the People’s Republic of China limited public discussion of the war against Japan. It was an experience of victimization - and one that saw Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek fighting for the same goals. But now, as China grows more powerful, the meaning of the war is changing. Rana Mitter argues that China’s reassessment of the World War II years is central to its newfound confidence abroad and to mounting nationalism at home.
China’s Good War begins with the academics who shepherded the once-taboo subject into wider discourse. Encouraged by reforms under Deng Xiaoping, they researched the Guomindang war effort, collaboration with the Japanese, and China’s role in forming the post-1945 global order. But interest in the war would not stay confined to scholarly journals. Today public sites of memory - including museums, movies and television shows, street art, popular writing, and social media - define the war as a founding myth for an ascendant China. Wartime China emerges as victor rather than victim.
The shifting story has nurtured a number of new views. One rehabilitates Chiang Kai-shek’s war efforts, minimizing the bloody conflicts between him and Mao and aiming to heal the wounds of the Cultural Revolution. Another narrative positions Beijing as creator and protector of the international order that emerged from the war - an order, China argues, under threat today largely from the United States. China’s radical reassessment of its collective memory of the war has created a new foundation for a people destined to shape the world.
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- Anonymous User
Very engaging book overall but you have to get past the first chapter which is a bit like a long lit review. Really picks up from there. Narrator was good except when pronouncing Chinese book titles.
“China’s Good War” analyses the role that the Second World War has started playing, especially in recent years, in both internal Chinese nationalism and in its view of how it should be seen by the world. Its written by Rana Mitter, an authority on modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford.
The author has written 3 other books on modern Chinese history, with the last, well-acclaimed one titled ‘Forgotten Ally’ centring on how China’s role in the War has rarely been acknowledged in the same way that the other Allies, especially US, UK, the Soviets, and European allies’, have been. He can therefore be termed as not just an authority on China (which will be evident to the reader), but also a reasonably sympathetic one.
Starting at the end of the Second World War, Mitter shows how for China the end of the Japanese occupation (WW2 is officially known in China as the War of Resistance to Japan) didn’t lead to a period of peace and growth. This is unlike the case in all the other protagonists of the War, the victors as well as the vanquished, who all enjoyed relative stability and peaceful growth under the new world order.
China’s case was thus rather unique among the major combatants.
The end of the war in China was quickly followed by the climax of a vicious Civil war that had intermittently raged alongside throughout this period. The establishment of the PRC in 1949 led to a period of upheaval with revolutionary ideology and class warfare at the top of the Maoist agenda. Thus followed the disastrous Cultural revolution, collectivisations, and famines, while all the while the political as well as economic model remained autarkic.
An added quirk was that the China that fought with the Allies was the Nationalist China, led by Chiang Kai Shek, whose Kuomintang were defeated by Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists in the Civil War. It was supremely inconvenient for the Communists that their internal archenemy was the face of China to the world during the War – and was likely the main reason why the Americans strongly endorsed the Chinese permanent membership to the UN Security Council. Thus, during this period, the narrative of the war was subsumed by the more politically important narrative of the Communist victory over the Nationalists. This also explains the different treatments of the War and post-war history in Chongqing and Yan’an, respectively the bases for long of the Nationalists and the Communists respectively.
The death of Mao in the Seventies led to a more open and less ideological discussion of the War. The book covers both these periods and analyses the discussions in some detail. Moving forward, it then goes on to show how as China emerged as an economic power, the CCP started moulding the narrative of WW2 into the story of Chinese nationalism. Museums were opened, anti-Japanese feelings were strategically and tactically stoked, and popular (albeit tightly controlled) media such as movies and social media started focussing more on the war stories. More recently, greater efforts have started to reclaim China’s place as a leading player on the victorious side of the war.
The last point handily leads to Chinese expectations, and demands, for a greater say in the current world order. These could be in the form of highlighting the Cairo conference rather than the Yalta, Potsdam and Teheran conferences which resonate more with Western observers and students – Cairo was the only one attended by Chiang, although not by Stalin, arguably a more important global player then. Or in the Chinese claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and in putting forward the Belt and Road as a kind of new Marshall Plan.
All of the above is well detailed. Be warned, however, that China’s Good War is not a narrative description, or a breezy pop-history of the kind made fashionable by the likes of Niall Ferguson and William Dalrymple. Instead, this is an academician’s work – a well written one no doubt, and a rigorous one at that. But it is likely to appeal more to someone with a specific research interest in the subject rather than a general reader, who may find some of the minutiae - such as the commonality and differences in the writing style of Du Zhongyuan, the editor of the leading political magazine in 1930’s China, and Fang Jun, a more recent commentator writing in the Nineties. That’s the reason I have given it a three, rather than higher, rating.