Constructing the Soldier and the State in Modern China, 1924-1945


A review of War Heroes: Constructing the Soldier and the State in Modern China, 1924-1945, by Yan Xu.

The Chinese soldier had reached a nadir of respectability by the early 1920s. With the disintegration of the Qing military and the rise of often-unruly regional armies and militias, soldiers in early Republican China were far more likely to be feared as threats to the nation than celebrated as its defenders. Yet, by the end of the decade, the Guomindang party-state under Jiang Jieshi was expounding a vision of Chinese modernity that not only gave prime importance to the military; it also held up the Chinese citizen-soldier as a moral model worthy of emulation by Chinese society as a whole. Yan Xu’s dissertation, War Heroes: Constructing the Soldier and the State in Modern China, 1924-1945, offers a history of this conceptual transformation as she traces both the creation of the GMD’s discourse of the ideal soldier and the ways in which this ideal was challenged, subverted, and reappropriated by its intended audiences.

Xu’s work aims to effect a re-periodization of the GMD state-building project. By focusing on the party’s construction of the military as an institution and as a popular imaginary, Xu argues that GMD state formation both began earlier and continued later than the 1927-1937 bracketing of the Nanjing Decade would suggest. Xu designates the 1924 founding of the Whampoa Military Academy as the appropriate starting point for a narrative of GMD state-building. She also argues, following Morris Bian’s claim in The Making of the State Enterprise System in Modern China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), that the 1937 outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War, far from signaling the collapse of the GMD state, actually led to the intensification of certain aspects of GMD state-building.

In her first chapter, Xu examines the Whampoa Academy as a key institutional site for the construction of Jiang Jieshi’s notion of the ideal citizen-soldier. Analyzing Jiang’s early speeches at the Academy and the content of the school’s jingshen jiaoyu curriculum (translated here as “civic education”), Xu argues that Whampoa’s central aim was not merely to produce soldiers who would be ethical, disciplined, and politically loyal to Jiang. The Academy also encouraged its cadets to think of themselves as model citizens, devoted to Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People and ready to sacrifice themselves for the Chinese nation. In this respect, Whampoa was what Xu calls a “laboratory or crucible for casting a new discourse on the citizen ideal. . .” (p. 45).

Xu makes full use of a fascinating, recently published collection of Whampoa cadet memoirs and diaries, which reveal the Academy’s aim of remolding every aspect of its cadets’ daily lives, all in service of creating an elite clique of military officers who answered directly to Jiang Jieshi. These diaries also reveal the incomplete victory of the GMD discourse of the heroic soldierly brotherhood: even within the totalizing environment of the Academy, cadets continued to form communities and identities that would occasionally bring them into conflict with Jiang and the Academy administration. This incompleteness was even more evident outside the Academy. Other military leaders often viewed the “Whampoa spirit” of cadet brotherhood as a dangerous form of cliquism, while rank-and-file soldiers resented the preferential treatment and promotions accorded to Whampoa cadets. The Chinese public was reluctant to accept Whampoa graduates as citizen-soldiers worthy of emulation, particularly given Jiang’s willingness to use military force to settle civil disputes and student protests. As a result, the image of the “heroic soldier” functioned in the late-1920s primarily as a strategy for Jiang’s consolidation of military power, while the discourse failed to resonate with most people’s everyday impressions of the Chinese soldier.

