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Seeds of Destruction

January 30, 2010

Lloyd E. Eastman. Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937-1949. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.

Ellen Huang (2003)

Seeds of Destruction explores a complicated, controversial period in modern Chinese history, over which many continue to debate the question, “Who lost China?” For Eastman, the explanation is simple: the Guomindang (GMD) lost the revolution because the regime was essentially, “a political and military structure without a social base” (2). This study analyzes the Nationalist regime’s various inherent problems throughout the anti-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War and in doing so, excoriates the GMD as an inept state that “never displayed” or had any redeeming characteristics (171).

Eastman’s effective use of sources and consistent analysis of such materials makes for a tight argument that supports his basic theme throughout each chapter of the book. Support of his thesis is provided by interviews with party leaders, their previously unstudied Chinese-language writings, Chang Kai-shek’s own comments, and the archival sources in Taiwan. This carefully planned, well-calculated treatment of the GMD failure employs a topical framework in which Eastman considers a series of core samples each of which illuminate a certain, negative aspect of GMD rule.

Chapter 1 uses a case study of “residual warlordism” in Yunnan to demonstrate the low degree of cooperation between the central Nationalist government and unruly regional militarists. Next, he examines the regime’s relationship with its peasants and local elites. Again, the government’s inability to control corrupt local elites from exploiting impoverished peasants significantly contributed to the state’s loss of legitimacy in the peasants’ eyes. Using previously unused sources, Eastman then discusses two instances of intra-party factional divisions: the Youth Corps and Ko-Hsin reform movements. Finally, based on a 1950s Nationalist Army assessment, final chapters illustrate the decay of the regime’s principal vein of power, the army. Here, Eastman attempts to show that it was the army’s own infirmities, rather than the lack of support by the US government that led to the GMD’s defeat.

This damning treatment of the Nationalist regime is compelling, but its framework leaves virtually no room for counterevidence. That contemporary reviewers (James Sheridan, Pacific Affairs, 58,1:113-115; Valerie Hansen, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 47,1:154; Ernest Young, American Historical Review, 90,2:476) generally had no or little critique is perhaps a reflection of this. Young rightly notes that Eastman does not “recast” any “prevailing versions of the regime’s demise.” Eastman’s understanding of the selected material seems to indict the Guomindang categorically even before his study begins.

Indeed, Eastman’s sweeping conclusion does not always fit the historical picture that he paints. His conclusion that the Nationalist Army fell as a result of its “own ineptitude” (159) discounts the debilitating effects of Communist propaganda, and insight raised elsewhere in his analysis. Eastman does take into consideration the contingent factors in the outcome of the Chinese Revolution. Moreover, at times his references to the need for social reforms and pluralist policies seem inappropriate with a government battling warlord coalitions and other “effective fighting forces” such as the Japanese and the Communists (159).

Thus, Eastman has produced a rich, insightful survey of the complex nuances of war and revolution in China that he himself oversimplifies in his final judgment of the Guomindang regime.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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