Squaring the Chinese Circle

The Cambridge History of China: Volume 15, The People's Republic Part 2: Revolutions Within the Chinese Revolution 1966–1982

edited by Roderick MacFarquhar, edited by John K. Fairbank
Cambridge University Press, 1,108 pp., $120.00

“China,” according to Lucien Pye, “is a civilization pretending to be a state.”1 This is an elegant formulation of an idea which eventually occurs to most people who have studied, read about, or traveled and lived in China. In the late sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Chinese dress, and shelved some of their basic beliefs; so did some missionaries in 1900. When Owen Lattimore was married in 1926 in Peking he and his wife posed for a photograph in Chinese costume; so did William Empson when he taught there in the 1930s.

How can the historian approach so old and vast a subject? In his introduction to Chinese Roundabout, the Yale historian Jonathan Spence remembers Toms, his father’s terrier, burrowing for rabbits, “his front paws drumming in a frenzy of exultation, the earth flying out in a cloud between his splayed hind legs…. The earth piles up, the dog barks on, the rain falls; and no rabbits ever appear.” For Spence, too, the historian-burrower, “the earth did pile up, and along with the books that I wrote over the last twenty-five years, I wrote a good many essays on China as well.” Spence suggests, giving himself less than his due, that “the long years of research and writing will be shown to have been fugitive or inadequate.” He compares his essays to a roundabout, or traffic circle, that “attempts to sort out, with some kind of logic, the conveyances converging on a given point from many directions.” For the most part, as we shall see, he brilliantly succeeds in doing so.

Quite different is the broad view presented in the magnificent Cambridge History of China. In their preface of 1978 to Volume Ten, the first to appear, the general editors, the late John King Fairbank of Harvard and Denis Twitchett of Princeton, wrote that from the beginning of this century other Cambridge histories have set the pattern for such surveys, and that theirs, originally planned for six volumes, but eventually reaching fifteen, provides a “substantial account of the history of China as a bench mark for the Western history-reading public.”2

Throughout much of his long career Fairbank himself, who died last September, held the view that China must be seen as a complex civilization very different from any other; he repeatedly warned Americans against attempting to impose their values on China, a culture which had assumed some of its most distinctive characteristics as early as 50,000 years ago.3 A billion Europeans in Europe and the Americas live in fifty or so sovereign states, Fairbank observed in Volume Fourteen, while the same number of Chinese live in one. This led him to conclude that “our terms nationalism and nation-state, when applied to China, can only mislead us…. It is a different animal. Its politics must be understood from within, genetically.”4 What we find in China, Fairbank said, is “cultural nationalism,” 5 in which unity is enforced by ancient forms of authority, popular indoctrination, and a…

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