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Student Nationalism in China 1927-1937

January 29, 2010

John Israel. Student Nationalism in China 1927-1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

Zhou Guanghui (2000)

The central issue dealt with in this book is the changing relationship between young intellectuals and the state in the 1920s and 30s. Using extensive materials and interviews with scores of participants, John Israel thoroughly examines student movements from 1927 to 1937, one of the most important but also most obscure decades in the history of GMD regime. A discernible trend emerging from the vicissitudes of the student movements during this period is the increasing alienation between the students and the GMD government and the growing attraction of the Chinese Communist Party for national youth. Why is it that the nationalist government failed to win the support of the young intellectuals? The answers, according to Israel, lie nowhere else but in nationalism, the dominant theme of twentieth-century Chinese history.

Israel notes that after the break of the GMD with the CCP in 1927, despite the GMD’s involvement in chronic civil war, its suppression of the mass movement and its failure to effect fundamental changes in Chinese society, students still held high esteem for its national leadership due to its successful unification of China. However, after 1931, faced with serious threats from Japanese imperialism, students and the GMD party diverged bitterly in their opinions concerning the issue of how to save their country from foreign aggression. Students, who rankled at nearly a century of national humiliation at the hands of overbearing imperialists, became more and more politicized, militant and radical after the May Fourth movement. They were more willing to seek immediate and uncompromising solutions to national crises. The gradual economic and social reforms adopted by the GMD government to strengthen the country had little attraction to students. Moreover, the government’s determination to postpone its war with Japan until it could exterminate the subversive communist forces and solve other internal problems found little sympathetic audience. Out of these differences arose an unavoidable conflict. The students were first disillusioned over GMD’s failure to defend the Chinese nation in 1931. Their disappointments were further deepened by the government’s appeasing policies in 1935 when Japan attempted to control the whole north China. Having realized that the GMD government could not fulfill nationalistic demands, the disaffected students finally turned left and embraced the Communist Party, which at the time grasped the prevalent sentiment of nationalism by adjusting its previous policies and by advocating an attractive alternative: resistance to Japan under a united front.

In short, it was the indecisiveness and compromise of the GMD in the face of a serious national crisis and its insensitive to a strong nationalism behind the student movements that cost the state its leadership among young intellectuals. As Israel put it, this “reflects KMT failure rather than CCP success. The ruling party’s inability paved the way for Communist victory” (p. 188). In the end, the unbridgeable gap between the Guomindang and the students led to the postwar ascendancy of the CCP.

Focusing on the role of student nationalism in the Chinese revolution, Israel in this book confirms once again the points raised by Chalmers Johnson who claims that peasant nationalism brought about Communist victory. Both of them seem to believe that national crises in the 1930s and 40s created a critical situation where strong leadership was needed. The CCP success to a great degree was attributed not to its ideological doctrines, but to its organizational skills and capacity in riding the wave of nationalism, which were apparently absent from the GMD party. Both of them more or less play down the relevance of economic and social issues in their studies, which in my opinion may somehow weaken the strength of their arguments. But their valuable studies do provide insights into the nationalist character of the Chinese Communist revolution.

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