The People’s War

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.