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Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:


First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .


Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.


There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Galula and the Maoist Model

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice

SWJ Blog has been featuring Octavian Manea talking to COIN experts about counterinsurgency godfather David Galula:

Interview with Dr. John Nagl

“Counterinsurgencies are after all learning competitions.”

What is the legacy of David Galula for US Counterinsurgency doctrine? Is he an intellectual father?

The most important thinker in the field is probably Mao whose doctrine of insurgency understood that insurgency is not a component or a precursor of conventional war but could by itself accomplish military objectives. The greatest thinker in my eyes in COIN remains David Galula who has the enormous advantage of having studied and seen the evolution of insurgency in France during WW2, then spending a great deal of time in Asia, and really having thought through the problem for more than a decade before he practiced COIN himself for a number of years. His book is probably the single biggest influence on FM 3-24, the COIN Field Manual. David Galula is the best COIN theoretician as Kennan was for containment.

Interview with Dr. David Ucko

What was the role of David Galula in shaping the mind of the US Army or the Army Concept? Could we see him as an intellectual founding father? And what specific beliefs do you have in mind when you assess his role in shaping the organizational culture of the US military?

As certain individuals and groups within the US military again became interested in counterinsurgency, this time as a result of the persistent violence in ‘post-war’ Iraq, one of the more immediate reference points for how to understand this type of political violence were the scholars and theorists who had marked the US military’s previous ‘counterinsurgency eras’, during the 1960s primarily, but also during the 1980s. In the former camp, the thinkers of the 1960s, David Galula stands as an intellectual forefather to much that was finally included in the US Army and Marine Corps’ FM 3-24 counterinsurgency field manual; indeed I believe his book is one of the three works cited in the manual’s acknowledgements. I think it is fair to say far fewer people have read than heard of Galula, and it would be an interesting study to go through his writings more carefully and see to what degree they apply to our understanding of counterinsurgency today. Nonetheless, even at a cursory level, Galula has been extremely helpful in conceptualizing some of the typical conundrums, dilemmas and complexities of these types of campaigns: the civilian capability gaps in theater; the political nature of counterinsurgency; the importance of popular support, etc. These were issues that US soldiers and Marines were confronting in Iraq and struggling to find answers to; Galula’s seminal texts were in that context helpful.

In terms of influencing US counterinsurgency doctrine, perhaps one of Galula’s main contributions is the emphasis on the political nature of these types of campaigns, and – importantly – his concomitant warning that although the fight is primarily more political than military, the military will be the most represented agency, resulting in a capability gap. Galula’s answer to this conundrum is explicitly not to restrict military forces to military duties, a notion picked up on in US doctrine, which also asks the US military to go far beyond its traditional remit where and when necessary. In a sense, this line of thinking is one of the greatest distinctions between the Army’s first interim COIN manual in 2004 and the final version in 2006: in doctrine (if not necessarily in other areas, such as force structure), Galula’s view of military forces filling civilian capability gaps had been accepted. Of course, it should be added that all of this is much easier said than done, and perhaps some of the implications of involving military forces in civilian tasks (agriculture, sewage, project management) have not been thoroughly thought through – do the armed forces have the requires skills, the training, and how much civilian capability can one realistically expect them to fill? Also, the danger with following Galula on this point is that by doing what’s necessary in the field, the armed forces may also be deterring the development of the very civilian capabilities they reluctantly usurp.

How relevant is Galula’s “Maoist Model” of insurgency anymore?

It is certainly possible for a Maoist insurgency to be successful in today’s world under the right conditions. This was proved, ironically, by Maoists in Nepal who managed to shoot their way, if not into power, into a peace agreement with other Nepalese political parties who united with the Communists to topple Nepal’s monarchy in 2006. Conditions were nearly ideal for an insurgent victory: Nepal is a poor, isolated, landlocked nation which had an unpopular and tyrannical king who was, at best, an accidental monarch; and who lacked an effective COIN force in the Royal Army. Nor was India, which passed for the Royal Nepal goverment’s foreign patron, willing to consider vigorous military intervention or even military aid sufficient to crush the rebellion. For their part, the Maoists were highly disciplined with a classic Communist hierarchical system of political-military control and were relatively-self-sufficient as a guerrilla force.

