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From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping

The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence
Norton, 876 pp., $29.95

When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study international history but turned to China when she heard about it. She married another Harvard graduate student in Chinese history, Arthur F. Wright. Twenty years later, when both Wrights were invited from Stanford to come to Yale as professors of history, Mary Wright found her brightest student in the person of Jonathan Spence, a young Englishman from Winchester College and Cambridge University, who had just come to Yale. Hearing Mary Wright’s lectures he chose Chinese studies, and she arranged for his unusual talent to be specially trained under the master of Ch’ing (Manchu) dynasty biography, Fang Chao-ying. Fang was then in Australia, where Jonathan Spence was sent to work with him.

At a time when most of us were still looking at China’s nineteenth-century foreign relations, Jonathan Spence studied the Manchu rulers of China in the seventeenth century. His first book was Ts’ao Yin and the K’ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master. Now, a quarter-century later, Mr. Spence has published an overall account, The Search for Modern China, which will remain unrivaled for a generation to come. Mary Wright died at the age of fifty-two in 1970, but her brightest student has fulfilled her hopes.

The Search for Modern China is a big book of 876 pages, beautifully produced with two hundred black-and-white illustrations, several quite rare, and twenty-five of them in color, and with forty-five excellent maps. In addition to useful notes there is a twenty-three-page bibliography of “further readings.” Section headings include fine examples of several types of calligraphy.

Of the several extraordinary things about this book, the first is Jonathan Spence’s preparation for writing it. The half dozen books, large and small, that he has published since his dissertation have been on several subjects. One is the mind of the K’ang-hsi emperor, which is explored in passages from his pronouncements (Emperor of China: Self-portrait of K’ang-hsi). Another, The Death of Woman Wang, concerns the life of the common people. Another short book is on Western advisers in China from 1620 to 1960, recounted in biographical vignettes. In his highly imaginative account, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence first analyzes the education of the great pioneer missionary at Macerata and in the Jesuit order, and then reconstructs the memory palace that the famous Ricci might have used to dazzle his Chinese audiences. So creative is the reconstruction that the minds of Ricci and Spence seem to coalesce. Spence’s previous book was The Question of Hu, a carefully researched portrait of a cantankerous Chinese scholar in Paris of the 1720s who dealt with stagecoach timetables, police inspectors, and the insane asylum.

Jonathan Spence has also pursued a lively interest in the intellectuals of the twentieth century in China. In The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895–1980 he follows the writings and translates the poetry of three major figures among China’s new intelligentsia. The broad range and the meticulous research in these studies are clearly those of a major historian.

One strength of The Search for Modern China is its scope of four centuries, from 1600 to the present. Spence’s background in seventeenth-century history makes it natural for him to begin with the decline and fall of the Chinese Ming dynasty in the early seventeenth century. This puts the Chinese Communist revolution of the twentieth century into the broader historical perspective that it needs. The fall of the Ming in 1644 finds certain echoes in the fall of the Ch’ing in 1911, or even the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in the 1940s. Similarly the Manchu conquest of China after 1644 can be compared with Japan’s attempted conquest by the same route in 1931–1945. The Manchus’ buildup of a government on the periphery of China north of the Wall before their sudden takeover finds an echo in the Chinese Communists building their Border Region Government in North China between 1937 and 1945, preparatory to their winning the civil war in 1949. Thus we arrive at the 1990s with a variety of historical examples of how the rulers of China have come and gone.

By starting at the year 1600 Spence enables us to broaden our perspective on the nineteenth-century invasion of China by the Western powers. We find, for example, that the modernization of China really got started when the Manchus and British, both non-Chinese invaders, finally got together in the 1860s and cooperated in fostering foreign trade. By adding the Manchu government of China as the first player in the process, The Search for Modern China upsets both the Victorian view of British progress, single-handedly bringing China into modern times, and the subsequent Marxist-Leninist view of communism as the only method for doing the job.

Spence’s twenty-five chapters are divided among five sections, each section opening with a clear summary of its central points. The first section, “Conquest and Consolidation,” is an account of the decline of the native Chinese dynasty of the Ming in the early seventeenth century and the rise of the Manchu state on the Ming northern frontier in Manchuria. When a tiny striking force of perhaps 150,000 warriors, representing two or three million Manchus, succeeded in taking over a Chinese empire of more than 100 million people, this was nothing new in Chinese history. The Manchus’ ancestors, the Jürchen, had taken over North China between 1115 and 1234 and the Mongols ruled all of China from 1279 to 1368. Of course they did so in each case with Chinese help. The Manchu contribution, in addition to fierce fighting, was a unified central leadership that specialized in seizing and holding power. The three strongest Manchu emperors provided unbroken command for 133 years.

