The Search for Modern China

by Jonathan D. Spence
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Last Updated on July 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

In his thousand-page tome, historian Jonathan Spence traces the history of China as a modern nation. His frame of reference for the “modern” designation corresponds with the idea of modernity as applied to Europe following the Middle Ages. In contrast to the rapid changes in government in Europe, however, China was ruled by the Ming Dynasty from the fourteenth through the mid-seventeenth century. One aspect that Spence delves into is the difficulty of maintaining control over such a huge territory, as the rulers grappled with regional opposition to the central rulership and countless rebellions. Ultimately, the decisive shift toward modernity came with the successful Manchu destabilization of the Ming, ending their rule by 1645. Especially in the south, Ming loyalist factions continued to threaten Qing domination, however, and national unity was precarious.

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The rebellion almost succeeded in destroying the Qing. At the very least, it looked as if the Manchus would lose control of all of China south of the Yangtze River, and that permanent partition of the kingdom would be the result.

China remained a unified country (with all the significance that has for world history) as the result of five crucial factors.

Spence then details these five factors; briefly, they consist of the relative success of different generals’ and political leaders’ strategies, including the relative ferocity and tenacity of their troops, along with the already weakened state of Ming opposition concentrated in the Three Feudatories alliance.

One important phase in the modernization of China took place in the 1830s–1840s, during which the 1839–1942 Opium War played a crucial role. China found its control over East Asia seriously threatened, and the major losses it suffered forced the rulers to examine their attitudes toward modern policies and technology. The war crystallized ongoing tensions within the Qing regime as well as between Chinese and foreign merchants and politicians, and the failure of channels of negotiation left many believing that war was inevitable.

In 1836 the emperor Daoguang asked his senior officials to advise him on the opium issue. The advice was split. Those who advocated legalization of the opium trade pointed out that it would end the corruption and blackmailing of officials and bring in a steady revenue through tariffs. It would also allow domestically grown Chinese opium . . . to squeeze out that of the foreigners. Many officials, however, considered this view pernicious. They argued that foreigners were cruel and greedy, and that the Chinese did not need opium, domestic or foreign. . . .

In 1838, after evaluating the evidence, Emperor Daoguang made his decision. The opium trade must be stopped.

More than a century later, China was turned into a communist country. Spence writes of the first months after the 1949 revolution, when Mao’s followers were faced with the daunting task of creating a new government to administer the vast nation. Along with keeping law and order, the immediate necessities were to increase agricultural production and build industry, all the while controlling inflation. Although the people’s ideology required changing, that would come after the basics were under control. The new rulers found themselves in a paradoxical position. However radical the change had been, it was now imperative to keep the country’s economy and infrastructure from imploding. From huge commercial enterprises to small rural landholdings, caution would be needed.

The initial priority was to persuade the educated technical and managerial elites to serve the new state, regardless of their personal political beliefs or affiliations. Similarly, despite the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, foreign technical personnel and large foreign business already in China were encouraged to stay and work for the new society. . . . In the rural areas, it was essential to institute some variety of land reform . . . [but] the party could not afford to alienate the wealthy peasants. . . . [In the] land reform after mid-1950 . . . land seizures [were restricted] to a small fraction of the population.

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