How well does such a “Maoist Model” of revolutionary warfare reflect conditions of insurgency that we see today in Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen? Or in central Africa

Not very well at all.

For that matter, how relevant was “the Maoist Model” for Mao ZeDong in actual historical practice as opposed to retrospective mythologizing and theorizing that lightly sidestepped the approximately 4 million battlefield casualties inflicted on Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army? Prior to the invasion of China proper by Imperial Japan, Chiang Kai-shek’s “extermination campaigns” had a devastating effect on Mao’s forces and had Chiang been free to concentrate all his strength against the Communists, it is difficult to see how Mao’s revolution would have survived without significant Soviet intervention in China’s civil war.

If David Galula were alive today, I suspect he’d be more interested in constructing a new COIN model from empirical investigation than in honing his old one.

Mao ZeDong and 4GW

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

A part of a comment from Jay@Soob:

“This was likely compounded by the chronological assignment (that Mao was the first to conceptualize 4GW is an assertion that Ethan Allen might have something to swear and swing fists about)”

The frequent and casual association of Chairman Mao with 4GW is something that has always puzzled me as well ( though, if memory serves, William Lind was always careful to explain that 4GW isn’t simply guerilla warfare). I think it can be attributed to the likelihood that most people who are somewhat familiar with 4GW theory tend to think first of guerillas and Mao is regarded as a great innovator there. However, is there merit in placing Mao in the “4GW pantheon” (if there is such a thing)?

In the ” yes” column I’d offer the following observations:

Mao, whose actual positive leadership contribution to Communist victory in the civil war was primarily political and strategic rather than operational and tactical ( his military command decisions were often the cause of disaster, retreat and defeat for Communist armies) had a perfect genius – I think that word would be an accurate description here – for operating at the mental and moral levels of warfare.  Partly this was skillful playing of a weak hand on Mao’s part; the Communists were not a match on the battlefield for the better Nationalist divisions until the last year or so of the long civil war but Mao regularly outclassed Chiang Kai-shek in propaganda and diplomacy – turning military defeats at Chiang’s hands into moral victories and portraying Communist inaction in the face of Japanese invasion as revolutionary heroism. Yenan might have be a weird, totalitarian, nightmare fiefdom but Mao made certain that foreign journalists, emissaries and intelligence liasons reported fairy tales to the rest of the world.

In the “maybe” column:

Regardless of one’s opinion of Mao ZeDong, China’s civil war, running from the collapse of the Q’ing dynasty in 1911 to the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949, is a historical laboratory for 4GW and COIN theory.  The complexity of China in this era was akin to that of Lebanon’s worst years in the 1980’s but it lasted for decades. In a given province of China ( many of which were as large or larger than major European nations) then there might have been operating simultaneously: several warlord armies, Communist guerillas,  Nationalist armies, the Green Gang syndicate, White Russian mercenaries, Mongol Bannermen, rival Kuomintang factions, common bandit groups and military forces of European states, Japan and the United States. Disorder and ever-shifting alliances and fighting was the norm and Mao was the ultimate victor in this era.

In the “no ” column:

Mao ZeDong, whatever his contributions to the art of guerilla warfare, intended, quite firmly, to build a strong state in China, albeit a Communist one in his own image. He was never interested in carving out a sphere of influence or an autonomous zone in China except as a stepping stone to final victory. Moreover, the Red Army’s lack of conventional fighting ability for most of the civil war related to a lack of means, not motive on Mao’s part. When material was available, particularly after 1945, when Stalin turned over equipment from the defeated  Kwangtung army and began supplying a more generous amount of Soviet military aid to the Chinese Communists, Mao tried to shift to conventional warfare. When in power, he sent the PLA’s 5-6 crack divisions into the Korean War to face American troops in 2GW-style attrition warfare, not guerilla infiltrators behind MacArthur’s lines. 

