Enter, The Dragon
Reviewed by Parshottam Mehra

China at War: an Encyclopedia
Ed Xiaobing Li. Pentagon Press, New Delhi. Pages xxxiv + 605. Rs 1,900

China at War: an EncyclopediaHere is a stupendous work of more than ordinary dimensions, both in terms of its physical expanse dimensions as well as content. A large-size tome approximating 24 & 15 cm, its major thrust is not so much conventional military history as the title mistakenly suggests as furnishing a broad account, arranged in alphabetical order, of China’s long history as well as a compendium of its values, concepts and attitudes to war. Differently put, here is a broad picture of China’s socio-political history against the backdrop of its security concerns and strategic calculations that go into decision-making process.

A brief introductory chapter (pp. xix-xxxiv) maps out the book’s broad contours. Among an impressive array of topics covered are Sunzi’s classic, The Art of War, Mao’s theory- and practice- of guerrilla warfare, Chinese involvement in the Korean and later Vietnam wars. It also takes note of its nuclear programme in the 21st century. Here in brief are some of the entries picked up at random and broadly representative of the text as a whole.

Korean War (1950-1953)

The war effectively militarised the containment policy. Earlier the US funded Marshall Plan (1948-51) had been almost entirely non-military. From now on Washington shifted heavily toward military rearmament. The war also marked a sustained militarization of American foreign policy with the Sino-Vietnamese border war (1979), a logical consequence. Militarily the (Korean) war was interesting for its extensive use of helicopters and jet aircraft. Also a reminder that airpower alone cannot win wars that command of the sea was no less important. For the record no formal peace has to-date been concluded and technically the two Koreas remain at war with the 38th parallel one of the Cold War’s lone outposts.

Sino-Vietnamese Border War (1979)

The Chinese viewed it as a punitive war that revealed serious problems in their military handicapped by a poor logistical system and lack of fighting experience. More importantly, the war failed to resolve the disputes between Beijing and Washington two countries, pushing them further apart. Although China withdrew its troops from Vietnam a month after the outbreak of hostilities armed conflicts lingered over a decade.

Song dynasty (960-1279)

The civil service system was revised during the Song dynasty. Examinations were modified to remove any bias resulting in a more diverse body of civil service employees. The Mongols who had succeeded in toppling both the Jin dynasty and the Liao dynasty in the north ended the Southern Song too in 1279

Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996)

The high command in Beijing had learned an important lesson from the 1995-1996 crisis namely that the US would not watch a PLA attack on Taiwan with folded hands. More, the PLA had to be prepared to deal with a major US military intervention in the Taiwan Strait.

Terra Cotta Army

The first excavation of the site in north-western Shaanxi lasted six years, 1978-84, exposing over 1,000 statues in the largest of the three pits. The second took place in 1985, but failed due to technological issues. The third excavation began in June 2009. Earlier (1987), UNESCO declared it a world heritage site.

Ye Jianying (Yeh Chien-ying) 1897-1986

Military and political leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP or the Communist Party of China), Marshal of the People’s Liberation Army and defence minister, Ye played an instrumental role in the political and military affairs of both the Party and the Government.

Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-tang) (1812-1885)

Well known as General Zuo in the West, he was a key military and administrative official of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) who along with Zeng Guofan (1811-1872) and Li Hongzhang (1823-1901)crushed the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and began the ‘self-strengthening movement’ to modernize China’s industry and defenses.

The book’s title, China at War, is grossly misleading. It smacks of sensationalism, of cheap notoriety. For this large and impressive tome is by no means the country’s military history alone; it proffers a rich backdrop to the larger whole of China’s evolution through the ages and brings it to-date. Each entry, written by an expert in the field, is reasonably comprehensive. The writer is professor and chair of the Department of History and Geography and Director of the Western Pacific Institute of the University of Central Oklahoma.