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Last Reviewed 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...

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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.

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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1886

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 rights to extraterritoriality, spheres of influence, and effective influence in many respects over national finances. The collapse of the Qing dynasty and the proclamation of Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China (1911-1912), while auguring a new era, still left the country fragmented. Local bosses, gangs, and regional warlords temporarily filled the breaches through the 1920’s, indeed into the 1930’s.

Increasingly extensive clashes from the 1920’s until 1949 between Nationalists and Communists, further complicated by massive Japanese incursions, first into Manchuria, then after 1937 into China’s major ports, river valleys, and heartland, produced a real political vacuum. Anomalously, during World War II, major Western belligerents, which only a few decades earlier were charged with contributing to the disintegration of China, tried frantically—and at considerable expenditure in lives and money—to transform wartime and postwar China into the semblance of a consolidated nation-state. The United States even went so far, to the bemusement of its British and Soviet allies, as to insist that China be treated as a world power. But rhetoric proved a poor substitute for reality. Not until Mao’s Communists successfully swept aside Nationalist elements on the mainland in 1949 did it appear that the Chinese had at last achieved political and ideological consolidation, although the United States refused recognition of the regime until “normalization” of relations began with President Richard M. Nixon’s initiatives in 1972. Yet responding to Nixon’s flattery that Mao had created a nation and altered the world, Mao rejoined that he had only been able to change a few things in the areas around Peking—this almost a quarter of a century after the Communists’ victory.

Doubtless Mao exaggerated. Certainly, however, during the mid- 1950’s, in order to win adherents throughout the country’s other precincts, his Socialist visions were revised. Intellectuals, students, and other actual or potential dissidents were encouraged to vent their alternative suggestions or grievances under the slogan of letting a hundred flowers bloom. But the relaxation of internal tensions was brief: The springtime of hundreds of flowers blooming was Arctic. By his own admission nearly 25 million Chinese, plus another million or more Tibetans who ostensibly menaced his regime had been exterminated before Mao’s death in 1976. In the interim, as if they were mere commodities, hundreds of millions of urban Chinese were effectually deported to the countryside better to conform to Peking’s ideological swings and subsequently—years after the shattering of their personal and familial lives—relocated into urban areas once again. Similarly, the rupture of Sino-Soviet relations in 1960, accompanied by the swift withdrawal of Soviet economic and technical assistance, persuaded the Communists to augment massive rural collectivization with their own industrial Five Year Plan. Simultaneously, through fanatical actions by Red Guards who were designated as the vanguard of the Cultural Revolution, a complete realignment of the existing social system was launched. Disasters of a magnitude possible only in China were the results: Rural collectivization, the heart of the Socialist dream failed; the Five Year Plan directed toward domestic industrialization failed; and the Cultural Revolution essentially erased centuries of Chinese attainments in arts, letters, sciences, in vigorous intellectual life, as well as in urgently needed sustenance for education that everywhere has been prerequisite to advances toward modernization. Such were some of the scenarios that were to script development of the Peoples’ Republic.

Thus if a secure emotional sense of self-identity—the notion that China’s culture has been and continues to be inherently superior to others—exists among most Chinese, Mao’s regime and its successors through 1989 clearly have left untold millions of them befuddled, dizzied, cynically passive, suspicious, and skeptical of both the integrity and wisdom of their authorities. It has likewise caused those possessing some knowledge of the international scene to ponder where they stand in reference to the developed world surrounding them—not only in the West, but also in the Soviet Union and in many other parts of Asia: notably in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Consequently ambivalence has marked cries originating within China for change and for progressive reforms. Quite conscious and proud on the one hand of their past glories, they have in Spence’s view, on the other hand yet to come to terms with fitting themselves into the increasingly open, increasingly diversified congeries of nations.

Though Spence’s study begins with the decline of the Ming dynasty commencing in the late eighteenth century, patterns apparent then persistently and discernibly projected themselves right into the twentieth century. That is Spence’s rationale for tracing the characteristics of these cycles through two-thirds of this volume as they have reappeared—to be sure with variations—from 1911 to 1989. This is quite evident in China’s almost invariably bewildering reactions toward foreign ideas and technologies. Remarkable as were Ming achievements in the mastery of techniques from which sprang superb craftsmanship and arts—porcelains, silks, and printing, to note only a few—there were only jejune attempts by Chinese to enter them into exchange. At the same time, Western Europeans were launching and sustaining explorations that opened many of the most distant places on the earth to multilateral commerce, in the process laying the deep foundations on which they raised a global economy. Such relative openness simultaneously brought before them a vast store of novel techniques, along with an immense fund and variety of fresh knowledge that rapidly transformed and modernized Western civilization. On the contrary, Ming emperors—and therefore their subjects—shrank from overseas enterprises and from exposure to foreign knowledge or ideas, inevitably losing opportunities to maintain pace with the leading Western societies.

The developed countries, whether Western or Asian, have long been aware of China’s potential. Especially that has been true of China’s prospective impacts upon the global economy (profitable trade and investment) and on international relations. Prevalent views, however, continue to be that Chinese potentialities remain substantially underdeveloped. Despite establishment of new economic zones and rhetoric about “one country, two systems,” the authoritarian state, smiling sporadically for the rest of the world, is accurately portrayed by Spence as generally prickly, turbulent, and, weighed in the balance, unprofitable. Neither its age-old curse of horrendous bureaucratization nor the flourishing corruptions attending it, have been ameliorated, let alone exorcised. More important, China’s Communist rulers have yet to devise a politico- economic strategy happily accommodating the genuinely democratic pluralism—of the sort called for in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in 1989—which nearly everywhere else eventually has proven essential to modernization. Nor have four centuries of omnipresent authoritarianism yielded principles or ideals which peoples of other nations are prepared to live by.

Spence’s depiction is understandably filled with admiration for those capacities that the Chinese have demonstrated for coping with sheer survival—for their extraordinary endurance over lengthy periods and on an immense scale. Notwithstanding, his well-substantiated conclusion is that China has yet to attain great power status or to warrant designation as a modern society.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXVII, August 10, 1990, p.462.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 27, 1990, p.1.

National Review. XLII, August 6, 1990, p.43.

The New Republic. CCIII, July 30, 1990, p.30.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, May 31, 1990, p.16.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 13, 1990, p.1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, March 16, 1990, p.56.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 27, 1990, p.795.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 22, 1990, p.1.

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