War as Politics, Politics as War in Modern Asia

AHA Session 132
Conference on Asian History 3
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Sabine Frühstück, University of California, Santa Barbara
Rebecca Nedostup, Brown University

Session Abstract

How did politics become conceivable as a kind of war, a strategic alignment of forces and groups perpetually struggling against one another? Wars of conquest, liberation, and revolution embroiled modern Asia during the same period countries like China, Vietnam, and Japan were transforming themselves from moral communities based on reciprocal obligations to political communities based on competing interests. While scholars have studied the social, political, and cultural effects of these conflicts on the region and the world, few have investigated the mutual constitution of political imagination and war in modern Asia. For the political left, war illuminated the relationships of force between classes in societies and across empires. For technocrats and ultra-nationalists, modern war exposed the fragility of states and nations and the need to renew both. At the same time, different political visions altered the practice of war, from Chinese and Vietnamese communists’ invention of “revolutionary war” to the Chinese and Japanese Right’s commitment to “total war.” This panel explores the correlation between war and politics and its critical role in defining Asian modernity.

These papers highlight the distinctiveness of modern Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese conceptions of war and politics, even when they reflect the concerns about military strategy and political theory of their global contemporaries. “Revolutionary war,” refined among Vietnamese and Chinese communists during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the First Indochina War, was not only an elaboration of Soviet “war communism,” but also a particular kind of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggle empowering agrarian populations to build new kinds of socialist states. As Japan bombed civilians in Shanghai in 1932 and in other Chinese cities after 1937, China became one of the first countries to experience the absolute destruction of “total war” as a material reality. As a result, militarists and experts began to conceive of China’s semi-colonial position as an existential crisis, and elevated mere existence to a paramount political value. Conversely, leaders in wartime Japan made the connection between war and political thought explicit by inventing the category of “thought war,” arguing that ways of thinking about politics—more than the existence of the political community itself—made up the real stakes of war. Together, these papers provide novel ways to think about a time and place transformed through revolution and imperialism.

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