This is a remarkable book for two reasons at least: it sheds new light on the Chinese policy towards the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and it offers a glimpse at how Chinese historiography wants to present itself on today’s world stage. There is only scattered information to be found online about the author. Tang Qi-hua is a well-established expert of the Chinese revolutionary era of the 1920s who had taught at Tunghai University in Taiwan before moving to Fudan University in Shanghai. The book was first published in 2014 by the Social Sciences Academic Press (SSAP) under the auspices of the powerful Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; the English translation (by Zhonghu Yan), under review here, is distributed as part of the series “China Connections”, jointly published by Palgrave Macmillan and the SSAP to showcase Chinese scholarship to the world. It is no secret that the Chinese publisher is closely aligned with the Communist Party and serves as its international publishing house in the humanities. In fact, the Department of State designated all US-activities of the SSAP as operations of a foreign mission in 2020.
This general background should not distract from the scholarly merits of the book. Tang offers detailed new insights where there had been blank spots in the understanding of Chinese involvement in the Paris peace settlement of 1919. Making use of communications, minutes, and memoranda from various archival collections – in particular from the Chinese embassy in Brussels, transferred to Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan, only in the 1980s – the author reconstructs Chinese policies and politics both in Beijing and in Europe in unparalleled depth. Tang’s main aim is to soften the sharp contrast between an allegedly unprepared, factious, and incompetent Beiyang government and the nationalist awaking of the May Fourth Movement. Instead of blaming the quarrelling groups, military cliques, and warlords who dominated Chinese politics during the Great War era for a diplomatic fiasco in 1919, as many of the established nationalist narratives do, Tang tries to understand the motives of the various protagonists and the limits to their actions.
There are five main chapters: two chapters are dedicated to the preparations for the peace conference during the war and after the armistice; one chapter deals extensively with the diplomacy during the peace conference; and two shorter chapters focus on the refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and on the immediate aftermath of this decision up to the Washington Conference of 1922, respectively. There is a lot to learn about how Chinese officials sought to form internal coalitions in order to demonstrate unity in foreign affairs, about their efforts to make use of international law (and legal experts) to convince European powers, or about their plan to win US sympathy in the struggle for Shandong. Securing a seat at the expected peace conference was of paramount importance as well, with Chinese delegates and diplomats lobbying in Tokyo and Washington even when they were already on their way to Europe. In Paris, the Chinese delegates had shaky relationships with Japanese and US diplomats while, at the same time, facing internal rivalries and shifting allegiances deeply connected to power struggles at home. The final decision of the Great Powers to reject Chinese demands for returning Shandong and to reward Japanese wartime claims caused outrage and led to the refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Tang does not see this as diplomatic failure or betrayal, however. From a more objective point of view, he argues, it is evident that “China obtained a lot at the conference” (p. 310) and that even the Shandong question would be solved in 1922 along the lines negotiated in Paris.
Tang has written a fascinating account of the Chinese participation in the peace settlement amidst political turmoil both in Paris and at home. His book will surely be picked up by anyone interested in the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. Still, two final observations need to be made. Even though Tang goes beyond Chinese historiography and includes literature and sources from the United States as well as from Japan, he does not seem to be fully acquainted with current Western research in this field. Important interpretations and approaches from the 1990s onwards, like the works by Margaret MacMillan, Erez Manela, or Leonard Smith, go unnoticed. The other point is the modest quality of the translation and a lack of diligence when it comes to technicalities like correct quotation marks; it is not always clear who is speaking in the text. That said, the book moves Chinese historiography much closer to its Western counterparts. Its openness and sincerity in drawing a more nuanced picture of the past is remarkable. There is virtually no sense of a too-narrow interpretation according to a real or imagined party line. Does that mean Chinese official historiography is prepared to accept ambivalences, competing interpretations, and methodological pluralism? We do not know yet. But we should listen carefully when a Chinese historian like Tang stresses the importance of critical and differentiated perspectives on the past instead of claiming to be in the possession of historical truth: “If China is to become a great world power, it needs to transcend its own limitations and rise to a higher perspective than its rivals. […] Only by possessing the soft power of this level can we sustain a peacefully arising world power” (p. 316).