The Return of History Friday: North China Front

Eight Route Army in Shanxi

Image via Wikipedia

In the Hutong
Deep-diving on the 8th Route Army
1726 hrs.

Today marks the long-awaited return of History Friday to Silicon Hutong, and we will start with British journalist James Bertram’s eyewitness account of China’s desperate struggle to contain the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937-8.

Bertram may not be as well-known as Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, Evans Carlson, or Anna Louise Strong, but he was a contemporary and provides a perspective that compliments their own. It is hard to tell whether Bertram was a communist himself, but in his long uninterrupted passages quoting Mao Zedong from their interviews in Yenan, one suspects that he was at least a sympathetic, if not a Fellow Traveler.

But what is notable and important about Bertram’s account are the insights and viewpoints that he offers that stand in stark contrast with received history, both from American classrooms and Chinese. A few of my favorites:

Among the Island People

Bertram begins his odyssey with his visit to Japan in what turned out to be the weeks prior to the Marco Polo Bridge incident and Japan’s resulting invasion of China proper. His descriptions the popular mood in Japan are startling: this was no populace whipped into war fever by propaganda and theatrics, but a people who knew war was coming and were simply resigned to it matched by a cowed intellectual class opposed to the war but terrified to speak out.

But the Japanese receives no coddling from Bertram, and he does not shy from cataloging the misdeeds and brutality of the Imperial Japanese Army, its officers, its collaborators, and its cohorts. He manages to do so without devolving into the demagoguery or rhetorical excess that marked both Chinese and American war information, but the brutality comes through all the stronger because of it.

The Army and the Guerrillas

I have read accounts of the bands of Chinese guerrilla partisans that bedeviled the Japanese throughout the war, but Bertram’s was the first to dive into the relationship between the 8th Route Army and the guerrilla bands in adjacent territories. The latter were the true expression of Mao’s revolutionary doctrine of People’s War, and arguably the lessons learned in Hebei and Shaanxi on coordinating regular and partisan formations laid the groundwork for the CCP’s successes during the civil war. You also see where Ho Chi Minh got his playbook on coordinating the North Vietnamese Army and the irregulars of the Viet Cong.

As I read Bertram’s account of tromping through the Shaanxi hills with the legendary He Long’s 120th Division, I was struck by how quickly in its efforts to modernize and professionalize the PLA is discarding much of value in its heritage. From irregular warfare to mountain combat and austere logistics, He Long and his fellow officers in the 8th Route epitomized the power of light infantry when well-used. It its rush to mechanize and digitize to keep up with the U.S., the PLA may be making itself a less flexible force than it can or should be.

A Girl Worth Fighting For

Finally, it was a delight to read a book written about the 8th Route Army and Yenan that was completed without the benefit of more than six months hindsight. What came through in Bertram’s account of his time in the caves with Mao and company (and He Long’s stories of his “colorful” evolution from bandit to general) was that from the moment it took the field, the Chinese Red Army was having to figure things out as they went. Combat is evolution accelerated, and what made the difference between a good soldier and a dead one was luck and an ability to recognize an important lesson, apply it, and share it.

For New China was launched by survivors, and if you believe in social Darwinism you are likely to think that is a good thing. But in hearing through Bertram’s prose the voices of both Japanese and Chinese students, scholars, and leaders who did not make it through the terrible culling of the North China Front, one can only wonder how the destiny of both nations might have been different.


James Bertram’s book North China Front, originally published by Macmillan and Company in 1939, is once again in print courtesy of the Foreign Languages Press. ISBN 7-119-03530-4


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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5 Responses to The Return of History Friday: North China Front

  1. Oliver says:

    A wonderful post David – informative and concise, it leads the reader to take it one step further. I’ve been head deep in work since my wife asked me to move back to her homeland last year, and haven’t had much time to dig into the fascinating (yet brutal) modern history of this country – which shames my background as a history major. I very much look forward to more “History Friday” posts.

    BTW, can books such as these be picked up in Xinhua bookstores, or do I need to go my local foreigner bookstore?

  2. David Wolf says:

    Thanks, Oliver. It sounds like I accomplished what I set out to do with this one. I’ll hew to this approach, then.

    I get these books at the Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing in Beijing, but I would not be surprised if the Xinhua bookstores carried them. It’s worth a try…

  3. So good to see this series back in the mix. Good to have you back, D.

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