Review of Chasing the Dragon
Magazine, December 2004. Volume 35, Number 9
Reviewed by Ian Johnson
Times were when
every foreign correspondent returning from China
would write a book, especially right after China and
the United States normalized relations in 1979.
A reporter's year or two in China, it seemed, would
be followed by a quickie book on the Middle Kingdom.
Not so for Roy
Rowan. The former Life
magazine correspondent waited nearly 60 years to
publish his account of China's 1949 revolution, and
all one can say is: Why the heck did he wait so
long?" The book is packed with great stories
and vivid anecdotes, even though at times he seems
to rely too heavily on musty diaries and magazine
archives rather than fresh memories.
The book is
centered around two crucial years, from 1947 when
Rowan to be its man in China to the Communists'
victory over the Nationalists in 1949, marking the
end of the 15-year civil war. First, however,
Rowan provides a quick sketch of growing up in New
York City and his infatuation with newspapers - in
high school, he wrote and printed his own
He served in the
Pacific in the Army, preparing for the invasion of
Japan that dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki obviated. Back home a year later, he
didn't know what to do with himself; in hopes of
returning to Asia, Rowan signed up with the U.N.
Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which sent
him to the country that most fascinated him: China.
Rowan's account of
this interlude gives a unique perspective on China's
civil war. Assigned responsibility for
shipping relief supplies into China's interior,
Rowan accompanied trains and truck convoys to cities
in central China. He senses the corruption in
the Nationalist administration and realizes that the
Communists under Mao Zedong are better organized and
command more popular support. The chapters
about this period would have benefited from more
context: one isn't sure where the main action is
occurring or whether Rowan's experiences are random
observations or are meant to be representative of
Then, in 1947, he
gets his break: sign unseen, Life
hired him based simply on a report he had freelanced
for the Time-Life bureau in Shanghai about the
fighting he had witnessed in Henan Province.
Rowan's subsequent trip to New York, where he meets
Time/Life boss Henry Luce, is a reminder of how much
more spontaneous journalism was then - and in many
respects, how much better media outlets were for
their willingness to hire people like Rowan,
talented and eager but lacking formal
From here on, Rowan is
in his element. Perhaps because he has his
notes and articles to refresh his memory, the author
hits his stride. Rowan's description of the
fall of Mukden (modern-day Shenyang), the
northeastern city encircled by the Communists and
surviving only by airlifts, is chilling.
Equally absorbing - especially today in an age of
satellite phones - is Rowan's account of the
logistical feat necessary to courier his
photographer's negatives back across the Pacific to
New York, thereby handing Luce a scoop about the
Nationalists' military disaster.
Riveting, too, is
Rowan's description of the fall of Taiyuan, where
400 of Marshal Yan Xishan's commanders made good on
a promise to swallow cyanide capsules rather than
surrender to the Communists. (The wily
warlord, however, managed to evade this dramatic
denouement, instead dying at a ripe old age a dozen
years later in Taiwan). At the Battle of
Xuzhou, the Nationalists put up their stiffest
resistance, a reminder to modern readers that
although historians often depict the Communists'
victory as inevitable, the Nationalists were not as
inept as sometimes portrayed. The
Nationalists' defeat at Xuzhou determined the fate
readable account contributes substantially to our
understanding of China. Chasing the
Dragon takes its
place alongside other classic pieces of reportage on
this crucial turning point in Chinese history.
Reviewer Ian Johnson,
the Wall Street
Journal's Berlin bureau chief, won a 2001
Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China. He
is the author of
Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.