A weekly glance at an overlooked aspect of China’s history

History Friday: The Missimo

Chiang Kai-shek, Soong May-ling and Marshall
Image via Wikipedia

In the Hutong
Online Video on the Brain
1358 hrs.

After living on the Mainland for a decade and a half, I was beginning to wonder whether the subtle effects of Party propaganda were beginning to warp my view of modern Chinese history, and in particular the legacy of the First Family of the nationalist Kuomintang government, the Chiangs. They are both portrayed as villains in mainland propaganda and sainted heroes in Taiwan. Where twixt these extremes, between angels and demons, I asked myself recently, does the truth lie?

My timing could not have been more apt. In recent years, two very good biographies of Chiang Kai Shek (whom my 81 year-old mother still calls “Cash My Check”) have been published, and one superb biography of his wife and partner, Song Mei-Ling, The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai Shek and the Birth of Modern China, by Hannah Pakula.

Pakula is no China expert, she is an historian and a biographer of great women, so she comes to her subject refreshingly bereft of some of the prejudices and agendas that have tainted many recent biographies of China’s leaders. She comes as a blank sheet, implores us to do the same, and in the process creates a remarkable addition to the canon of popular Chinese history.

If the sole result of Pakula’s effort was an immersive and multi-dimensional portrait of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century, that would be sufficient reason to read this book. And it is certainly that. Pakula leads us through Meiling’s formative years, letting us watch her evolve from the idealistic scion of a New Chinese family to the dowager of a reactionary regime that sacrificed its ideology on the altar of survival.

On top of all of this, there are hints at little-discussed but critical parts of her personal life, a frank examination of her relationship with her streetwise but rather less sophisticated husband, and an examination of the family coterie that formed around her as she aged.

What lifts this book above that of an engaging character study is how Pakula delicately parallels the evolution of China’s fortunes with Meiling’s. Her spirits, her fortunes, her very personality seemed to wax to their fullest between the early and the mid-1940s, and then wane as events force her and husband further to the periphery of China’s historical mainstream.

Confronted with the complexities of a remarkable character, the temptation to simplify Madame through interpretation must have been incredible. Pakula could have easily slipped into the biographer’s version of Stockholm syndrome, allowing empathy to help her find redeeming qualities in Meiling beyond those actually present. Or she could have gone the other route, inflating Madame’s character failings into a morality tale that would have made the KMT’s weaknesses her own.

Thankfully for us and for history, Pakula takes no such shortcuts. There are no simple, spoon-fed caricatures in Pakula’s account that will allow the reader to get off so easily, to simply file Madame into one of those easy little boxes to which we consign our heroes, our villains, our perpetrators, and our victims. Instead Pakula leaves us with the facts and a charge: to parse for ourselves the rightful place for Song Meiling in the intricate tapestry of Chinese history.


History Friday: For Your Reading Pleasure

In the Hutong
Multiscreen Monotasking
1458 hrs.

One of the reasons posts have been rather scanty here of late is that we (okay, “I”) have been resurrecting The Peking Review blog in a new format.

Some of you may know that I’ve got a collection of somewhere around 4,000 books and book-length works, of which about 2,200 are in electronic format and around 95% of those are freely available on the web. Apart from the occasional review of books that don’t comfortably fit into Silicon Hutong, I am posting on The Peking Review thumbnail summaries/reviews of up to five of those totally gratis books each day, along with a handy link for you to download them at your leisure.

It is a reasonably eclectic mix, so you may want to check through the categories if you are looking for something specific, or just browse recent posts.

For today’s History Friday, in honor of the re-launch of The Peking Review, I have pulled a few of the works on China’s history for you to check out. (And now that the hard work on The Peking Review is done, I can spend more time here.)


Foreigners in Areas of China Under Communist Jursidiction Before 1949

Liu Sha0-Ch’i and “People’s War:” A Report on the Creation of Base Areas in 1938

Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow and the Chinese Revolution: A Personal Account

The Return of History Friday: North China Front

Eight Route Army in Shanxi
Image via Wikipedia

In the Hutong
Deep-diving on the 8th Route Army
1726 hrs.

