Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

“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.”

wealth and powerThese 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.

Feng Guifen
Feng Guifen

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.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

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?

Liu Xiaobo (photo: David Turnley)
Liu Xiaobo
(photo: David Turnley)

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.

orville schellOrville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, is a long-time China observer, author, journalist, and former Dean and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

john deluryJohn 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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

21 thoughts on “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

  1. Sounds very interesting – I’m afraid what I really know about Chinese history could be written on the back of a stamp -maybe this book could be the remedy.

    • I’m the same – that’s why I read this. But I felt my ignorance of the events of the time made this a harder read than it would have been if I’d known the basics, though that wasn’t the fault of the book. However, I really feel it’s given me a handle on not just what’s happened in modern China, but why.

  2. Oh, this sounds like an absolutely fascinating book! I think a lot of Westerners struggle to understand China (as though one could without an awful lot of time and reflection). This sounds like a fascinating insight into a critically important nation.

    • I really think it is! We in the West have so much cultural crossover that we mostly understand each other pretty well, but this book made me realise how ‘foreign’ China still is to us, and we to them. I feel it’s really given me an insight into a culture that has always seemed somewhat baffling to me.

  3. Wow, FF – Kudos, Respeck and all that. No I really do mean that in a perfectly serious way. Suggest, with all the historical/political/social history stuff you read you really ought to be bringing out some slim little guides for us simple lazy folk (well, for me) Half seriously, I think there is a market for some simple clear guide pamphlets – its rather like the difference between the incredibly detailed (but utterly overwhelming) anatomy and physiology books students have to digest – I steer them first, before they even THINK of the tome, towards something which is simplistic, but a good basic grounding. Get glimmers of understanding that way, and then embark on the stuff which makes strong women and men whimper with anxiety!

    Well done you! (PS I hope a certain section of your world map turns a lovely fiery red!)

    • Why, thank you, m’dear! I must admit, I felt this one would have been easier to absorb if I’d read a simple history of the main events and people first, but it was worth the effort in the end. I’d recommend it to you if I wasn’t aware of the size of your existing TBR pile. 🙂

  4. PS I love the hover menus for some of your followers. Feeling decidedly fey, and not at all feisty, this fine afternoon – it must be the re-reading of some fairy stories from my mis-spent childhood that’s to blame – AND from a Scot, at that, George MacDonald – The Princess and the Goblin? The Princess and Curdie? At the Back Of The North Wind? Ring any bells? He can be a bit too Victorian-Godly but I like his mystical side (well, I would, wouldn’t I??!!)

    • Hehe! Glad you noticed! Nope, never read any George MacDonald, though he was a big favourite of MiddleSister, I believe. I shall note the name for future reference.

  5. Am in more feisty mode now trying to guide people (with one of my hats on) through a database, George MacDonald (not, by the way the Flashman person, as of course you knew) also wrote some adult Science Fantasy type stuff (albeit still with his clergyman hat on – I guess he was a Scottish Victorian CS Lewis type of person) and apparently this stuff had an influence on H.G. Wells. His stuff is all out of copyright and available on Kindle for free, should you ever be in a position to be short of reading matter!

    • Thanks, Bibliobeth! As you’ll have gathered I found this absorbing and hugely thought-provoking. If it’s your kind of thing, then I really highly recommend it! 🙂

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