“When the country is humiliated, its spirit will be aroused.” Wei Yuan, 1842
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
“From ‘Our technology is not as good as other people’s,’ to ‘Our political system is not as good as other people’s,’ and on to ‘Our culture is not as good as other people’s,’ Chinese reflections on our own defects probed ever deeper. But the primary mind-set that guided the probing was neither ‘liberation of humanity,’ nor even ‘enriching people,’ but rather a sense of shame at China’s loss of sovereignty and other national humiliations.”
These words of Nobel Prize winning dissident, Liu Xiaobo, give a rather neat summary of the arguments put forward in this fascinating and thought-provoking study of the Chinese psyche over the last 150 years or so, as evidenced and influenced by its greatest intellectuals, writers and leaders. The aim of the authors is to shed some light on how, in the last three decades, China has risen out of the poverty and political turmoil of the preceding century to become one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.
The authors show how the encroachment of the Western empires and defeats at the hands of enemies within and without led, not just to the fall of the empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but to the creation of a national mind-set that has kept the aim of achieving ‘wealth and power’ at the heart of Chinese politics ever since. The succession of military defeats and subsequent ‘unequal treaties’, which forced China to pay punitive reparations and give territory and access to foreign states, led to a spirit of ‘national humiliation’. Far from allowing this to become a negative factor, however, successive intellectuals and leaders used it as a spur to galvanise China into a process of ‘self-strengthening’. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the main thrust was to borrow what was needed from the West in terms of technical and scientific knowledge, while maintaining the existing Confucian culture. But the authors show how, as that failed to make China strong enough to defy the many circling predators, gradually some intellectuals began to believe that there must be a period of ‘destruction’ of cultural sacred cows before ‘construction’ of a new and stronger state could begin.
Each chapter focuses on one man, a leading intellectual or politician, taking us gradually through the decades from the end of the Opium Wars to the present day. The emphasis is not on the events of any given period, although of course they are referenced and highlighted. Rather, the authors concentrate on the writings and speeches of each man, showing how each generation of political thought adopted, rejected or built on the ideas of the one before. Many of the people who are discussed were entirely unknown to me, especially those prior to WW2, but the authors create a continuous chain of intellectual development, clearly showing how and why ideas were influenced by, and adjusted in reaction to, events at home or abroad.
The authors take a sympathetic approach to their subject – in the afterword they tell us that the book is part of a project undertaken by the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York to examine China’s reform movement and transition to modernity. They attempt, successfully in my view, to explain to a Western audience the cultural differences that have enabled China to follow a path that seems, to our eyes, doomed to fail – to build a society that values the acquisition of ‘wealth and power’ above things that we see as essential for progress: intellectual freedom, human rights, democracy. While in no way condoning the horrors of the era of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, they suggest that this period of destructiveness may in fact have cleared the way, culturally, for the creation under Deng Xiaoping of the ‘Leninist capitalist’ system that has enabled China to become the powerhouse it is today. An unequal society, yes, and with repression still at its core, but a country governed largely with the consent of its people nonetheless.
They end with some informed speculation about where next for China – having gained ‘wealth and power’ will they use that power to bully other nations as they were bullied in their nineteenth century weakness? Or will they, from a position of strength, continue to open up their society and perhaps gradually move towards an intellectual position and political system more closely aligned with the West?
I found this a lengthier read than its size would necessarily suggest, since after every few pages I would discover that I was staring at a wall and thinking. It has challenged and changed my pre-existing assumptions, certainly about China’s culture and system of government but perhaps also about our own. It has gone a long way towards answering the question why China, alone of all the major states that adopted authoritarian non-democratic systems during the twentieth century, seems eventually to have made a relative success of it while retaining the support of the majority of its citizens.
Apologies for the length of this review, but I still feel I’ve given the merest glimpse into this illuminating and thought-provoking read. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is interested in understanding the national psyche of a nation that seems destined soon to be the wealthiest and most powerful of all.
John Delury is a senior fellow of the Center on U.S.-China Relations and an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Yonsei University. He has taught Chinese history and politics at Columbia, Brown, and Peking University, and received a PhD in Chinese history at Yale.
(Source for bios: http://asiasociety.org)
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.