Today marks the long-awaited return of History Friday to Silicon Hutong, and we will start with British journalist James Bertram’s eyewitness account of China’s desperate struggle to contain the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937-8.

Bertram may not be as well-known as Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, Evans Carlson, or Anna Louise Strong, but he was a contemporary and provides a perspective that compliments their own. It is hard to tell whether Bertram was a communist himself, but in his long uninterrupted passages quoting Mao Zedong from their interviews in Yenan, one suspects that he was at least a sympathetic, if not a Fellow Traveler.

But what is notable and important about Bertram’s account are the insights and viewpoints that he offers that stand in stark contrast with received history, both from American classrooms and Chinese. A few of my favorites:

Among the Island People

Bertram begins his odyssey with his visit to Japan in what turned out to be the weeks prior to the Marco Polo Bridge incident and Japan’s resulting invasion of China proper. His descriptions the popular mood in Japan are startling: this was no populace whipped into war fever by propaganda and theatrics, but a people who knew war was coming and were simply resigned to it matched by a cowed intellectual class opposed to the war but terrified to speak out.

But the Japanese receives no coddling from Bertram, and he does not shy from cataloging the misdeeds and brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army, its officers, its collaborators, and its cohorts. He manages to do so without devolving into the demagoguery or rhetorical excess that marked both Chinese and American war information, but the brutality comes through all the stronger because of it.

The Army and the Guerrillas

I have read accounts of the bands of Chinese guerrilla partisans that bedeviled the Japanese throughout the war, but Bertram’s was the first to dive into the relationship between the 8th Route Army and the guerrilla bands in adjacent territories. The latter were the true expression of Mao’s revolutionary doctrine of People’s War, and arguably the lessons learned in Hebei and Shaanxi on coordinating regular and partisan formations laid the groundwork for the CCP’s successes during the civil war. You also see where Ho Chi Minh got his playbook on coordinating the North Vietnamese Army and the irregulars of the Viet Cong.

As I read Bertram’s account of tromping through the Shaanxi hills with the legendary He Long’s 120th Division, I was struck by how quickly in its efforts to modernize and professionalize the PLA is discarding much of value in its heritage. From irregular warfare to mountain combat and austere logistics, He Long and his fellow officers in the 8th Route epitomized the power of light infantry when well-used. It its rush to mechanize and digitize to keep up with the U.S., the PLA may be making itself a less flexible force than it can or should be.

A Girl Worth Fighting For

Finally, it was a delight to read a book written about the 8th Route Army and Yenan that was completed without the benefit of more than six months hindsight. What came through in Bertram’s account of his time in the caves with Mao and company (and He Long’s stories of his “colorful” evolution from bandit to general) was that from the moment it took the field, the Chinese Red Army was having to figure things out as they went. Combat is evolution accelerated, and what made the difference between a good soldier and a dead one was luck and an ability to recognize an important lesson, apply it, and share it.

For New China was launched by survivors, and if you believe in social Darwinism you are likely to think that is a good thing. But in hearing through Bertram’s prose the voices of both Japanese and Chinese students, scholars, and leaders who did not make it through the terrible culling of the North China Front, one can only wonder how the destiny of both nations might have been different.


James Bertram’s book North China Front, originally published by Macmillan and Company in 1939, is once again in print courtesy of the Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7-119-03530-4

History Friday: The U.S. Marines in China

Starbucks Pacific Century Place
Watching the smokers suck cancer sticks
1023 hrs.

One of the forgotten bits of the history of the U.S. in China is the story of the role the U.S. Marine Corps played in the unstable years between the Nanjing Massacre in 1927 and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into the war.

