Sunday 5 July 2020

The Bitter Peace by Philip S. Jowett - Conflict in China 1928-1937

Chinese history has long been ignored in the West, but a few spotlights do shine out from time to time on certain events, even if only to provide superficial understanding. These usually point to the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and, recently, the Sino-Japanese War. However, there is a small window of time in Chinese history that contained multiple smaller wars, which has almost been completely ignored by Western scholars. This brief era is what The Bitter Peace – Conflict in China 1928-37 by Philip S. Jowett illuminates.

As the title implies, the book focuses on the numerous smaller-scale conflicts that erupted during the so-called Nanking Decade. Sandwiched between the end of the Warlord Era (1916 – 1928) and the Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945), the Nanking Decade was defined by “peace” and a “unified government” under the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, ruling in Nanking (Nanjing). However, this was a mere façade, since China was anything but unified and the decade was marred by almost constant war on some front or another.

Author Philip S. Jowett has contributed numerous valuable Asian-themed titles to Osprey Publishing’s book series, such as Chinese Warlord Armies 1911 - 1930, Imperial Chinese Armies 1840 - 1911, The Japanese Army 1931 – 1945, and The Chinese Army 1937 – 1949, and his research really shines through with The Bitter Peace. We are treated to chapter by chapter explanations of the small wars that pockmarked the Nanking Decade, along with descriptions of the battles and personalities that dominated these conflicts.

The book opens with a breakdown of the National Revolutionary Army, the Kuomintang’s private army that defeated the warlords and purged the Communists in 1927. This force would soon be renamed the Nationalist Army (guo jun) in 1930, and would function as the national army of China. However, it would remain part of the Kuomintang apparatus until the Republic of China Constitution of 1947, when it would be officially separated. Jowett also breaks down the birth of the Nationalist Air Force, militias, and (albeit small) Nationalist Navy.  

The book then details the individual conflicts of the Nanking Decade,  I will highlight a few notable examples:

The Sino-Soviet War of 1929 – this brief border conflict is all but forgotten, even though it had a direct impact on future events that culminated in World War II. In 1929, the Young Marshal Chang Hsüeh-liang took over the Soviet portion of the jointly-owned Chinese Eastern Railway from the Soviet Union. This, in turn, led to skirmishes with the Red Army which eventually launched a full-scale invasion of Manchuria in November, prompting Marshal Chang to sue for peace shortly after. This conflict is particularly notable for the alarm bells it set off among Japanese Army officers, who, terrified at the Soviet victory, began drafting plans to take Manchuria for themselves.

The Manchurian Incident and Jehol Invasion – usually covered in a few brief sentences, this is one of the first English-language accounts that gives more detail to the actual battles of the Manchurian Incident. There is an incorrect notion that the Japanese had a complete cake-walk in Manchuria, but in reality, there were pitched battles of Chinese resistance, notably along the Nonni River and Tsitsihar under the dashing General Ma. The book also covers the invasion of the Jehol (also known as Rehe, within modern Hubei) province in 1933, which led to the Tangku Truce, officially closing the so-called Manchurian Incident.

The Bandit Extermination Campaigns – also known as the Encirclement Campaigns, these were massive operations of the Nanking Government to destroy the Chinese Soviet Republic operating in the Kiangsi (Jiangxi) province. There were five in total, lasting from 1930 – 1934, most of which ended in complete failure for the Nationalist Army. However, the final one, under the tutelage of German advisers, ending up routing the Chinese Red Army which fled in what became the famous Long March. Rather than glossing over the Nationalist defeats, Jowett takes us through each campaign, analyzing the failures, and offering interesting tidbits and facts (like the one Nationalist general who was beheaded by the Communists) and ultimately explaining how they learned from their setbacks to achieve a (temporary) victory.

Although covering niche subject matter, The Bitter Peace is a must for Chinese history aficionados, along with enthusiasts of the Interwar Era. I hope Mr. Jowett will use his expertise to pen an equally detailed history of the Warlord Era, which is another period often overlooked by Western historians.