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China 1949: Year of Revolution

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The events of 1949 reverberated across the world and throughout the rest of the 20th-century. That monumental year saw the dramatic collapse of Chiang Kai-shek's 'pro-Western' Nationalist government, overthrown by Mao Zedong and his newly-founded, Communist-controlled, People's Republic of China. China 1949 follows the huge armies that swarmed over the country, the exile of The events of 1949 reverberated across the world and throughout the rest of the 20th-century. That monumental year saw the dramatic collapse of Chiang Kai-shek's 'pro-Western' Nationalist government, overthrown by Mao Zedong and his newly-founded, Communist-controlled, People's Republic of China. China 1949 follows the huge armies that swarmed over the country, the exile of once-powerful leaders and the alarm of foreign nations watching on. It introduces well-known figures of the Revolution, and a host of 'ordinary' Chinese citizens and foreigners caught in the maelstrom; from a US Ambassador, to a much-loved Chinese writer, and a schoolboy from Nanyang. Shadowing both the leaders and the people of China in 1949, Hutchings reveals the lived experiences, aftermath and consequences of this pivotal year. The legacy of 1949 still resonates today in the politics, foundations and identity of modern China. With China 1949 Graham Hutchings has written a vivid, gripping account of the year in which China abruptly changed course, and pulled the rest of world history along with it.


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The events of 1949 reverberated across the world and throughout the rest of the 20th-century. That monumental year saw the dramatic collapse of Chiang Kai-shek's 'pro-Western' Nationalist government, overthrown by Mao Zedong and his newly-founded, Communist-controlled, People's Republic of China. China 1949 follows the huge armies that swarmed over the country, the exile of The events of 1949 reverberated across the world and throughout the rest of the 20th-century. That monumental year saw the dramatic collapse of Chiang Kai-shek's 'pro-Western' Nationalist government, overthrown by Mao Zedong and his newly-founded, Communist-controlled, People's Republic of China. China 1949 follows the huge armies that swarmed over the country, the exile of once-powerful leaders and the alarm of foreign nations watching on. It introduces well-known figures of the Revolution, and a host of 'ordinary' Chinese citizens and foreigners caught in the maelstrom; from a US Ambassador, to a much-loved Chinese writer, and a schoolboy from Nanyang. Shadowing both the leaders and the people of China in 1949, Hutchings reveals the lived experiences, aftermath and consequences of this pivotal year. The legacy of 1949 still resonates today in the politics, foundations and identity of modern China. With China 1949 Graham Hutchings has written a vivid, gripping account of the year in which China abruptly changed course, and pulled the rest of world history along with it.

39 review for China 1949: Year of Revolution

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter Baran

    China 1949 posits the theory that 1949 was the pivotal year in the development of China, the end of the Civil War, the taking of power of the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan. The preamble accepts that there are lots of turning points for China, even in this conflict which had nominally been going on for twenty years or so - with interruptions from the Japanese in the form of the Sino-Japanese War. Its a detailed dive into the personalities, conflicts and internatio China 1949 posits the theory that 1949 was the pivotal year in the development of China, the end of the Civil War, the taking of power of the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan. The preamble accepts that there are lots of turning points for China, even in this conflict which had nominally been going on for twenty years or so - with interruptions from the Japanese in the form of the Sino-Japanese War. Its a detailed dive into the personalities, conflicts and international dimension of something I only got a broad sketch of in Jeanne-Marie Gescher's massive Becoming China (though as that was a longitudinal peace I certainly knew the broad position of the pieces). Hutchings attempts to try to summarise the scale of the issue - China is huge and is in reality multiple countries in one, and certainly the dissolution's caused by the war with Japan and the civil conflict mean there are lots of things going on at once. At the same time he gives a flavour of the human cost, people displaced. I would have liked to see more of the latter, but this comes from a more political tradition. Whilst Hong Kong and Taiwan are important parts of this story, you can tell from the position that Hong Kong in particular takes and the number of British and English speaking sources for the text that this is a British based history. The future horrors of Mao's regime are hinted at, and he tries to find hints of that Mao in the leader presented here. There is a question near the end when Mao sends people to Stalin to work out how to run a state that the book almost feels patronising (whilst also accepting the Nationalists were pretty hopeless on that front). Whilst it might be out of the scope of the book as presented, I think the actual physical and ideological difficulties in reuniting a country as physically and ethnically diverse as China is under-estimated. It used to be a united country, so the end point that it stays a united country is a given (and it is, it was history). China 1949 fills in a lot of the gaps I had in the my conception of the eventual Communist victory, without necessarily giving me a sense of what it was like on the ground (apart from when the ground was being bombed). That comes with the territory in a book like this, and I certainly understand more about the foreign policy imperatives that meant Truman didn't get involved in China, but did in Korea (scale absolutely notwithstanding). The prose here is perfectly acceptable and the research impeccable but the history didn't leap off of the page. I do think I need to read a few more social histories of the period in the country from a Chinese perspective (if these exist), to get a local perspective and to make sure my understanding can be properly decolonised. [NetGalley ARC]