Apart from the guard detachments at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, there were several isolated detachments around China and a full regiment – the 4th Marines – in Shanghai, all stationed to protect U.S. diplomats and civilians against warlords, bandits, the Japanese Army and Kempei-tai. The thought of large formations of US troops in China is stomach-churning today, but the country was a cauldron in the last decade before World War II, and most of the European powers stationed troops in the mainland to (at least ostensibly) protect their citizens and interests.

The story of the Marines in China during that period is largely unknown. I fancy myself something of an amateur military historian, but I found out about the “China Marines” through my reading of W.E.B. Griffin’s “The Corps” series of novels.

Intrigued, I went looking for other sources. Eric Niderost has a highly readable overview on History.net, taken originally from his article in World War II magazine. The History Department at the University of San Diego posts an article that forms a good companion to the Niderost piece.

If you want to go deeper, there is a superb China Marines section of B.J. Omanson’s Scuttlebut and Small Chow site entitled “History and Lore of the Old Corps.” Apart from some excellent articles, Omanson sports some excellent links and a list of relevant books.

Finally, there is the China Marines site, which is both brilliantly designed and deeply researched. The images and maps alone are worth your time.

What intrigues me about this period of history was the way the Marines and the everyday Chinese interacted. Putting young Americans in strange situations always brings out the best and the worst of us, and watching the way my father’s generation reacted to China is as instructive as sitting here in Starbucks and watching the way our contemporaries manage that stroll across the bridge between two unrelated but intriguingly similar cultures.

History for Geeks (Like Me)

In the Hutong
Trying to keep the TV off
1947 hrs.

Apart from being an all-around fan of things technological (geek), I have over the past few years become fascinated by the history of computing and information technology. You may guffaw, given that so much of all of this has come to pass during our lifetimes, but I’ve always been a history buff (I was one course short of making the national history honor society in university), and I’ve always found that a mashup of two of my interests is usually worth exploring.
I started by adding the quarterly Annals of the History of Computing to my IEEE membership each year, and was amply rewarded. Not only are there some incredible stories from the past 50 years that can only now be told, we are now able to look at the evolution of information technology from an historical perspective.
There is also a growing library of books on the topic, like ENIAC, the Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac was Made, and Tracy Kidder’s superb The Soul of a New Machine, which was written as journalism but now serves as excellent history.
So I was interested when I got an invitation a couple of days ago from the IT History Society to join their ranks. I took them up, even though it looks like it is still early days for the organization. If you are the least interested, membership is free and it looks quite cool. The organization is supported by corporate members like Intel, HP, Symantec, Microsoft, IBM, and Applied Materials, and counts among its institutional members some of the leading lights of the Internet, like the Association for Computing Machinery, the IEEE History Center, the Internet Archive, and the Smithsonian.
Check it out – the membership form is here.

Why China is Growing and GM is Shrinking

The Risk Pool” by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, August 28, 2006

Every now and then an article or book comes along that gently but insistently challenges your assumptions. Malcolm Gladwell, whose thinking and work has been much maligned by the buzzwordification of his brilliant book The Tipping Point, pops up with this little beauty of an article in last week’s The New Yorker, thankfully made available online.

(NB – Speaking very late last night to The Village Grouch, we both agree that between The New Yorker, The Economist, Harvard Business Review and a handful of similarly insightful publications, we’d have to give up our jobs just to keep up with our reading. We also agreed, however, that it would be a worthy sacrifice.)

Gladwell uses the article to zoom in on a single demographic statistic called “the dependency ratio,” which is essentially the ratio of people who aren’t of working age (children and retirees) and those who are. Citing a range of examples, both national (Ireland, China, India and Japan) and corporate (GM and Bethlehem Steel, and Google), he convincingly makes the case that comparative advantage is in no small part dependent on demographics.

