The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence
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Last Updated on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

Spence’s The Search for Modern China take the reader through the decline of the Ming period, starting around 1644, to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and subsequent massacre, in June 1989. Though his coverage of the earlier period is sparser than that of the twentieth century, Spence documents the rise of various Ming-era warlords and the struggle for succession. The eventual rise to power of a non-Han, ethnic Manchurian group to become the head of the subsequent Qing empire helped set the stage for developments that Spence argues are quite unique to China. China has always been an enormous multiethnic, multilingual society and for this reason has been slow to adopt (up to the point at which he was writing, anyway) a strong national identity.

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In its 4,000-year history up to 1911, Spence reminds us, the Chinese never even created a national flag, until one was created for the country in the nineteenth century. The author then proceeds to detail the rise of Western-leaning intellectuals, such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, who increasingly looked to the West for examples of how to better organize society and define political truisms. Youwei, for example, placed more emphasis on the significance of rule through the virtues of ren, which would ultimately engender a unified political mentality throughout the population and eventually eliminate of the need for the monarchy. These were radical ideas, but Spence discusses them within the context of the declining influence of the emperor. The struggle between official narrative and the one that independent-minded intellectuals were pushing forward was one of the factors that ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in the early twentieth century.

Spence next devotes the greatest portion of his book to examining the tumultuous twentieth century, with particular attention payed to factional crises and the violence of the Communist regime. After detailing the divisive rift between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, he describes the (mostly negative) impacts Maoism had on foreign and domestic policy. The Sino-Soviet split, for example, was one of the results of both Soviet and Chinese intransigence in their interpretation of Marxist doctrine. Spence has a tremendous eye for detail, describing one event in which two Soviet nuclear scientists in China, once expelled from the country, took all of their documents and tore them to shreds. After Mao, Spence devotes the remainder of the book to detailing the political changes of the modern period. He notes the rise of Chiang Ching-kuo to the presidency of Taiwan, paying particular attention to the ongoing strained relations between Taiwan and mainland China. He also considers the ramifications of the rise of Deng Xiaoping, the repression of student movements, and the future of Chinese Communism.

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