China Dawn by Robert L. Duncan is a historical epic novel from 1988, spanning the years of 1931 to 1981, moving through various locations, from Tokyo to Shanghai, to Manchukuo, to Singapore, to Paris.
Unlike epics like The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, it does not follow the turmoil of one family through a tumultuous time, but rather it focuses on three characters in a pseudo-love triangle, akin to Black Wind by F. Paul Wilson.
The novel opens in 1981 Paris, where Yuki Nakamura and her daughter, Dawn, are introduced as successful fashion designers, preparing for a gala event. Unfortunately, they discover their efforts are being sabotaged by an unknown party. As Yuki begins to search for a suspect, she’s consumed by her memories and we flashback to her upbringing as a poor peasant in Japan, circa 1931. Trained in English by the Salvation Army, she is eventually sold by her parents to a brothel. But the kind-hearted Salvation Army officers take pity and rescue her, shipping her off to Shanghai to serve as an interpreter for the American Consulate there.
Enter main character number two – Sam Cummings. Coming from a wealthy New York family, he is fixed up in a loveless marriage to a woman named Charlotte Rawlings. He is sent to Shanghai’s American Consulate by his uncle, a powerful man in the US State Department. Sam has some connection to the city since his father had committed suicide there, under mysterious circumstances. It’s in Shanghai where he (you guessed it) meets up with Yuki who becomes his private interpreter.
The third major character is a Japanese aristocrat and Army officer – Colonel Ito. While all characters are fairly likable, Ito’s probably the most interesting of the three, since he is presented as a relatively humane and cultured man, despite belonging to the Japanese Army, which would develop an extremely brutal reputation as the 1930s progressed. The conflict between his humanity and his duty makes for the novel’s most interesting reading.
Yuki and Sam begin an affair, leading to her pregnancy with Dawn. However, here’s where the novel separates itself from the standard love triangle tropes. Realizing that such an arrangement would never be accepted, Yuki leaves and eventually winds up a servant/mistress to Colonel Ito, who is married himself. Sam begins to amend his marriage with Charlotte, but in this type of book, tragedy is always lurking around the corner.
Given that this takes place when Shanghai was attacked not once, but twice, there is quite a lot of drama. Despite realizing that Colonel Ito is taking care of Yuki and his daughter, Sam actually remains on good terms with him, since they have a working relationship. They are pitted against a ruthless warlord, General Wang, known as the “Wolf of Shanghai.” Upon investigation, Sam learns that this Wang is also a member of the notorious Green Gang and might also have some connection with his father’s death.
A great deal of the novel covers the 1932 Shanghai Incident aka the Shanghai War aka the January 28th Incident, depending on what country you’re from. This section was quite enjoyable since precious little about this conflict has been written in English. However, there are quite a few departures from the historical narrative. In China Dawn, the commander of the 19th Route Army is General Wang, whereas in reality, it was General Tsai Ting-kai, who was internationally famous at the time. It’s like saying the American general in command of the Philippines in 1942 was “General Smith.”
Another plot point that stuck out was when Ito (who by now had been promoted to General) commanded a Kwantung Army unit fighting the Soviets in the winter of 1938. And this is no small skirmish either, but rather a full-on border war. However, the only major clash between the Soviets and Japanese was at Changkufeng in July – August of 1938, most definitely not in winter. It’s strange that Robert Duncan chose to do this since he served in the postwar occupation of Japan. However, maybe by fictionalizing some events, he gained more freedom to tell the story he wanted. I can’t criticize too much since I fictionalize historical events for dramatic purposes in my novels as well.
The novel takes its time through most of the 30s, showing us the 1932 Shanghai Incident, the 2-26 Incident in Tokyo, the 1937 Shanghai Incident, and the beginning of full-scale war between Japan and China, and the aforementioned Soviet-Japanese border clashes. However, it then jumps ahead to Singapore circa 1941, just on the eve of Japanese invasion, where Sam has been transferred. Yuki and Dawn are in Manchukuo with General Ito, who remains there for most of the war. There are some scenes with the war, but we soon find ourselves in the postwar world, where Ito is on trial for war crimes.
Given Ito’s very humane behavior, I found this unlikely, since far worse Japanese officers (e.g. Shiro Ishii) were spared prosecution. However, times like these suck relatively decent people into the maw of bureaucracy, so maybe that’s what Duncan was going for. The rest of the novel (the last hundred pages or so) focuses more on Yuki’s rise in the fashion world, and unfortunately, it’s not as captivating as the rest of the story. Neither is the introduction of the novel, which slogs on for a tedious twenty-five pages. However, if you can make it past that, the majority of China Dawn is an entertaining read, offering a lot of details and insight to a bygone world.