Clearly demographics are not the only issue – if dependency ratios told all, Africa would be an emerging economic superpower capable or rivaling Asia. Gladwell’s point, however, does have broader implications:

• For U.S. companies, who in the face of GM’s long slow meltdown must see pension and medical benefits as a time bomb;

• For the U.S. government and electorate, who now need to reassess the wisdom of allowing corporations to handle social benefits programs;

• For European and Japanese governments who now must revaluate the sustainability of their immigration and social policies; and

• For China, who needs to look beyond the current 11th Five Year Plan Guidelines and see that beginning in about 20 years they’re going to have an immense mass or retirees to support.

Chewy stuff.

Review: The Man Who Stayed Behind

Deep, Deep in the Hutong

Just finished The Man Who Stayed Behind by Sidney Rittemberg and Amanda Bennett. The book is an account of Rittenberg’s 35 years in China, first as a U.S. Army translator in World War II, then as a U.N. Relief official, and finally, from 1947, as the only American citizen to serve as a member of the Chinese Communist Party. After the communists took China in 1949, Rittenberg chose to remain in China, rising in 16 years from a translator at Radio Beijing to – briefly, during the Cultural Revolution – head of China’s Broadcast Administration. He was imprisoned twice, once for over six years, once for nearly ten.

The one question I asked myself when I finished was “why the hell didn’t I read this sooner?”

Honest Insights

As personal histories go, this one is exceptionally easy to read and enjoyable, due I am sure in no small part to Bennett’s contribution, but also because Rittenberg’s story itself is so engrossing and painfully, blisteringly honest. The very idea of an American at the heart of China’s revolutionary maelstrom is remarkable. The insights and context he is able to put on those events easily rivals in importance the better known works of Harrison Salisbury et al.

But that is almost the least of the book’s merits. In the spirit of the self-criticisms he and all party members had to endure, Rittenberg does a brilliant job at avoiding hindsight, instead taking us on a journey as much mental, emotional, and spiritual as it was geographic, ideologic, and historical. The insight into the mind of a man who could first buy into the promise of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought, then subjugate his ego and his conscience to the cause of revolution by itself makes the book worth reading.

We come away from the book understanding, as Rittenberg did, that the Chinese revolution deserves neither to be idealized or demonized. Great horrors were committed in the name of the revolution, to be sure, but China has indeed come a long way since 1949, and we see through his eyes – and are able to juxtapose – the suffering in the neo-feudal chaos that was Republican China before 1949, and the murderous excesses committed since.

Rittenberg could probably get away with passing final judgment on China, but he does not, and the book is better for it. He strives instead to put us behind his eyes through the whole experience, good and ill, and let us judge for ourselves.

It is customary for a reviewer to look for flaws in a book, but to do so in this case would be picking nits. The book does not pretend to be more than it is – an honest memoir of somebody who was there and saw it all. Rittenberg makes no excuses for himself and his behavior – and he comes out in most respects looking no better or worse than those around him.

The book is no substitute for a more academic history of the period, and there is nor shortage of either histories or biographies to provide a broader canvas, more context, or greater analysis. And frankly, the more background the reader has in modern Chinese history the greater the value of this read.

Key Takeaways

I walked away understanding two things: first, there is no excuse, even for those of us who profess to care about China and its people, to either apologize for or vilify the country or the party. Only a balanced perspective on either will give us perspectives on how to help China evolve as a nation. If Rittenberg can avoid those tracks, so should we.

Second, China’s modern history has in its background a constant tug-of-war between internationalism and xenophobia. In most cases, those conflicts are represented by people who are more one or the other: the foreign-hating Empress Dowager vs. her nephew, the Kuangxu Emperor; Yuan Shikai vs. Sun Yat-sen; Mao Zedong vs. Zhou Enlai, and even Li Peng vs. Zhu Rongji. But as The Man Who Stayed Behind points out, that’s an over simplified understanding of the battle. Rittenberg subtly reminds every non-Chinese who lives in or deals with the People’s Republic that China and its people have a schizophrenic love/hate relationship with things and people foreign, and that they seem fated to eternally swing between the two extremes.

If such insights put long-range goals and long-term investments in China in a starker light, That’s probably a very, very good thing.

A must-read.