By the early 1930s, however, Jiang and the GMD party-state, now firmly established in Nanjing, were seeking to deepen the militarization of Chinese society. This desire was partly a result of mounting military threats, which demanded that ever greater numbers of Chinese be mobilized for military service. It was also due to Jiang’s firm belief, inspired by regimes in Italy and Germany, that a modern nation was a martial nation. The solution to both of these issues, as the second chapter of Xu’s dissertation shows, was the creation of a system of compulsory conscription. First instituted in 1933, the GMD military draft aimed to extend to all of Chinese society the same “politicized, disciplined, and morally cultivated citizenship ideal that Jiang envisioned at Whampoa” (p. 84). Such a sweeping assertion of the state’s coercive power required a broad range of ideological and institutional techniques to compel compliance. Xu examines “compulsory conscription laws, army textbooks, and New Life Movement propaganda” in her reconstruction of the GMD’s popular discourse of military service. These efforts aimed both to encourage willing obedience and to present the citizen-soldier as “the model citizen and a national hero to be emulated and respected by society” (95). Xu also draws attention to the degree to which the GMD’s early-1930s resurrection of the household registration (baojia) system was motivated by the needs of military conscription. GMD state formation and the militarization of Chinese society were, therefore, not merely parallel processes; rather, the GMD party-state extended its control over local communities precisely through enforcement of the state’s claim to their bodies.

Such claims were frequently challenged. Some writers contested the representation of the soldierly life as a glorious one, pointing out that GMD soldiers were often underpaid, underfed, and in poor health. Others resisted conscription by manipulating the local household registers or by refusing to abide by the lottery systems that were intended to select conscripts randomly. Xu reads such resistance as evidence of the failure of the GMD’s ideological and institutional efforts to secure universal assent to Jiang’s program of militarization.

Where chapters 1 and 2 focus primarily on Jiang Jieshi’s discourse of the “heroic soldier,” chapters 3 through 5 assess the “soldier figure” as constructed by “different urban publics” (p. 37). These chapters draw on an impressive collection of literary, journalistic, and scholarly literature, offering a sense of the broad and varied concerns that coalesced around the figure of the Chinese soldier.

Chapter 3 examines the fraught relationship between urban Chinese professionals and the GMD state, who both collaborated and clashed in their respective representations of the soldier. At times, journalists and intellectuals produced depictions of the Chinese soldier that were entirely compatible with the GMD’s heroic discourse. At others, such as when war reportage emphasized soldiers’ bodily suffering or when vocational educators drew attention to how poorly educated most soldiers were, these writers’ narratives diverged considerably from those of the GMD. Xu explains this simultaneous convergence and divergence as being a function of intellectuals’ desire to “[advocate] their political influence as social mobilizers” (p. 130). In other words, Chinese urban professionals who created images of the soldier figure were as concerned about commenting on soldiers’ quality of life as they were about staking out and performing their own professional expertise. Educators who drew attention to the illiteracy of the military rank-and-file were not only criticizing military leadership; they were also presenting themselves as competent professionals capable of diagnosing and addressing the problem. Likewise, writers depicted the psychological tolls of warfare so as to assert their own unique access to a truth that differed from the official line, thereby positioning themselves as mobilizers of public sentiment vis-à-vis the GMD state. From this, Xu concludes that “their alliance with the GMD government was ambiguous,” (p. 149) varying with their individual political and professional goals.

In chapter 4, Xu explores the gendered nature of these representations. She selects three texts for close reading: Xiao Jun’s short story titled Bayue de xiangcun (Village in August), Qiu Dongping’s war reportage published in Qiyue (July), and the autobiographies of Xie Bingying. In each of these cases, Xu argues that writers “either questioned or collaborated with the GMD’s political discourse of soldier heroics” while also “[asserting] their own goals, which were to promote the influence of literary intellectuals as social critics, to achieve personal independence, and to advocate for women’s political participation” (pp. 151-2).