The second section, “Fragmentation and Reform,” follows the Manchu dynasty through its last century, when the intrusion of the West marked by the Opium War of 1840 and the great internal rebellions of midcentury revealed the Chinese weaknesses when confronting the West. The Manchu emperor was unable to keep out the opium trade or stop the foreign gunboats that demanded equal diplomatic and commercial relations. The dynasty had a “Restoration” and was saved for its last half century; but this happened only after it yielded to the British and French in 1860 and got their cooperation in suppressing the rebellions and beginning “Westernization” as the first phase of modernization.

Spence’s account of the end of the dynasty in 1911 is followed by the section “Envisioning State and Society,” which really concerns the Chinese effort to accept aspects of Western culture while combatting warlordism and seeking the reunification of China. This includes the period of liberal searching for China’s way forward before 1949. Part of the problem for Chinese society was to create a new elite that could lead the peasant masses into political life. In the 1930s and 1940s the Western-educated, modern-minded scholars, Spence suggests, could not reach the villages until Mao Zedong showed the way.

There follows the section “War and Revolution,” in which Spence describes the Japanese invasion of 1937, the decline of the Nationalist government under the Guomindang party dictatorship, and the conquest of power by the Chinese Communist party. In this section he also recounts the vicissitudes of the People’s Republic under Chairman Mao Zedong, including the vast political campaigns that convulsed China in the early 1950s, the large numbers of people killed or allowed to starve to death, the incessant struggles over the Party line and shifts of policy. The successes, such as they were, and the stupidities and shortcomings wound up in the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The final section, “Living in the World,” begins with the opening of the door to America and the non-Communist world during the Nixon administration, and goes on to discuss the gradual recovery from the Cultural Revolution’s disasters, and the efforts under Deng Xiaoping to bring about economic reform without accepting political change, a refusal confirmed by the events of June 1989, with which the book ends.

Professor Spence’s treatment of these four hundred years deftly embodies the results of a great deal of recent monographic study by Sinologists throughout the world. The text draws together these insights and new accounts of events but the process is given coherence by the fact that Professor Spence himself, as a humanist concerned with the particular impressions and motives of different people, has time after time worked his way down to the documentary ground floor of history. As a writer of great literary skill, he constructs a narrative that leaves out inconsequential names and details while conveying the mood of the times and the concerns of both the Chinese elite and the public. The biographical vignettes make the people understandable, and the sweep of the narrative prose makes the reader want to know what will happen next.

Spence also draws attention to parallels and contrasts in earlier and later events. For example, the Manchus, the Japanese, and the Communists each in their day used the Northeast (Manchuria) as a base for their invasion of North China through the pass at Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall meets the sea north of Tianjin. As a historian dedicated to representing past realities and situations, Spence does not and indeed cannot take the space for broad speculations. Readers will find many themes that call for further exploration, for example on the ways the Chinese governments have used violence to hold power. In this sense, The Search for Modern China can be expected to suggest themes for further work.

It is a queer creature whose history Mr. Spence is depicting, a state that now tries to govern more than a billion people and consequently is most concerned with holding on to power and calling it a concern with unity. Over three thousand years this state, which in about AD 1000 was the most advanced in human civilization, created a co-dominion between power holders and administrators, between emperors selected by family dynasties and bureaucrats selected by civil service examinations.

The Chinese distinguished the functions of these co-rulers as wen (literary, cultured, civilian, morally persuasive) and wu (violent, military). The practitioners of wen propagated Confucius’ teachings of social order that enjoined the emperors to rule by their virtuous example. The emperors, practicing wu, regularly killed everyone who threatened their power, or seemed to threaten it, or might threaten it. The contemporary Chinese historians, who were naturally part of the wen contingent, usually constructed the record to show how the emperor’s wu-ness had really contributed to his wen-ness after all. It is in these terms that propagandists in Beijing tell us today how Deng Xiaoping had to kill the student demonstrators last June in order to save the Chinese people from counterrevolutionary chaos. He had to do it because the Party autocracy was threatened. This line of thought is of course not easy for us to follow. One has to be wu-minded.

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