The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Search for Modern China seeks to facilitate an understanding of modern China through an investigation of its past. Spence examines the history of China from the Ming empire up to the Tiennamen Square massacre in 1989. Because Spence is primarily interested in drawing conclusions about the Chinese state and society in the current day, he treats its earlier history sparsely while devoting roughly three quarters of the book to the twentieth century. Thematically, the author is interested not so much in providing a descriptive picture of China, but rather in analyzing how it fits into the broader definition of a “modern country.” In response to this, Spence claims that China is not today nor has it ever been “modern” according to a precise definition he provides. A modern country must be both “integrative and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas.”

China, Spence argues, has accomplished none of these things, or has exhibited modern development only at the most precursory level. This was the case of Qing China, for example, which refused to adopt the technologies offered by British colonists or engage in long-term trade. Rather, the Qing emperor spurned this kind of cultural and technological exchange in favor of Chinese imperial isolationism, believing the venerated traditions of the Chinese past would allow the empire to overcome the challenges associated with modern colonialism. In this way, China historically eschewed the opportunity to acquire new material goods or models of thought, a precedent which had (at the time Spence was writing) only recently begun to change as China engaged in extensive economic relations with the United States.

The overall organization of the book, which favors deeper analysis of events of the recent past over those of preceding centuries, helps reinforce the conclusion that China has fundamentally struggled to realize itself as a modern country and has time and time again reverted to the old vices of authoritarianism. Spence, for example, emphasizes the succession crises throughout the twentieth century, in which first Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping would appoint and then systematically purge their hand-picked successors. Further evidence of Chinese authoritarianism is provided through consideration of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the harsh treatment of Shanghai capitalists by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1927, and finally the suppression of student demonstration in 1989. Spence’s attention to detail and meticulous investigation of these (and other) disturbing events in general provides a convincing narrative questioning China’s status as a modern world power.

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