Finally, Mao’s personal political philosophy of governance, taken from Marxism-Leninism and Qin dynasty Legalism, are about as radically hierarchical and alien to 4GW thinking as it is possible to be.

In sum, Mao is and should be regarded as a major figure in the  history of the 20th century and that century’s military history but he isn’t the grandfather of fourth generation warfare.


Congratulations to 4GW theorist and blogger Fabius Maximus for being picked up by the BBC.

Reflections on China’s Warlord Era

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

One of my distinguished co-bloggers at Chicago Boyz, John Jay, penned a truly outstanding post on China, incorporating history, culture, economics and linguistics, using the famous  Manchurian warlord and opium addict, ” the Young Marshal ” Chang Hsüeh-liang, as a springboard:

Household Armies

“….China has historically allowed certain social forces to compete with loyalty to the state. Linguistic (and in the cases of the Hui and Uyghur, religious) groups have always retained a large amount of autonomy through the provincial governments, and in some cases provinces such as Guandong can almost be thought of as a separate country within China due to their linguistic (non-Mandarin) identity and economic self sufficiency. But Guandong gets little voice in Beijing relative to the economic might of the Pearl  River Delta. Cantonese don’t care, as long as the kleptocracy in Beijing leaves them alone (after they make their formal obeisance) most of the time, and does not attempt to steal too much wealth. That may change as peasants out West mobilize and force the central government to send more goodies their way. China never hit upon the Anglosphere’s solution of a Republican governmental federation of competing interests akin to either Great Britain or the competing American states – the Imperial authorities always wished to pretend that they were in complete control, while ceding a lot of practical authority to the provinces.  

Conflicts between the linguistic periphery and the Mandarin-speaking center have contributed to the ebb and flow of centralized power in China since even before the Ten kingdoms of the South broke away from the Five Dynasties that succeeded the Tang. The Chinese have historically seen history as cyclical, rather than linear. I think that this at least in part stems from the fact that since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, China has never bitten the bullet to reform itself by completely rethinking its social system. Systems have arisen as kludges to deal with a particular problem, but have never dealt with the fundamental flaws in society, only with their surface manifestations. As James Sheridan wrote in “Chinese Warlord: The Career of Feng Yu-hsiang” :  

Read in full here.

Sunday, March 25th, 2007


Having spent a great deal of time considering creativity and insight, I’m generally convinced that we benefit cognitively and on an emotive-psychological level from novelty, even if that novelty is to a small degree. Sort of like garnering measurable aerobic benefits from modest daily walking, every little bit helps. You don’t have to go from a microbiology lab one day to spelunking the next in order to give your brain some stimulus.

Therefore, I decided to shift my usual reading attention from matters of Western history and military affairs to read in succession, the biographies of three seminal 20th century dictators, all of whom ruled Asian nations but impacted the history of the world. It is a good shifting of gears for me, as the last heavy fare of reading Asian history and politics was back in the early nineties.

First up, is Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost by Jonathan Fenby, who gives a critical reappraisal. While we are all accustomed to the standard scholarly historical criticism of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang which is heavily influenced by the politics of academic Marxism, Fenby, a British journalist who is a longtime writer and editor for The Economist magazine and The Observer, (so far as I have read) gives a hard-eyed, pragmatic, thoroughly detailed, flavor that Alan Schom gave to his masterful deconstruction of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Number two will be the critically acclaimed The Unknown Story of Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which like the Fenby book is an act of idol-smashing. All the moreso since Mao ZeDong, unlike his rival Chiang, retains an aging cadre of Leftist admirers both at home and in the West.

I intend to finish with the highly regarded Ho Chi Minh: A Life by former diplomat and Penn State historian William J. Duiker.Duiker himself, served in the American embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam war, which adds a poignant edge to his historical research.

Anyone out there who has read any or all of these books, feel free to chime in.

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