  2. 5 out of 5

    Charlie Corn

    The period 1946-49 is a weak spot in my knowledge of 20th century Chinese history, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that. In mainstream English language histories, which tend to take a broad sweep, it often gets summarised as ‘and then the civil war restarted in earnest, and the Communists won’: compared with the decades before (Revolution! May Fourth! Spies! Jazz! Japanese invasion!) and after (Revolution! Korean War! Red Guards! Famine! More Revolution!) it almost feels like a little in The period 1946-49 is a weak spot in my knowledge of 20th century Chinese history, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that. In mainstream English language histories, which tend to take a broad sweep, it often gets summarised as ‘and then the civil war restarted in earnest, and the Communists won’: compared with the decades before (Revolution! May Fourth! Spies! Jazz! Japanese invasion!) and after (Revolution! Korean War! Red Guards! Famine! More Revolution!) it almost feels like a little interlude to get us from one half of the century to the next. It probably sounds quite churlish, but as someone more interested in political history than military history and without having been brought up in a society that celebrates those years as the foundation era of a national myth, I’ve been quite happy skipping over it. China 1949 focuses on the end game of that period. Its author Graham Hutchings is not a lofty white-towered historian (although he is an honorary professor at Nottingham University and Associate at Oxford’s China Centre) but has spent a career at the interface of business and government, as well as experience as China correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. It comes through in the writing – he brings a journalistic readability combined with an attention to the ‘so what’ for readers interested in contemporary China. China 1949 is an engrossing and fascinating read. The single year deep dive history is a bit of a trend at the moment, but it will also be a familiar concept to Chinese history bookshelves from Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance (and to a lesser extent 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which doesn’t focus on the year so much as make it a deliberate challenge to the 1492 narrative). This is a very different book from 1587: 1949, of course, is most definitely not a year of no significance. But while it might be the big watershed date in 20th century China it’s not necessarily the obvious choice, as Hutchings acknowledges: ‘might we not do better to regard 1947 or 1948 as the critical twelve months that determined whether the communists would conquer China?’ he writes, citing two Chinese historians (Jin Chongji and Liu Tong) who have made the case for each of those years. Hutchings is very even-handed about this type of historical study in general, acknowledging that ‘scholars have in recent years challenged the idea that 1949 should be regarded as a watershed’. This is all to the book’s benefit. Hutchings isn’t driven by an ambition to make the case for 1949 as the ‘critical twelve months’ – his focus is on giving us as complete a view of the events of the year as possible. The scope is remarkable – not just to cover the largest-scale civil war in world history, Hutchings takes us to every part of China from Xinjiang to Taiwan and Manchuria to Hainan, as well as Moscow, Washington, London and Hong Kong. The narrative of 1949 is hardly full of gripping twists and turns – from the opening contrast between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong’s new year messages (Chiang proffering peace talks, Mao pledging to overthrow the Nationalists) the year is almost exclusively one way traffic, resulting in the entire mainland apart from Tibet being in Communist hands. In this account, Communist rule seems inevitable. But while most observers (not least the CIA) saw that the game was up for Chiang at the start of 1949, few expected such a quick and comprehensive defeat. The Communists may have been pushing at an open door (Dean Acheson described the Nationalists’ defeat as ‘the grossest incompetence ever experienced by any military command’), but their achievements were extraordinary in particular their military strategy as conquerors, applying different methods of conquering cities (the ‘Tianjin’ or ‘Beiping’ methods, for instance) and ability to act as open-handed, benevolent, and cautious victors, even acknowledging the importance of working with private capital. They are also shown to be smart negotiators and diligent planners, toying with the Nanjing delegates during spring peace talks and using ‘Shanghai experts’ at the Danyang conference ahead of the city’s conquest. A US scholar in Shanghai after the conquest of the city describes them as quick and efficient: ‘there has been a lot of pious propaganda, but the necessary jobs have been done’. Shanghai postmen acted as guides for the incoming troops; and architect Chen Zhanxiang, in possession of a prized airline ticket out of Shanghai as the troops enter, chooses to stay after witnessing quiet, disciplined communist troops declining food from him. By following the sweeping conquest of China in 1949 we see it as a rural conquest of the cities, or a northern conquest of the south. Hutchings is particularly strong on the hugely effective and impressive ‘south-bound cadres’ deployed at speed to administer conquered areas and the crossing of the Yangtze (which Stalin attempted to stop). He covers the Amethyst Incident in detail, strongly implying the official Communist account to be a lie, but sadly omits my favourite fact about it: that the ship’s cat Simon was posthumously awarded the Dickin medal for bravery, being the only cat (and the only animal not a horse, dog or pigeon) to receive it. Despite the historical narrative of Communist triumph and Nationalist failure, Hutchings remains balanced – he acknowledges the significant advances of the Republican period, and doesn’t lose sight of what atrocities the Communists would commit while in power. Hutchings gives us accounts of the main players in the events of 1949, which a particular focus on Nationalist general Bai Chongxi, but his journalistic eye is best in drawing out the viewpoints of a wide range of observers to paint a picture of what it was like to live in China – there is sterling archival work here. Unsurprisingly he can only draw on the experiences of those who were able to pass their stories on, meaning that there is a high representation of westerners based in China, particularly Nanjing, but there is good representation of ordinary Chinese people as well. The westerners’ insights are often rather offhand and quotidian, at other times quite partisan (the conquest of Beiping, for instance), making some striking contrasts. While some westerners are able to take advantage of the chaos in Nanjing to join the Embassy Club ‘at very reasonable terms’, schoolchildren in Nanyang arrive at their school to find body parts littered in the classrooms and corpses rotting outside. Hutchings is also solid on drawing modern day insights into China out of 1949. Happily he avoids the overblown and sweeping rhetoric of plenty of (usually self-declared) China hands. He uses the events to explain the origin of the belief that ‘the leadership of the