Review of Chasing the Dragon
Source: Smithsonian 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 Life hired 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 neighborhood paper. 
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 larger events. 
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 qualifications.
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 of China.
Rowan's highly 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.