- The Soldier Image and State-Building in Modern China, 1924–1945 by Yan Xu
Twentieth century Chinese military culture is still a neglected topic among scholars. Despite a multitude of studies on Warlordism, the Republican military, and particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War, research on the internal organizational mechanism of armies, the self-awareness of military personnel, or various and often competing views of different social actors on war and the armed forces are relatively rare. Therefore, Yan Xu's book The Soldier Image and State-Building in Modern China, 1924–1945 is a welcome study of the different perceptions of soldiering in post-Warlord China. Her goal is to examine the wide range of "soldier images" and "soldier figures" across various political, social, and cultural forces (p. 12). These include mainly Guomindang military and political leaders and institutions, politically more or less independent intellectuals, and writers as well as the Communist Party propaganda. Xu argues that the construction of a positive image of (common) soldiers served the need of state-building, which she regards as closely intertwined and, implicitly, congruent with nation-building (p. 12). Soldiers were supposed to be role models, morally upright ideal citizens or communists who gave others an example of how to behave and think, and thus contribute to a stable society and state.
Yan Xu's starting point, in Chapter 1, is the Guomindang's effort to establish an army with the foundation of Whampoa Military Academy in 1924. [End Page 343] In this chapter, she mostly examines the speeches of Chiang Kaishek given to the academy's cadets and the construction of an ideal soldier based on literary types such as the knight-errant (xia). Chiang sought to instill in soldiers discipline, a martial spirit, Confucian "human virtues," and the idea of "social order." They should submit themselves to a well-regulated set of behavior that included, for instance, strict hygiene. "The stress on rituals at Whampoa reveals that the training of a model politicized soldier in modern China was shaped by Confucian ideals and concepts" (p. 42). Moreover, the new ideal Republican soldier should adhere to the notion of brotherhood and mutual support among peers. However, these fraternal bonds should not stand above the loyalty to the Nationalist party, its leader, and its ideology. Following the Soviet model, Chiang and the Guomindang leadership focused on the political education of cadets and, as a result, the Republican army became the first Party Army in China. As a sort of reality check, Xu juxtaposes the soldier figure projected in Chiang's speeches with the memoires of graduates (she points out that this is problematic because the memoires were recorded much later). She shows that cadets did not always unquestioningly accept and follow Chiang's ideals, and neither did the soldiers in the Warlord armies allied with the Nationalists. Despite or even because of the emphasis on morally correct conduct, other (allied Warlord) soldiers did not necessarily treat Whampoa cadets with respect.
Chapter 2 deals with the Nationalist government attempts at distributing the soldierly ideals preached to the Whampoa cadets to society through compulsory conscription. Yan Xu mainly examines the development of the first conscription law in China from 1933 to the 1940s, which was supposed to establish soldiers as the "epitome of morality" (p. 63) and lead to the creation of citizen soldiers. Universal military conscription was state-building par excellence, Xu argues, as it served the purpose of creating "model citizens and national heroes" and spreading the Nationalist's political and social ideals. The New Life Movement, initiated by Chiang in 1934, was another attempt to communicate these military moral ideas to a wider audience. Again, Xu concludes the chapter with a reality check, contending that the overall poor conditions of soldiers did not much improve the image of the military in China. The actual implementation of universal conscription was quite limited and certain elite status groups such as students were exempted.
Although Xu provides a...