CCP and its monopoly of political power is inseparable from China’s wellbeing’, and to demonstrate why the People’s Republic ‘was founded as an executive rather than a deliberative state’. He shows us the dramatic impact that the Korean War, entered into so soon after the founding of the PRC, would have on internal and international politics. Some of his insights are mere inferences – take the speed and scope of administration (all 2m people in Beijing being registered by mid-November), which will ring echoes with the way the state works with its citizens now; and how Xinjiang was initially brought under communist control. Ultimately he frames the year to show that the Chinese Civil War remains ‘unfinished’, emphasised by affording ample focus to events in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hutchings’ style is simple and highly readable, with a strong eye for detail. He uses some stark statistics (in the 1940 some 50% of children died before they were 5; literacy amongst women was just 1%; and a fifth of Guangxi villages were ‘completely destroyed’ by 1945) and neat anecdotes (Shanghai literary journal Lunyu focusing its March 1949 on the theme of ‘running away’; Chiang Kai-Shek’s black Cadillac with the licence plate ‘No 1’; and the Nationalist general loading a grand piano onto a plane). His humour emerges too: a regional governor ‘had thoughtfully brought out with him the province’s store of gold’; after Chiang promises ‘another Stalingrad’ Hutchings compares his efforts with Dunkirk instead.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    Graham Hutchings writes in his new book China 1949 that “historians have often used a single year as a prism through which to view key changes that are said to have shaped an era”. He goes on to observe (somewhat counterintuitively) that of the years of China’s Civil War from 1945 to 1949, “… the year 1949 seems to have been singled out less often as decisive …” Hutchings seeks to balance the scales of history and to establish 1949 as such a prism. By the end of 1948, the CCP and PLA had secured Graham Hutchings writes in his new book China 1949 that “historians have often used a single year as a prism through which to view key changes that are said to have shaped an era”. He goes on to observe (somewhat counterintuitively) that of the years of China’s Civil War from 1945 to 1949, “… the year 1949 seems to have been singled out less often as decisive …” Hutchings seeks to balance the scales of history and to establish 1949 as such a prism. By the end of 1948, the CCP and PLA had secured control over northeast China and Manchuria and their armies had moved on to and were threatening Beijing and Tianjin. A mere nine months later, on 1 October  1949, Mao would stand in Tiananmen and proclaim the founding of the PRC, Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT would retreat, shattered, to Taiwan to await the seemingly inevitable PLA conquest of the island. If 1949 is seen as less central in the years of civil war it is not because it is insignificant, but rather because by the end of 1948 the Nationalist collapse in the Northeast had been so spectacular that a CCP victory seemed inevitable. 1949 can look less a prism than an interlude between Nationalist and CCP rule. Hutchings does not contest the near inevitability of CCP victory, yet, he writes, “radical changes in China’s political behaviour, policy, institutions, national leadership and global alliances make 1949 a pivotal year” in the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. The first half of the book nevertheless largely follows the traditional story line: it is only about halfway through, when he begins the story of the “south-bound cadres”, that he breaks away and looks at the changes in governance that CCP control portends. The “south-bound cadres” were the Party cadres recruited to become the civil administration of territory the CCP took over. These cadres accompanied the PLA forces as they moved south, but then dropped off the advancing army to administer the territory acquired. This issue of control had vexed Chiang and the KMT earlier. In 1927, the KMT’s Northern Expedition had sought to unify China, but the result was often only a nominal unification with existing regional governments continuing in power but giving a vague nod to the KMT in Nanjing as the national government. For Mao and the CCP such an outcome was unacceptable. While some of the existing government bureaucracy could be absorbed and used, most of it was deemed oppressive, exploitative, and politically unreliable and was slated for elimination. The story of the south-bound cadres is the tale of how the CCP controlled and governed what it conquered while initiating the socialist revolution in China. Of further interest, Hutchings details the effort of underground CCP cells in cities like Shanghai to communicate with and infiltrate the utility services and police force to persuade operating and skilled workers to stay on the job as the PLA armies advanced so that urban services and order could be restored as quickly as possible. Since most histories give little attention to the south-bound cadres or CCP infiltration of urban services, Hutchings recounting of both will be new to many readers. As CCP victory began to look more and more likely, Western observers wondered what this new China would look like. Hutchings recounts that US and British observers had quite different views of the CCP. US observers seeing the CCP as “agrarian reformers” whereas British observers perceiving the CCP as committed to socialism and communism. Chinese observers may have had a clearer view still as mail service between north and south China continued even as the PLA took control of the north, enabling Chinese in the north to let friends and families in the south know what the CCP was doing. Although Hutchings makes reference to such correspondence, he unfortunately includes few details. A measure of clarity came on 1 July 1949, when Mao published “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” outlining what Mao and the CCP saw as the political future of China. Clearly, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” was a significant policy statement and supports Hutchings’s claim for the importance of 1949 on matters of policy. Moreover, discussing “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” and Western uncertainty regarding CCP intentions, Hutchings seems clear that if we are to understand CCP intentions we need to be looking at what the Party is telling its members, an observation as relevant to understanding the CCP today as it was in 1949. Seventy-two years after 1949, Hutchings writes that we “are still confronted with the consequences of China’s unfinished Civil War.” Yet, even as he adds to our understanding, China 1949 suggests the limitations of selecting a single year to define an age, for it is events in 1950 not 1949 that led to this situation. Even though they are a product of that year, the influence and impact of the southern-bound cadres and “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” are also not seen in 1949. Hutchings makes his point for the significance of 1949, but the significance of a prism is what emerges from it: 1949 is the starting point of a larger story.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Zeb Kantrowitz

