Review: Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century

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Readers of the blog will in all likelihood be familiar with the books of Austrian publishing house Harpia Publishing, that has built up a solid reputation of well-illustrated books covering a wide range of military aviation topics. Two of the more well-covered ones are Russian and Chinese military aviation, of which a number of volumes have been reviewed on the blog earlier (and often with good verdicts).

“Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century” (ISBN 978-1-9503940-0-5) is a bit of an outlier, even if the author Andreas Rupprecht will be familiar to those that have read Harpia’s earlier China-books. The book in essence tells the history of PLAAF, as well as dealing with the most important aircraft types. To provide a basis, it starts with a somewhat brief overview of the early aviation pioneers offering their services to any more or less recognised ruler or warlord in the early decades, before moving on to the somewhat more organised efforts by both nationalists/KMT and the communists to establish their own air forces, often with foreign assistance. Once the civil war had been decided, the development of PLAAF kicked off in earnest, and the book starts to pick up pace. In four chronological chapters, the reader is able to follow the growth from a few aircraft left behind by the Japanese occupiers and the retreating nationalists, to eventually become one of the most powerful air forces in the world. Each chapter also concludes with an overview featuring a short description of all of the most important aircraft types and variants. In true Harpia fashion the book then concludes with three serious appendixes that cover the history of PLAAF units on both the military region air force- and division-levels, as well as the PLAAF serial number system.

Unsurprisingly, with Rupprecht being one of the leading western experts (or perhaps simply the leading western expert) on Chinese military aviation, the quality leaves little to be desired. Having read his three books on the current state of Chinese air power earlier, I feel that this would be have been an excellent primer to better understand where the current day force comes from. The book also feature many of Harpia’s trademark characteristics, being a high-quality and sturdy large-size soft-cover with plenty of photographs. The photographs are interesting and really add to the reading experience, with the older chapters naturally having mostly black-and-white ones with colour taking over as history progresses. The illustrated side and top-view profiles typical of Harpia’s aircraft type monographs are absent. However, considering the topic of the book I don’t feel they would add anything, but rather just be taking away space from the photographs.

I do feel somewhat torn about the structure of the book, with the dual focus on both the history of the overall force and its units as well as the technological presentations of the individual aircraft (and often individual variants of these) at the end of each chapter. This dual-nature feels if not exactly confusing at least uncalled for, and while both parts are of equally high quality and enjoyable to read on their own, I often find myself depending on the mood wanting to skip either the aircraft descriptions to just be able to continue with the story or to just read the technical descriptions to get a better understanding of how the aircraft fleet changed over the years. Of course, there’s nothing stopping one from reading different parts of the book in the order one like, and it might even benefit from this kind of “choose your own adventure”-style of reading. The information you want might certainly all be there, but it might not be grouped together. As such, if what you want is an understanding of how the different versions of the J-6 relate to each other, this book can help you, but it will require a bit of page turning to get the whole picture.

I can understand the reasoning behind this split, but it might not have worked as well in practice for the casual reader as it was intended. And that is a shame, because the casual reader who has a general military aviation and/or China-interest would likely find the contents of this book highly enjoyable. At the same time, one should be aware of what this book is and what it is not (something that might be unclear based on the generic title, I known I got a good grasp of what exactly I held in my hands only once I started flipping through the pages). As said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing or illustrations, these are the kind of top-notch stuff to be expected from Harpia and Rupprecht. It’s just that the complete package is a bit complex.

If you are interested in a particular aircraft or period, either the modern day or an earlier one, you are probably better served elsewhere.  However, if you want a one-stop source for the general history of the Chinese Air Force and its flying equipment, this could very well be it.

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

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