(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Search for Modern China encompasses nearly four centuries of China’s unique, complex development politically, economically, culturally and socially. During these years, torques and tensions among its peoples have variously—as much of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) evinced—brought it temporarily to levels of achievement exceeding, or at least matching, those characterizing Europe, indeed any other extensive culture. And this was despite—sometimes because of—an almost unbroken sequence of authoritarian traditions and regimes.

Just as persistently, however, authoritarian beliefs and practices have been subject both to recondite forces that tended to refashion them, as well as to populist and intellectual challenges—peaceful on some occasions, violent on others. Over much of the previous four centuries challenges to authority, or insistence upon reforms, have been internal in origin. Since the latter eighteenth century, however, they have been hastened and inspirited frequently by Western and by other foreign incursions and influences—Japanese and Russian, for example.

Thus, embedded within China’s authoritarian traditions, whether they emanated from within the provinces, in Nanking, in Shanghai, or in Peking, there have always been Chinese who were eager, often desperate, for what they regarded as vital reforms. Their demands over time have taken many forms: factional conflicts within dynastic establishments from the days of the Ming to the Qing (16444911), opposition to warlordism as well as to landlords, peasant revolts, and from 1911 until 1989 conflict between and within Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and the Communist Party of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

After his thirty years of Chinese studies, resulting in publication of seven major books centered upon important facets of changes in China’s development, inclusive of exemplary personalities, Yale historian Jonathan Spence centers his attention in The Search for Modern China on cycles of real and attempted reforms directed toward modernizing China. These often intertwined cycles characterized by the collapse or fragmentation of authority as well as by strategies designed to sustain reconsolidation and, while maintaining traditional cultural and emotional values, to unfetter progressive initiatives, Spence believes, can best be understood in their historical contexts. The glories of the Ming and their subsequent decline, that is, a grasp of what historical factors undergirt or undermined the Ming dynasty—and subsequent regimes—therefore enhance more accurate perceptions of present-day China. In the aggregate, they are links in a continuing chain of events.

While the meaning of the term “modern” has itself undergone significant historical evolution, certain generalized criteria for defining “modern,” Spence observes, have proven relevant through the past several centuries. One essential qualification for being designated as modern is the presence of a tolerably well-integrated polity or state. Another that underlies such political and administrative integration is a notably secure and widespread sense of self-identity—a sense, in this instance, of Chinese-ness. Furthermore, flowing from this emotional and cultural awareness is a receptiveness to cooperative behavior in relation to other states and peoples, a willingness to join them broadly and at several levels on a presumptively equal footing, and, even though selectively, to exchange markets, technologies, and, by no means least, ideas.

Evaluating Chinese performance by these standards over the course of nearly four hundred years—a period covering nearly all of white American history—what tentative assessments can reasonably be offered? Certainly until 1949, marked by the flight of Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists to Taiwan and establishment on the mainland of Mao Zedong’s Communist Peoples’ Republic, the Chinese had rarely delineated a well-integrated polity or nation state for themselves. Both the Ming and Qing eras, for example, witnessed rapid expansions and equally swift contractions of their several kingdoms, each seeking dominance over the others. In addition, although Chinese governments generally claimed hegemony over Outer Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Sinkiang, Tibet, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, and Annam, these areas, most of them of vast extent, manifestly were not under Peking’s direct authority. Even by the late nineteenth century, precisely what China was, politically and administratively, continued to be unclear, mooted. This was a picture further complicated by foreigners’ assertions of their...

(The entire section is 1886 words.)