The People’s War7 min read

John B. Thompson reviews China at War by Hans van de Ven


Novelist Lao She watched Chongqing, China’s provisional capital during World War II, burn after a Japanese firebombing on May 4, 1939. “This is ‘May Fourth’!” he wrote, recalling the political and cultural movement to revive Chinese nationalism which started on that same date in 1919. “We will not accept this menace, this fire and blood! We will spill our hearts to struggle for and win rebirth for all of China!”

At the time, many Chinese argued that the War of Resistance Against Japan would win a new life for China, fractured by civil war and colonialism since the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911. What kind of nation was to be reborn was not clear. As Hans van de Ven emphasizes in China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China, “China was at war not just with Japan but also with itself” in a protracted struggle for China’s future between the sovereign Nationalist Party and their Communist rivals.

The party-state and scholarship in China now downplay the civil war, as the ruling Communist Party has abandoned its revolutionary past and embraced the War of Resistance as the origin story of modern China. It has sought to use Nationalist China’s status as one of the Allies in the so-called World Anti-Fascist War to legitimize China’s status as a world power, overlooking very real fight between Nationalists and Communists and the radical disjuncture of the Chinese Revolution.

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. The “People’s War” was conceived in China’s simultaneous wars for national and class liberation, but became a political alternative to both liberal democracy and Soviet-style socialism in the postwar world, spreading from Vietnam to India to South America.

The book must be read alongside that of van de Ven’s colleague Rana Mitter, who argues for China’s war contributions in Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. Mitter’s accomplishment was to recover China’s wartime story for the English-speaking world and restore China’s place among the Allies as a strategic contributor to defeating Japan and as a non-white architect of a postwar order, a nation-state defined as much by anti-imperialism  as Cold War antipathies. Mitter rehabilitated the images of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party, often maligned as corrupt and ineffectual by their own wartime allies, and positioned both as earnest, if imperfect, engineers of a new state and society responding to shifting geopolitical realities while caught in the tangles of Western imperialism and the disaster of total war.

Van de Ven answers Mitter by flipping many of his parameters. Where Mitter’s setting is global, van de Ven focuses on Asia; while Mitter ends his story in 1945, van de Ven extends his to 1952, when China consolidated both its internal cohesion and regional clout at the end of the Korean War. This new China was not Nationalist, but Communist, an outcome that can only be appreciated from the even wider perspective of China’s “long war,” beginning with the Nationalist Party’s murderous purge of Communists in 1927 and ending with the resolution of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1955, with Communists in charge of the mainland and the Nationalists ensconced in Taiwan. During this time, two different political imaginations faced each other: the technocratic authoritarianism of the Nationalists against the class revolution of the Communists.

The means for expressing these politics was often mass, organized violence – war. The wars between China and Japan and between the Nationalists and Communists were as much about the transformation of war and politics as the imagination of “China” as a national community or world power, hence van de Ven’s implicit rebuke to Mitter, insisting we “take war seriously as war; that is, recover how it was thought about, analyze how it was planned, and examine how it was enacted, rather than just regret its horrors, see it merely as the context in which ideological or political struggles played out, or, important as these things are, use it to construct narratives about the origins of today’s world.”

The Nationalists were particularly maladapted to the transformational war in which they found themselves. During the Nationalists’ short time in power, China never developed the capacity to support the large standing army, replete with the tanks, airplanes and other trappings of industrial modernity Chiang Kai-shek thought befit a serious nation. The war with Japan quickly exposed the shortcomings of this vision. After the Battle of Shanghai in 1937 smashed China’s handful of elite divisions, the Nationalist state never again mustered a force capable of defeating Japan in definitive encounters.

The Nationalist forces bore the brunt of Japanese aggression for the rest of the war, but they were saved more by retreat into China’s unconquerably vast interior than by any kind of ingenuity. While it may disappoint contemporary writers committed to the idea of China’s tactical importance, China was never a decisive theater in the wider war after 1941. Most of the Japanese troops held down in China at the end were old or untested, only prevented from redeploying elsewhere by the United States Navy’s dominance in the Pacific. Even then, Nationalist China barely survived Operation Ichigo in 1944, Japan’s last-ditch effort to swarm Chongqing. The Nationalists’ most consequential decision was the one they did not make: imagining any version of political and military modernity that did not depend on a bloodless, depoliticized technocracy and the Party’s sclerotic, unpopular rule.

Such an alternative vision was obtained in Yan’an, where Mao Zedong and the Communist Party perfected “People’s War.” Militarily, People’s War was dedicated to guerrilla warfare in the fight against Japan, entrapping and exhausting a superior enemy in scattered fighting. Politically, this strategy depended on the material support of the rural population, which the Communist Party cultivated by addressing the problems of rural social life and including peasants in political decision-making. As the Chinese scholar Wang Hui has argued, these developments occurred simultaneously, producing an entirely original mode of political expression in which the articulation of class – the production of the peasantry as a political agent rather than a social problem – became inseparable from the fight.

English-language writers from Chalmers Johnson to Mark Selden have famously sought the origins of Communist legitimacy in the practice of Yan’an governance, but van de Ven offers a sober assessment of People’s War that takes into account the indispensability of violence for the “Yan’an Way.” For van de Ven, Clausewitz’s old aphorism that war is “the continuation of politics by other means” is not a clever expression, but an essential truth: violence and politics are always intertwined. Chairman Mao, a fluent Clausewitzian who ordered On War translated in Yan’an, held such an appreciation for political violence, for the good and ill of China’s future – he was a “master technician of violence,” in van de Ven’s words.

“National liberation war was never just guerrilla war,” writes van de Ven, and the Communist Army indeed turned to set-piece battles, in which consolidated units of troops confronted each other across a front, to defeat the Nationalists in the Civil War and the US in Korea. Even then, principles from the War of Resistance, like refusing the battlefield until victory was assured, persisted alongside tactical innovations meant to cover the weaknesses of raw recruits, like the “three-three” system in which small teams took turns providing covering fire for each other in dispersed formations. Still, the key to success remained political: this warfare only became possible once the Party guaranteed enough popular support to field large, well-supplied armies.

In the West, vulgar anti-communism and a liberal aversion to acknowledging the violence latent in all politics has kept People’s War in obscurity. This blindness has had strategic consequences, as People’s Wars have flummoxed Western countries ever since, Vietnam providing the most potent example. Recent scholarship generally has not helped our understanding of People’s War in Chinese history, with the new vogue emphasizing continuities between the Nationalist and Communist states across 1949, rather than the distinctiveness of Chinese communism. Yet the People’s Republic developed from an original vision of the politics of war and war in politics, one that van de Ven’s excellent study can help us see once again. ∎


Hans van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China (Harvard University Press, February 2018).