War and Nationalism in China 1925-1945

By Hans J. Van De Van | Go to book overview
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Nationalism and military reform during the Nanjing Decade (1928-37)

The first three years of the Nanjing Decade were a time of terrible civil wars, debilitating KMT factionalism, and brutality. A study recently produced by the Seminar on Natural Disasters in Modern China makes clear the enormous scale of suffering. If adverse weather conditions may have played some role, the exactions of various military forces and the lack of government formed the main causes. Drought stuck north China in 1928. Four hundred and eighty-seven counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, Suiyuan, Shanxi, Hebei, Chahar, Rehe, and Henan reported to have been affected, causing many millions of refugees. The situation worsened in 1929, when the Sino-Western Relief Association reported 20 million casualties, including 6 million deaths. The press reported instances of cannibalism. Storms, destruction by hail, plagues of insects, and epidemics were widespread. In 1930, in north China, 831 counties reported to have been affected by drought and the Yellow River burst its dikes in Shandong. The year 1931 proved a year of severe floods as well as earthquakes. The Yangtze, Yellow, Min, and Pearl Rivers, as well as the Grand Canal, all flooded. The east and central China provinces of Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Henan, and Shandong were all affected, with the worst hit areas being south Anhui, north Hunan, Henan, and north Jiangsu. In these areas alone, reports suggested, 420,000 people died and 5.5 million refugees took to the roads. 1

Change came after 1931, largely as a result of Japanese aggression, including its seizure of Manchuria and its horrendous attack on Shanghai in 1932. If outside pressure was a stimulus for co-operation, change too was made possible by Chiang Kaishek's defeat during the War of the Great Plains of 1930 of his most important military rivals, Feng Yuxiang, Yan Xishan, and the Guangxi Clique. In addition, the Communists attempted to exploit the War of the Central Plains to launch attacks with sizeable armed forces on key cities along the Yangtze River, further making it clear that if things continued as they had, the Nationalists' hold on power would not last long. These developments led to a degree of military and political stability, which would last for the next several years and created the basis for a determined attempt to end warlordism, build up new state structures, and transform Chinese society.

From 1932, the Nationalists began to prepare for war with Japan. If in 1931 Chiang Kaishek concluded that war with Japan was impossible, from then on readying China for a major conflict with Japan became a central concern, although it was also hoped that an accommodation which would satisfy nationalist aspirations might be reached. The Nationalist approach was to construct a modern nation around the core of radically


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