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Reviewed by:
  • China in War and Revolution, 1895–1949
  • Diana Lary (bio)
Peter Zarrow. China in War and Revolution, 1895–1949. London: Routledge, 2005. xix, 395 pp. Paperback $21.99, ISBN 0–415–36448–5.

The Chinese Republic, the successor to the Qing dynasty and the precursor of the Peoples’ Republic, is often treated as an interregnum between the imperial system and the Communist era, a brief (in Chinese history) period of confusion and failure between two great eras. This rather cavalier treatment of the period is particularly true of general histories of modern China, which tend to gloss over the forty-eight years of the Republic on the mainland. This negligence is a mistake. In the two millennia of China’s history as a state, short dynasties have often been critical. The decade and a half of the Qin dynasty laid the framework for the whole empire. The three and a half decades of the Sui dynasty reunited China after three centuries of division. And the Yuan dynasty, less than a hundred years in duration, made China a part of the empire of the steppes.

The Republic fits this model of a short very important era. It also contained great promise for a modern, transformed China. It was a period of great innovation and excitement. Many of the institutions and ideologies of present-day China came into being during the Republic. Two new political currents, nationalism and socialism, which still dominate China today, took hold. China’s traditional social hierarchy was turned upside down with the rise of youth, workers, and peasant movements and the beginnings of women’s liberation. China’s economy and infrastructure were transformed with the beginnings of modern industry, the development of communications networks, and the establishment of the institutions (banking, insurance, postal service) needed for a modern economy. The supporters of the new in the Republic were also the attackers of the old society—Confucianism, the traditional family system, the authority of the elders, polygamy, arranged marriage. The old men who dominated China and Taiwan into the 1970s and 1980s started out on their revolutionary careers in the early Republic as young radicals protesting against the old society.

In this accomplished study, Peter Zarrow has set out to understand this rich and complex period. He has written a judicious, lucid, and fair-minded account of the era, one that gives a clear overview of the period. Zarrow’s work incorporates the findings of many recent studies of the Republic, and so stands as a benchmark for current scholarship in North America on the period. The book reflects the current focus on intellectual and political history, on the search for political legitimacy after the collapse of the old system, and on the growth of nationalism. Zarrow looks carefully at the new ideologies that swept into China from the end of the Qing dynasty, and shows how in the swirl of conflicting ideas and political movements the Chinese Communist Party, animated by a foreign ideology but adapted to China, eventually triumphed. [End Page 300]

But Zarrow takes as his starting date for his history not the Xinhai Revolution (1911), the event that brought down the dynasty, but 1895, China’s terrible, almost unthinkable defeat by Japan, a defeat that still rankles and whose repercussions are still felt, not least in the status of Taiwan, ceded to Japan after the war. Though Zarrow’s account starts with a war and with the peasant Boxer Rising that followed, warfare and the military are not central concerns of this study. The focus is on intellectual currents, politics, and ideology, even though the military was one of the key agents of modernization and warfare was a constant and grim presence. Much of the early Republic was dominated by internal warfare during the warlord period, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China started in 1931 and lasted until 1945, and the last four years of the Republic on the mainland were the years of the civil war. The downplaying of war is a characteristic of the writing of modern Chinese history in China and in the West. There are good reasons for this. The most powerful is the intense Chinese dislike...