In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China’s Modern Wars, 1911–1979

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Published Document Collections
  • Memoirs and Biographies
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Strategy and Theory
  • The 1911 Revolution
  • Warlords and Warlordism
  • The Northern Expedition
  • Military Forces in the Nanjing Decade, 1928–1937
  • Conflict with Japan in North China
  • Civil War, 1945–1949
  • China and the Korean War, 1950–1953
  • Border Conflicts, Taiwan Straits, India, and the Soviet Union

Military History China’s Modern Wars, 1911–1979
Peter Worthing
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0167


Few informed observers would deny the important role that military conflict has played in China’s 20th century. Scholars have long shown interest in this topic, producing a wide body of scholarship on various aspects of China’s major wars since 1911. A traditional focus on major campaigns and commanders has given way to new approaches that explore the social and environmental consequences of war, studies of different regions or base areas, and the experiences of combatants. This bibliography begins with the 1911 Revolution, which ended the millennia-old imperial system in China. Instead of producing a new government, the revolution ushered in a period of military separatism as sections of the country fell under the political and military control of independent commanders, typically known as “warlords.” The 1920s saw the rise of two prominent political parties, the Guomindang (GMD) or “Nationalist” Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), each of which developed military forces in order to acquire political power and implement its particular plan for a new China. These two forces combined to create a National Revolutionary Army (NRA), which embarked on the Northern Expedition to defeat the warlords and unify the country. The alliance proved fleeting as Nationalist and Communists clashed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931 and subsequent territorial encroachments in northern China directed the national focus to external threats. In 1937 China and Japan began an eight-year war that featured massive destruction and dislocation. This Sino-Japanese War (which the Chinese call the “Eight Year War of Resistance” against Japan) merged with the war in Europe to produce the Pacific War, which brought China and the United States together as wartime allies. The defeat of Japan in August 1945 provided little respite, as CCP and GMD forces resumed their struggle for political power in the Chinese Civil War from 1945–1949. The CCP triumph ushered in a new government, the People’s Republic of China, which within one year sent “volunteer” soldiers to defend North Korea against the United Nations force in the Korean War. In the twenty-five years following the Korean War armistice, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engaged in military operations in the Taiwan Straits, border conflicts with India and the Soviet Union, and supported Vietnamese allies in the wars against the French and Americans. The 1979 war with Vietnam capped China’s modern wars since 1911.

General Overviews

The field of Chinese military history remains a small but vibrant field, and a number of scholars have produced good overviews of the war. The best place to start is Elleman 2001, which reaches back into the late Qing period and offers a comprehensive view of the major conflicts in and around China’s borders in the 19th and 20th centuries. Paine 2012 is an excellent analysis of China’s connections to the broader international conflicts in Asia, and Li 2007 focuses on the development of the CCP’s armed forces. Graff and Higham 2001 and Tien 1992 (cited under Strategy and Theory) provide historical context for understanding modern Chinese military history.

  • Dreyer, Edward L. China at War, 1901–1949. London: Longman, 1995.

    Part of the Longman series on “Modern Wars in Perspective.” Deals with military conflicts and developments from the late Qing reforms through the end of the civil war in 1949. Largely a synthesis of Western scholarship.

  • Elleman, Bruce A. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795–1989. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    A detailed discussion of the twenty-five best-known military conflicts China participated in between 1789 and 1989. Emphasizes diplomacy as a part of warfare and argues that China has often pursued imperialist policies with regard to its neighbors.

  • Graff, David A., and Robin Higham, eds. A Military History of China. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001.

    Chronological treatment of Chinese military history from the ancient world to the 1990s. Chapters 10–16 deal with the 20th century, authored by prominent scholars in the field. A good introductory source.

  • Li, Xiaobing. A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007.

    An excellent survey of the history of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Concentrates on operational, institutional, and political factors that shaped the development of the communist military forces.

  • Liu, F. F. A Military History of Modern China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.

    Liu served as an officer in the Chinese Nationalist Army. This book focuses on the establishment of the Whampoa Military Academy and the subsequent development of the NRA. Liu emphasizes issues of command, training, organization, and foreign influences rather than individual battles and combat.

  • Paine, S. C. M. The Wars for Asia 1911–1949. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139105835

    Analyzes the Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War and connected events that cannot be treated separately. Paine stresses that decisions made by individual leaders in China, Japan, and Russia led to larger regional conflict.

  • Swope, Kenneth. Warfare in China since 1600. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

    A collection previously published journal articles dealing with various topics in modern Chinese military history. More than half of the articles deal with the 20th century.

  • Worthing, Peter. A Military History of Modern China: From the Manchu Conquest to Tian’anmen Square. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007.

    A survey of Chinese military history from the Qing to the 1990s. Focuses on the causes, conduct, and consequences of war and the role of the military in the development of modern China.

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