The Present echoes the Past

This is my review of The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D Spence.

This is an excellent history of modern China, very readable despite the small print and thin pages. Admittedly, it requires a good deal of time and dedication, but repays the effort. Clearly very knowledgeable but modest with it, Spence knows what points to select from a mass of detail to convey a clear understanding of how and why China evolved from a vast empire, which had turned its face inward against western-style development, to the world's largest communist state, now rapidly embracing economic growth.

He starts with the decline of the late Ming dynasty in the late C17, enough to capture the flavour of a highly centralised, bureaucratic, top-down society which has been the nature of China since the first unified Qin dynasty of 221BC, but he doesn't make the mistake of getting bogged down in detail that far back.

In the subsequent Qing dynasty, we see the first painful enforced contacts with the west, including the shameful role of the British, in flogging opium to save having to spend silver on purchasing Chinese goods. In addition to the usual problems of natural disasters and the difficulty of collecting taxes in such a vast area, the Qing had to contend with major rebellions but managed to survive for a surprisingly long time up to 1912, partly owing to the effectiveness of some impressive campaigns under remarkable Confucian-trained leaders, motivated by their loyalty to traditional Chinese values. Despite this, and a belated willingness to reform, the Qing eventually fell, leading to a prolonged period of chaotic civil war between a succession of warlords.

It is clear that the impetus for radical change came from men who, from the C19, had the opportunity to travel abroad where they could gain access to western political ideas of both liberal representative democracy – an alien concept in China – and Marxist-Leninism. Spence provides a clear analytical account of the rise to power of the Guomindang movement, inspired by Sun Yat-sen and led by Chiang Kai-shek until his exile to Taiwan. He traces the development of the communist People's Republic of China, by no means a foregone conclusion. The machinations of leaders like Mao Zedong as they tighten their grip on power, the Orwellian twists in accepted views make fascinating reading, even to those familiar with the basic facts. To quote Spence on the abrupt fall from favour of Lin Biao under Mao Zedong's regime: "The credulity of the Chinese people had been stretched beyond all possible boundaries as leader after leader had been first praised to the skies and then vilified."

Deng Xiaoping is an intriguing character, as he steers his vast nation towards economic development with periodic crackdowns on free speech, the most shocking and tragic being the killing or wounding of thousands in Tiananmen Square – worse violence perhaps than any single incident in the recent "Arab Spring".

Every section starts with a useful summary, and there is a full glossary at the end in the likely event of your finding it hard to retain the confusingly similar names of many people and places. Although there are many maps to describe the numerous military campaigns, I would have liked a brief section at the outset to highlight key aspects of the geography.

I am most interested in present-day China, but this book provides an essential foundation to understanding this country's complex mix of sophistication and barbarity – developing beautiful artefacts hundreds of years before say the UK, only to smash them wantonly in the misnamed Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. The historical approach enables us to appreciate how the protests of the Chinese who spoke out against repression in the 1970s and 1980s echo those of the past, not just the anti-Guomindang and the anti-Qing of the late C19, but even the Ming loyalists of the C17.

Last updated in 1999, this seminal work is now due for a brief update to cover recent developments as China invests in Africa and copes with the effects of global recession.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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