Chapter 5 centers on a GMD push in 1944 to recruit more educated young people into military service. This campaign (in Chinese, called the Zhishi qingnian congjun yundong) came at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when even forced conscriptions was failing to yield sufficient new recruits. Of greatest need were highly skilled and educated recruits who could operate the equipment and weapons now being provided by Jiang Jieshi’s American allies. So, at his son Jiang Jingguo’s urging, Jiang Jieshi formed the Educated Youth Expeditionary Army (Zhishi qingnian yuanzhengjun), to be staffed entirely by high school graduates under the age of 35. In coordination with this new recruitment effort, Jiang’s image of soldiering underwent subtle modifications so as to appeal to its new intended audience. Xu analyzes several of Jiang’s 1944 recruitment speeches, in which he emphasized the usefulness of military service for career training and advancement. Jiang’s penchant for militaristic reinterpretations of Confucian concepts was also on display during this 1944 campaign, as he offered a disquisition on how the “six arts” (liuyi) of the Confucian gentleman (junzi) could be perfectly cultivated through a military education. The students themselves, however, had their own reasons for joining the new Youth Army. Some did indeed seek training and career advancement, but, according to Xu, many “treated the Youth Army as a laboratory to practice self-government” (p. 208). The students, far from being turned into obedient soldiers, continued to insist on remaining free to engage in their own studies and even to make democratic decisions regarding military governance. Xu argues that, through these experiments with democracy, “Youth Army soldiers confronted the GMD discourse that celebrated a highly politicized and disciplined soldier ideal” (p. 211).

Xu’s sixth and final chapter, which considers images of soldiering from the Yan’an-era CCP, offers an illuminating counterpoint. She contends that CCP revolutionary discourse aimed to produce an “emotional bond between the army and the people,” which was key to “the CCP’s state-building agendas of winning support from the peasants in its areas and forging closer social integration in its revolutionary base” (p. 215). In the first half of this chapter, Xu examines CCP cultural and social policies from the Yan’an period. While the Red Army had been known since the early 1930s for its commitment to fair treatment of civilians, by the early 1940s this commitment was fraying, and complaints of Red Army soldiers seizing peasants’ food or other resources were on the rise. Aware of these tensions, the CCP launched a series of campaigns in 1942 and 1943: the Literary Rectification Campaign (Zhengfeng yundong), Great Production Campaign (Da shengchan yundong), and the Double-Supporting Movement (Shuangyong yundong). Collectively, these movements sought to give shape to a form of revolutionary praxis that would ensure sympathy and mutual understanding among intellectuals, soldiers and the masses. Xu argues that these movements served to engender and to regulate proper political emotions. The Literary Rectification, with its emphasis on the “massification” of culture, aimed to “reform [intellectuals’] emotions towards the masses of the people,” while the Great Production Campaign encouraged intellectuals and soldiers “to build the emotional bond by working together with the peasants. . .” (p. 241).

In the second half of the chapter, Xu offers a series of close readings of yangge drama scripts, arguing that the campaigns of 1942-4 effected a palpable shift in these drama’s construal of the soldier-peasant bond. Before the campaigns, the dramas depicted “Communist soldiers as a force that morally transcended the peasants, physically protected the peasants, and offered the peasants more help than the peasants offered the soldiers” (p. 230). After the campaigns, the depictions of these relationships were more mutually dependent and equal, neither glorifying the soldier nor implicitly disparaging the peasantry. Xu argues that this management and manipulation of political emotion was a central component of CCP state-building strategies. A brief and effective conclusion recounts the dissertation’s main arguments.

War Heroes offers a wealth of insights into the range of meanings attached to soldiers and soldiering in Republican-era China. In its analysis of the military as a central component of GMD and CCP state formation, Xu’s dissertation contributes to long-standing debates regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the modern Chinese state. Her work stands productively at the intersection of military history and cultural history, allowing her to speak to both sides of this all-too-infrequently traversed divide. This dissertation will also be of great interest to historians of Chinese and global fascism, as Xu sheds light on both the rhetoric and the reality of GMD militarism.

Robert W. Cole
PhD Candidate
Department of History
New York University

Primary Sources

Guomindang zhongyang lujun xuexiao yu junshi zhuanke xuexiao 國民黨中央陸軍學校與軍事專科學校
Bingyi faguan huibian 兵役法管彙編
Zhandi guilai 占地歸來
Qingnian yuanzhengjun zhilve 青年遠征軍智略
Yan’an wenyi congshu, diqijuan, yangge 延安文藝叢書: 第七卷, 秧歌

Dissertation Information

The Ohio State University. 2012. 296pp. Primary Advisor: Christopher A. Reed.

Image: Chiang Kai-Sheik inspecting Whampoa Military Academy. Wikimedia.

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