- China and the Great War: China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization
Xu Gouqi has set out to fill a lacuna in our understanding of the Great War. Further, he has placed the war in the broader spectrum of modern Chinese historical development. He explains in an easily understood argument that China's place in the war is neglected or misunderstood, as is the manner in which the leading intellectuals there used the war issues to define and enhance China's participation in the world community. He states that one could read about the war and never know that China had played a part in it (p. 3).
While most mentions of China in the war focus on the Shandong issue and the peace conference, with possible comments on the Chinese laborers who toiled in the rear areas of the Western Front, Xu opens these studies to the internal pressures in China to be part of the international experience in order to become a participant in the postwar realignment of power. He pursues diplomatic interactions between the Chinese and the major players on both sides, particularly with the British and French. He also explores Chinese desire to act with the Americans, first as a neutral power, and then to follow them into the war. Particular interest is placed on the role of Woodrow Wilson in China's search for a modern self-identification, and as a member of the international order. [End Page 524]
One misperception that is countered is that China was "pulled" into the war by outsiders (p. 10). The Chinese deliberately and creatively found ways in which their participation could be accepted. Xu reflects on the ambitions, disappointments, and problems associated with the desire to be accepted internationally, in order to redefine China as a nation. One solution for the Chinese was to offer laborers and soldiers, as well as weapons, to the French and British. This offer would place China on the same side as Japan, who was using the conflict to extend her interests in China. Yet China needed to be on the winning side in order to benefit from the peace. The secret treaties which the Allies had made with Japan made China's goals problematic. Still, she gained recognition, recovered some rights, and developed a sense of identity as a nation.
China in 1919 was fundamentally different from China in 1914 (p. 16). Xu's interweaving of developments in China, both in foreign and domestic areas, helps us to analyze these differences. They resulted in the establishment of a national identity, and a place in the international arena. The author's account is well organized, incorporating information from within and outside the country. He neither overwhelms the nonspecialist, nor repeats unembellished established accounts of China in this period. The book will interest those who focus on the Great War, are interested in the social and intellectual history of modern China, or American diplomatic history, particularly that relating to Woodrow Wilson. This is a coherent account of a very complex subject, broken down into manageable sections, and then unified in a convincing conclusion.