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Reviewed by:
  • The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945, and: China at War: Regions of China, 1937–45
  • Katherine Reist (bio)
Diana Lary. The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiv, 214 pp. Hardcover $95.00, ISBN 978-0-521-19506-5. Paperback $29.99, ISBN 978-0-521-14410-0.
Stephen R. MacKinnon, Diana Lary, and Ezra F. Vogel, editors. China at War: Regions of China, 1937–45. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. xix, 351 pp. Hardcover $65.00, ISBN 978-0-8047-5509-2. [End Page 91]

Most books and articles dealing with the war in China focus on the American or Japanese points of view, plans, and experiences. Or they might explore the Guomindang and Communist rivalry for power and the factors that helped or hampered the competition. Rarely, until the publication of these books, have the problems, hardships, and survival of the Chinese people in various areas been explored. Some were occupied early in the conflict with lives approaching normal as a result of the quick defeat or retreat of Chinese military forces. Others were in the active war zones, which were fought over for extended periods. Still others were removed from the areas of active military engagement but were subject to bombing raids, refugee influxes, requisitions for the war effort of men and material, and other dislocations of war.

These new studies remedy a lacuna in the understanding of China’s role in the war and the scope of its impact. The lack of studies has distorted the contributions of the country and its people and the profound effects of the war on it. The war in China was between a country with an agricultural economy and one that was highly industrialized; one that was in the process of preparing for a modern war after a century of war and revolution, and one that had successfully modernized and defeated both China and Russia in previous wars.

Diana Lary’s book is organized chronologically, exploring the effects of the war on the Chinese people as the war progressed through the various campaigns and stalemates, changes in tactics and responses, and conditions under which the war was fought. Her focus, as defined in the book’s subtitle, is the human suffering and social transformation as a result of the war experiences. She details the problems of social coherence at a time when not only were villages and urban areas damaged or destroyed, or village social and political structures divided or reconstructed, but no one seemed to be responsible to remedy these problems. The division between those who could afford to leave the war zones and establish themselves elsewhere, those who had no choice but to become refugees and hope for the best, and those who, due to age, infirmity, or other problems, were forced to stay behind is described in detail. In particular, she highlights the problems of families and family structure, which was broken as people could not return to their homes from travels or were suddenly drafted into an army. In many such cases, families were never reunited, having no information as to the fate of missing family members, and were left with uncertainty and fear as a result.

These issues are set within a framework of specific years and conditions of the war. Chapter headings reflect the periodization: the “High Tide of War,” “Defeat and Retreat,” and so forth. In addition, specific regions are highlighted with their different problems, such as the suffering caused in Henan with the breaching of the Yellow River dike, where hundreds of thousands were killed by the resultant flooding and the famine that ensued. Within the unfolding experiences of war, Lary concentrates on her main themes: how the changing fortunes of war affected the family and village structures, refugee experiences, business conditions and [End Page 92] occupation policies in regard to confiscations, reprisals, or the formation of puppet regimes. The war affected all areas of China to a greater or lesser degree as illustrated by the maps included in the text. Most Chinese, therefore, experienced some of the hardships of the war...