    This is a fabulously detailed account of the final year of the post WW2 civil war. Hutchings covers both the strategies of the two armies but also the thinking of those in charge. Predictably the Kuomingtong (KMT) is found to be lacking in almost every point of strategy and thinking. Chang Kai-Shek (Chang) hadn't changed his way of doing things militarily from before the war and found that his Generals spent more time pillaging and embezzling than training. Considering that the KMT had an Air For This is a fabulously detailed account of the final year of the post WW2 civil war. Hutchings covers both the strategies of the two armies but also the thinking of those in charge. Predictably the Kuomingtong (KMT) is found to be lacking in almost every point of strategy and thinking. Chang Kai-Shek (Chang) hadn't changed his way of doing things militarily from before the war and found that his Generals spent more time pillaging and embezzling than training. Considering that the KMT had an Air Force and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had none, you would think that the CCPs concentration of troops and material would have been easy pickin' but it doesn't seem that there was much effect in stopping Mao (Mao Zedong) and his Generals. Many of Chang's troops were led by incompetent Warlords who troops were underfed, underequiped and undertrained. Whereas the CCP troops were veterans of the war against Japan and fighting for a cause they believed in. Hutchings details of the fighting, especially after the CCP crossed over the Yangtze is stunning. The fall of Shanghai is brought to life in all its' blood and incompetence. The CCP troops were kept restrained by their leaders from looting and rapine, making the occupation much easier as they kept on the current Police Force to help calm the city. A very good explanation of the failings of the Nationalists and the brilliant strategy of the CCP.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Leonard Singer

    The bleak summary of the last stages of the communists’ pulverizing of the inept Republic of China. The unasked question for speculative inquiry is what would be today if the ROC had prevailed.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Miroslav Beblavy

  7. 5 out of 5

    Huarui Zhou

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hồ Quang

  9. 4 out of 5

    Gary Barnes

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Klark

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alex Helm

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tawney

  15. 4 out of 5

    G

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael Griswold

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lukas

  19. 5 out of 5

    Audrey

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dеnnis

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mike

  22. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

  23. 5 out of 5

    Meghan

  24. 4 out of 5

    Michele

  25. 5 out of 5

    David

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jaime Sanchez

  27. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

  28. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  29. 4 out of 5

    Cesar Santiago

  30. 4 out of 5

    Fernando Pérez L

  31. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Issa

  32. 4 out of 5

    Jdownes

  33. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Rudolph

  34. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

  35. 4 out of 5

    Eve

  36. 5 out of 5

    Robert

  37. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Mahanty

  38. 4 out of 5

    Ben

  39. 4 out of 5

    Pres

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