The current rise of Chinese naval power stands in stark contrast to the period from 1900 – 1940 when China had no real Navy and lay prostrate before powerful nations which had unfettered access to its ports and inland waterways. A weak and fading dynasty and competing warlords (including the Communists) did nothing to reassure foreign interests, which led to additional intervention. Like other places in the world, the waterways of China were the highways on which goods moved in and out of the interior of the country. One river stood out in its size and importance – the Yangtze (a western interpretation of the river’s many names). Western business interests and missionaries took advantage of the Yangtze to penetrate far into the interior and the river was the principal line of communication back out to rest of the world.
Because of these interests and the threat of instability to them, the Western Nations and Japan maintained a persistent naval presence on the Yangtze, headquartered at Shanghai, the commercial capital of China. Operations along the Yangtze required a Navy not designed for blue water, but one designed for the unique brown water of the Yangtze with its seasonal water levels and currents and powerful rapids far upriver. The craft that these navies brought to bear were unique floating symbols of national sovereignty and were not as well armed or ready as conditions later dictated. Still, they were powerful enough to allow the nations to operate with impunity, which ingrained a sense of vulnerability in the Chinese psyche. The emergence of Japan as an occupying power in China altered the balance of power. The attack on the USS Panay and other western vessel served notice that business as usual along the Yangtze, and throughout Asia, was coming to an end.
This book, one of the New Vanguard series by Osprey, presents in folio format the gunboats that made up the naval flotillas along the Yangtze. This volume covers the height of the naval presence, from 1900, the time of the Boxer Rebellion and increased armed intervention, to 1949, when Mao’s revolution forced the remaining nations from mainland China (excepting Hong Kong and Macau). The book is organized as follows:
With only 48 pages, it is a quick read with none of the chapters very long. The book includes 49 B&W photos and color illustrations by Tony Bryan. The centerfold is a color cut away view by Bryan of a British Insect Class gunboat.
Below are some illustrations from the book.
As would be expected, the majority of the book deals with the British and American experiences on the river. These nations had the largest presence on the river by far, typically cooperated, and had their respective ships photographed. The other navies are discussed to a lesser degree – the Russian, the Germans, the French, the Italians, and the Japanese. World War I ended the presence of the German and Russian navies. The Italians had few interests along the river and therefore a single ship presence. The French and Japanese had greater presence but not to the extent of Britain and the US. So the author does the best he can to document these navies with little archival information.
Overall, I found the book interesting but unsatisfying. As a devotee to the American Yangtze Patrol, I found the information about the other navies welcome, but the volume is too skeletal and lacks the meat of a human interest story, details of operations along the river, or more technical detail on the gunboats. For instance, it was not uncommon for US sailor “Old China Hands” to spend years on the river, volunteering to re-up in order to stay. These sailors often had dragons embroidered inside the cuffs of their jumpers. Yet very little of this come out, nor does the challenge of operating on the river – running the rapids, the debris of the spring floods and being trapped upriver during the dry season. In fairness to the author, not much has been written about the river patrols as evidenced by his bibliography, yet I did not see any groundbreaking research such as archival information from the other nations, just Britain and the US. The most famous US book is The Yangtze Patrol by Kemp Tolley, which is filled with stories of life on the river. Still, I think that this book is a good starting reference, but to better understand life on the Yangtze I would read Tolley and watch Steve McQueen in “Sand Pebbles”.
I would like to thank Osprey Publishing for the review copy and IPMS for allowing me to write this review.