The Search for Modern China

Friday June 06, 2003 @ 03:53 PM (UTC)

I am rereading a history book we used as the primary text for a course of mine in college, HSTY 282: History of Modern China. The book is called The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence. The car prowlers were not interested.

It’s a really fascinating book, for many reasons. It begins with the fall of the Ming dynasty at the hands of bandit chieftains and Manchu invaders, and follows the Qing dynasty, set up by those Manchu invaders, until its fall, and into contemporary times. The Qing was in some ways a casualty of really brutal economic imperialism, but also of Western influence in general. Unlike Japan, which ended up adopting a rigorous policy of modernizing and Westernizing their industry, army, and government all at once, Imperial China tried to adopt some of the methods and trappings of the foreigners while maintaining an almost unchanged government. Of course, China is also much vaster than Japan, so the changes which occured along the quickly cosmopolitan coast were slow to spread to the rural areas, famine-struck floodplains, and remote mountains of China.

Apparently before this book’s first edition was written, Chinese history was often viewed as two isolated periods - Imperial China and post-Imperial China - which, judging from the complex transitional period depicted, would really not do the situation justice. The same problems that plagued the Ming assail the Qing, and obstruct the short-lived democratic government, the attempted unification under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, and the early attempts at socialist communities by the Chinese Communist Party. In class, we didn’t finish the book, following China’s story only up to its unification as a Communist nation. I will be interested to read the later chapters, but I cannot yet tell you what is in them.

This book is fascinating for many reasons. Among them is the implied question of modernity, and what it means to be a modern state, something I’d never really had to come to grips with in a history course previously. The issue of modernity, as I take it from the story of China, is intertwined with the idea of nationalism. Nationalism was basically unheard of in Ming China and earlier. It seems that the concept of nationalism - the need for something more clearly defined than “All Under Heaven” (the linguistic origin of “China”) - may have started under the Qing, who were the first conquering people to maintain their own culture and identity in the face of China’s cultural legacy. If the Manchus are Other, than what are We?

Another reason to love this book is just that it’s a well-crafted narrative of conflict and chaos. You can trace, at least roughly, the strands in this complex knot of events. Any writer, or any role-playing Gamemaster, can benefit from seeing the vast variety of the human experience in the most tumultuous times in China’s history. I really can’t describe this adequately, but it’s a rich account of the interplay of hope and despair; inspiration to change and respect for tradition; searches both outside and within.

This book, while not a complete substitute for a discussion course, will give you a much richer understanding of the philosophical undercurrents of Chinese political discourse, what the Chinese government believes the responsibilities of a government to be, and why that government still views America and Europe with distrust and defiance.

Lastly, the book is written well and engagingly. It’s easy to follow. The only difficulty in that regard is remembering some of the more secondary players’ names, which of course are not familiar names - Chen Duxi, Zhou Enlai, et cetera - but Spence helps out by reminding us where we’ve heard of them before.

If you have any interest in history, Asian politics, writing stories against the backdrop of political upheaval, or creating rich, political roleplaying worlds, buy this book. That is all.


Thanks, seriously. Too cool. I’ll have my best friend/gay librarian hook me up. I find Asian history almost more fascinating than my own (Scottish). Talk about a past with a rich cultural tapestry….

Best friend/gay librarian? Do you introduce him/her to people this way?

actionplant: Hey guys, this is Pat, my best friend-slash-gay librarian.
guys: Hi, gay librarian Pat! Nice to meet you.
gay librarian Pat: Likewise. Have I mentioned I’m a gay librarian?


Of COURSE I don’t introduce him like that! Silly silly Wonko…how foolish of you. It goes a little more like this:

actionplant: Hey guys, this is Derek, my best friend-slash-gay librarian.
guys: Hi, gay librarian Derek! Nice to meet you.
gay librarian Derek: Likewise. Have I mentioned I’m a gay librarian?

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